Discover your true purpose and find the courage to live your dream.
Five years of teaching in New York City public schools, Emily Hyland, 32, had a change of heart. It happened after trying to break up a fight between two teen students and then getting yelled at by one of their parents. “I realized this was not the type of environment I wanted to be in anymore. I wanted to follow a creative path, not one so rigidly confined to bureaucracy and protocols,” says Hyland. “I knew something was missing. But I wasn’t sure exactly what.”
Many of us have been there—we’ve reached a moment when we sense we have a purpose we haven’t yet found, or a gift we’re not sharing. But then comes the million-dollar question: What next? “When you hit that crossroads, you have to cultivate your vidya, or knowledge,” says Stephen Cope, PhD, psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and author of The Great Work of Your Life. This is where your yoga practice really comes into play. “The yoga view is that at the heart of our true nature lies an awake, illumined mind,” Cope explains. “This is the mind that knows directly, intuitively, our true nature, our true calling. All of the practices of yoga are about attuning to this already-awake mind.”
For Hyland, a devoted yogi, the first answer to “What next?” was to sign up for a yoga teacher training on the weekends. “There was such a sharp contrast between the yoga studio—a big, beautiful room with blue pastel walls and large wooden windows to let in light—and a dreary, harshly lit public-school classroom,” she recalls. “I had gone from an emotionally exhausting environment to one that was very focused and quiet and allowed my authentic experience of being to emerge.” Within a few weeks, she felt she had discovered her calling: “I was much more balanced. I became more mindful of taking care of my body. And that was something I wanted to give to other people.” She quit her job a few months later and started teaching yoga full-time.
A few years later, inspired by this fulfilling experience, Hyland and her husband took action on a cherished dream they’d both shared since falling in love over a slice of pizza in 2001: to open their own wood-oven pizza restaurant, called Emily. “Dining together has been one of the sweetest parts of our relationship,” Hyland says. “We love to have people over and to cook good food. We realized we wanted to re-create that with a restaurant, essentially an extension of our home, where we were inviting all sorts of people in to have a nice time.”
Taking such life-altering steps like Hyland did may seem daunting, but there’s clear evidence it can help you live a richer, more meaningful life. Researchers at the University of Rochester found that people who are intrinsically motivated—meaning they do something because they want to, not for external motivations like money or success—report more personal satisfaction. Yet most of us find that everyday realities (paying rent, putting food on the table) get in the way. Indeed, there’s a difference between a happy life and one filled with purpose. They may overlap, but they don’t always go hand in hand (think of a social activist jailed for expressing her beliefs, or a Doctors Without Borders volunteer who contracts Ebola). But even with its challenges, a meaningful life is satisfying and spiritually fulfilling.
“In the view of yoga, every human has a dharma, a sacred duty, a true calling,” says Cope. “All of life is a pilgrimage to understand and embrace this. Yoga calls us to action in the world. It calls us to contribute our gifts, to serve the good not only of our own souls, but for the good of the world.”
Ready to answer your calling? The good news is, it’s within your reach. To help you get there, we went to some of the country’s top life coaches, yoga teachers, productivity experts, financial planners, and true pros—those who’ve been there, done that—to get the practical steps you need to go from that intuitive feeling in your gut to living the life you long to lead.
Step 1: Find out what you already know
When something’s missing in your life, somewhere deep inside you, you know it—even if you don’t know you know it, says Nancy Levin, a certified integrative coach in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Jump ... And Your Life Will Appear. Of course, pinpointing what’s missing is crucial to making a leap forward in a new direction. One key: Notice what you resist. Levin says: “Ask yourself, ‘What would I not want to tell even my best friend? What would I hide if I had a camera crew in my house filming a reality show?’”
See also Create a Life You Love
That’s how Los Angeles pediatric occupational therapist Rebekah Tolin, 39, realized she wasn’t being true to herself if she didn’t try to become a mother—even without a life partner. “I always knew I wanted to be a mom since I was a child—it was never an option. But then I started resisting going to friends’ kids’ birthday parties or baby showers because it seemed too painful,” says Tolin. “I realized each event forced me to ask myself, ‘Why don’t I get to have this?’” And then, after a number of these parties, she had another thought: “I’ve lived in 11 cities and run 8 marathons—I don’t shrink from challenge. If I want to have a baby, I clearly have the determination to do it on my own.” One evening, Tolin sat down and started researching single-mom groups and blogs. Encouraged by what she read, she made an appointment with a fertility specialist to discuss her options.
If your own dream isn’t yet that clear to you, time on the yoga mat is a powerful tool for finding out what you really want, says Elena Brower, a New York City–based yoga teacher and personal coach: By spending time alone with yourself regularly, tuning in to your sensations and emotions, and pushing your physical limits, you develop the ability to notice your patterns. And if you’re sensing you need to change those patterns, Brower says, take action—the self-discovery may be easier than you expect. “The first teaching of the Yoga Sutra is ‘Now begins the study of yoga.’ Every moment, you have the opportunity to explore what ‘now’ means,” says Brower. “Ask yourself, right this second, what can I do?”
See also Yoga Sutra 1.1: The Power of Now
Brower recalls being in her 20s working in the fashion industry in Italy. Her life appeared glamorous from the outside, but she felt like something was missing. One day, in a moment of frustration, she took out some paper and asked herself what she would do if she could do anything. She wrote the word “teach.” It was a desire she didn’t even know she had until she looked within. In just a few months, she was enrolled in the New School in New York pursuing training to become an art teacher (she would ultimately teach yoga full-time rather than art).
Step 2: Set your intention and confide it in others
You’ve identified your dream, though it may still feel like nothing more than a fantasy. To move forward, says Cope, set an intention or sankalpa, a sacred vow you make to yourself to serve your own highest good and be of benefit to others. “When you bring this intention into alignment with your dharma, you know this is what you need to do to live your heart’s desire,” says Cope. “Intention gives energy and direction to action. Once I have set my intention, I can eliminate other options in pursuit of this clear goal.”
Tolin clarified her intention by pondering her dream of having a baby during her daily runs. “While most of the time I imagined how great it would be, I also wrestled with the idea of going it alone,” she says. “But as I ran, I realized that I wasn’t willing to settle for a guy because I wanted a baby. I came to the conclusion that despite the financial uncertainty, I’d still be happier as a single mom than in a loveless marriage.”
See also Elena Brower's Secrets for Success
Once you’ve set your intention, confide in others to make it feel real and actionable. Recent research from Dominican University shows that people who write up and send action commitments to a friend (along with weekly updates) usually achieve significantly more of their goals than those who keep their written goals to themselves. “You’re more likely to take the leap if others are asking you about it,” says Levin.
When 29-year-old Heather Prouty realized she was lackluster about her chosen magazine career, she began to dream of going to medical school—a path that would mean she most likely wouldn’t be donning an MD’s white coat until she was about 4o. She was taking pre-med classes but also seriously questioning her path. Then she had a heart-to-heart with a former colleague who happened to be a physician, sharing her hopes and fears, and emerged feeling much more confident in her midlife career change.
See also Set Your Course
Still uneasy about baring your life’s dream to someone? Levin suggests visualizing it beforehand: Hear yourself confiding in a trusted person and then imagine his or her positive response to buoy your courage.
Step 3: Don’t just set goals; plan them
When you’re building out a long-term plan of action, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the many steps you have to take along the way. The key to enduring the ups and downs of your journey is to establish a regular system for how you approach your goals, one that becomes a habit to fall back on, explains J.D. Meier, who is an expert on the Agile project-management technique, a productivity system popular with entrepreneurs, and author of Getting Results the Agile Way. “If you don’t know where to begin, start by writing down three wins that you’d like for today,” Meier says. “It sounds easy, but just try it. This simple list of three outcomes for today will help you stay focused, breathe a little easier, and get back on track.” Here, he offers a weekly work system that can help you move forward, no matter how ambitions your goals.
J.D. Meier's Work Week System to Help You Reach Your Goals
Monday Vision. Each Monday, identify three significant accomplishments—three big wins—that you want to complete this week. This is your vision for what great results look like.
Daily results. Each morning, identify three smaller wins to accomplish that day. These are pieces of your big weekly results that would reflect progress and make you feel good. If you finish these three outcomes, you can take on more.
Power hours. Observe yourself over a week and identify times of the day when you’re most productive. These are your “power hours.” Plan to use them for working on major goals. Keep your energy up between pushes by getting good sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly—you’ll get more done in one power hour than slogging through several hours at the wrong time of day.
See also 5 Power Poses
Friday Reflection. Each Friday, set aside 20 minutes to consider what you learned over the week. Ask yourself, What are three things that went really well? What are three things that could have gone better? You’ll start to notice patterns about yourself, and you can use this new awareness to keep improving—to get faster and more effective at achieving your desired outcomes.
Step 4: Overcome your money fears
Financial fears can be paralyzing, but overcoming them can be one of the most empowering steps in your journey. When Chantal Pierrat, 35, began contemplating leaving her lucrative sales job to launch a women’s-focused nonprofit, she was worried. “I was the breadwinner for my family, so it wasn’t just me taking this leap: It impacted my husband and children, too,” she says. But when Pierrat studied her budget, she saw that with a tight rein on household expenses, they could live for 18 months without her income. “That knowledge gave me the courage to keep moving forward,” she says. Today, she’s the CEO of Emerging Women, a business devoted to empowering women through leadership training and networking.
To relieve your money fears, think of financial management as a form of yoga practice—an opportunity to observe without judgment, breathe through discomfort, and commit, says Kate Northrup, a dedicated vinyasa yoga student and author of Money, A Love Story: Untangle Your Financial Woes and Create the Life You Really Want. “Your mat is a perfect place to begin to cultivate a deeper relationship with money because it teaches you to pay attention in all areas of your life,” she says.
Below, Northrup offers four pragmatic steps for getting on track financially. But her biggest piece of advice: Practice self-compassion. “Money is a stand-in for what we value—the better care we take of ourselves, the more we’re showing that we value ourselves. This ripples out into your financial life, because those who value themselves tend to create more value in the world and to attract more value, too.”
Kate Northrup's Tips for Financial Planning
Here, Northrup’s four how-to tips:
Remember your purpose. Open a separate savings account and title it the name of your dream—you’ll be far more likely to deposit money in there when you highlight your reason for saving.
Set a (savings) intention. Pick a savings goal that serves your dream. If you’re planning to quit your job, save at least a year’s worth of living expenses. As incentive, set up a webpage with a fundraising widget to track savings.
Budget, with awareness. Track your living expenses for a month; write down everything you spend, from rent to a cup of coffee. Now, take a careful look at your list to figure out where you can cut. “Come at it from a place of inquiry and curiosity,” says Northrup.
Apply tapas (dedicated effort). If you need more money to make your dream work, consider a moonlighting gig. “Ask yourself, what other skills do I have that I can make money from?” says Northrup. Maybe you can do some business consulting or tutoring on the side.
Step 5: Seek support
Why is it that when we need support from our community the most, we’re suddenly hesitant to ask? “We’re so afraid of revealing any needs, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do to succeed,” says Levin. Pierrat discovered that when she was contemplating leaving her job to start her own business. She was scared to let her employer know, but when she did, her candor paid off: Her employer offered her a transition year in which she’d be paid full salary while working on launching her new enterprise in her spare time. “It gave me stability while researching the viability of my dream,” Pierrat says.
Tolin doubts she would have dared get pregnant on her own had she not connected with a single-moms support network. “At each stage—thinking about it, trying, pregnancy, mothering—there were women to talk to, guiding me through this whole incredibly scary process.”
If you’re still reluctant to ask for help, ask yourself what you think will really happen. Are you afraid of appearing vulnerable? Attached to doing it on your own? Do you worry you will appear selfish because you’re pursuing a joyful dream instead of slogging away at an office job like so many people have to? Only you can answer those questions, but remember that at heart, living your true purpose is the most powerful gift of service you can give to the world, says Brower. “Think about what it is you want to give to the world. If it’s your dream, you’re looking to serve someone to the best of your ability,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if your dream is to help serve the sick during the Ebola outbreak, or to serve the best pizza in town. You’re still doing it to make someone happy, to improve the lives of those around you in some way.” When you have that purpose in mind, asking for help is a no-brainer.
And, consider that people love helping. Brower recommends writing down three instances in the past year when you helped someone else. “Take stock of what you did and how good it felt,” she says. “Build awareness of what it feels like on the other side of that equation. Asking for help gives someone else a chance to shine.”
Step 6: Just say yes!
As you get closer to taking a definitive step toward your dream, you might start to question yourself. Even with a solid plan of action, your finances in good shape, and a community of friends and family on standby to help, it’s normal to second-guess taking the definitive leap of, say, quitting your day job or signing a business lease.
“There’s no such thing as a move like this that has no risk,” says Cope. “You’ll never know the outcome [in advance]. Eventually, you just have to do it.” This is the time to come back to your discernment about why you are doing all of this.
“Doubt is a paralyzing affliction; it paralyzes us from taking action,” says Cope. If you’re feeling frozen, he recommends turning to your practice, whether it’s asana, breathwork, or meditation, to refocus on the sense of purpose you identified at the very beginning of your journey. Tune in to that intuition you had about what you want to do in the world. And then, act! “Any action taken in alignment with truth eventually dissolves confusion and fear, and promotes the good of all beings,” he says.
In the days leading up to your big move, take a few moments to sit quietly and repeat an affirmation that makes you feel confident. (See also How to Say Yes!: Create a Positive Affirmation) “It’s as simple as saying, ‘Yes, I can do this,’” says Mary Beth LaRue, a yoga teacher and life coach based in Venice, California. “It will help reduce stress hormones that are putting your body into a fight-or-flight situation and causing you to resist making your leap.”
The power of the word “yes” came home to Tolin a few weeks before she finally conceived her son. She was terrified of what she was about to do and confided her fears to a spiritual guide. “She said, ‘The answer is always yes; don’t let it be no because of fear or being stuck in a pattern.’ When she said that, I realized how much I truly did want to be a mom, and I moved forward,” says Tolin.
Step 7: Remember the meaning
Once the initial euphoria of the leap wears off, don’t be surprised if it’s replaced with some of the familiar discontent you felt before you made your move. “It’s a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation—people tend to ‘recover’ from both the positive and negative aspects of their lives and return to the same mental state they were in before,” explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The Myths of Happiness. Translation: The same things that drove you nuts before will drive you nuts again, no matter what your life’s work. It doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice; it just reinforces the reality that life can never be all smooth sailing. But, you can still relish knowing you’re aligned with your true purpose and contributing something meaningful to the world. Remember, says Cope, your goal was to live closer to your true self. “There is a deeper satisfaction to be found knowing you’re doing what you were born to do,” he says.
“My yoga teacher always stressed to me to breathe in the moment—to not think farther ahead than the next breath or two,” says Tolin. “I took that philosophy to guide me through [my son] Aiden’s first few months. Whenever I felt totally wiped out from being up all night with him, or stressed about finances, I would just tell myself, ‘I only need to get through today.’ Yes, there have been difficult moments. But when I cuddle with this precious, sweet-smelling little guy, I know without question it was the right decision.”
Hallie Levine is a freelance writer based in Fairfield, Connecticut, and a mother of three.