I am a director in a global manufacturing company. I manage managers and I am responsible for about 300 people around the globe. I was trained as an engineer and I really loved my job— until recently.
I am not sure what happened, but about a year ago—long before the COVID crisis—I noticed that I just didn’t care anymore. There’s still plenty of work and plenty of urgency, and I still have the same team reporting to me that I care so much about—but I just don’t feel like any of it matters. We are getting good results, and in many ways the current crisis is benefiting our business, so it’s not that I am overwhelmed. I have total job security. I thought it might be burnout, because I do work a lot. But I read up on that and it isn’t quite that.
I think it is somehow connected to not having a sense of purpose. What do you think? How important is it to have a sense of purpose? And if it is important, how do I find mine?
Just Don’t Care
Dear Just Don’t Care,
What yucky way to feel. I’m sorry. Burnout is, in fact, the usual suspect when people feel the way you describe. But if you have reviewed the literature and don’t think that is the root cause of your yuck, there are a couple of other ideas to consider. It might be a combination of a bunch of different things.
Grief. Is it possible that you lost someone dear to you a bit before you started feeling this way? In Western culture, we tend to feel like grief should be something we need to get over in a prescribed time period and that it is an act of will. It just is not so. Grief can last a very long time, to the point that we don’t even connect how sad we are to the precipitating incident. I once worked with a client who was feeling the way you described. When I asked if he thought it might be grief, he said: “I lost my partner four months ago, but it can’t be grief because she was really sick for a long time and I knew she was going to die.” I was stunned. Where did that rule come from? Grief is grief. It has its own timetable. You just have to find small ways to make life bearable until it lifts. Or, if you think it has gone on way too long, you can get some help with it.
Depression. If you have a family history of depression, you may recognize it. If you think you might be depressed, you could start with focusing on getting your needs met and finding your path to a purpose. You may also consider diet, exercise, or getting outdoors—all of which literally change your brain chemistry. Depression is such a common diagnosis these days, if that were the problem it’s likely you already would have self-diagnosed.
Core personal needs. It is possible that you have some fundamental core needs, or even just one, that isn’t being met. Either you were getting your needs met, something changed, and now your needs aren’t getting met but you haven’t noticed it; or you never noticed something critical was missing, and now you do. Linda Berens, an expert on personality types and the way personality differences affect relationships, has this to say about needs: “The needs represent … the driving force. Individuals unconsciously and consciously seek every avenue to get the needs met. When these needs are met, the individual is energized and light of spirit. When these needs are not met, the individual is drained of energy and suffers dissatisfaction or stress.” If you are interested in understanding more, check out Linda’s work here.
Another expert on needs, Abraham Maslow, established a now widely accepted theory that all human beings have a hierarchy of needs that must be met in a specific order. His work has flowed into the zeitgeist the way Freud’s notion of the unconscious has—although his view of humans is more optimistic than Freud’s. According to Maslow, humans are hardwired to satisfy basic needs for shelter, air, food, and water. Once those have been satisfied, people are free to then build stability and safety for their lives. This is generally represented by a strong and safe family unit.
Then, when people feel safe and stable, the natural impulse is to seek groups so that they feel accepted and build camaraderie. This is the need for belonging. Then, and only then, are people free to meet their esteem needs, which usually take the form of competence or mastery. There is overlap between the need to belong and the esteem needs. Humans naturally seek to belong to groups that recognize their accomplishments.
The last need in Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization, or the deep desire for people to maximize their potential. Self-actualization often takes the form of a search for knowledge, a quest for mastery, a life devoted to God, and what we generally think of as self-fulfillment. There is a good chance that you have the first two, or even three—moving from the bottom of the pyramid up—pretty much covered. Possibly, you have been super focused on other needs, and, now that they are fully met, it is time to turn your attention to the next level.
Values and purpose. Another possibility, the one you suspect, is that you have become aware that is it time to identify your purpose. Your purpose will be rooted in your values—those things that you say are important to you. When people spend too much of their time devoted to work that is not aligned with their values, they can easily fall into a funk. Maybe something changed about your job or at home so that you are no longer allowed to be focused on what is most important to you. It might be useful to identify what has changed; it could help you to identify what is missing now. This state of mind can be subtle and creep up so you don’t even notice it until—you described it really well—you wake up one day feeling like nothing matters. Some people manage to go through their entire lives without ever thinking about their purpose, while others seem to be driven by it early on.
My experience with clients is that having a clear purpose is especially useful when you are committed to doing hard things over a long period of time or when you are going through times that are tedious. If you have never done purpose work—often referred to by Simon Sinek as your “WHY”— now is the perfect time to give it some thought. Of course, there are entire books and courses devoted to this topic, so here are some questions to get you started:
Questions to ask to define your purpose:
- What do you do easily and naturally that you are known for, that people come to you for, and that others thank you for?
- What are you doing when you are in the zone, lose track of time, and would do it for free if you didn’t need a paycheck?
- What are you willing to do despite knowing you might be judged by others or that it might make you look foolish?
- What dream did you have when you were younger that you meant to defer but then forgot about?
- Considering what is important to you, and your purpose to the extent that you have a sense of it, what do you see is reasonably possible (with a fair amount of work and commitment) for you?
- Can you paint a detailed picture?
- What does the picture tell you?
- What could you do now—just as a first step—so that the picture can be manifested in reality some day?
You will have to experiment a little and notice what gives you joy and feels like the right direction. That’s okay, you have time, and you will start feeling better once you start picking up clues and penciling out a plan. I personally dabbled in a topic for thirteen years before finally getting serious and signing up for classes. Seven years later I am still a neophyte, partially because it takes decades to master, partially because there is still the family (husband, four kids, three dogs), the full-time job (which I love) and, you know, life. But I have made slow and steady progress, which allows me to feel 100% on purpose and gives me extraordinary satisfaction.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest that you schedule a physical with a doctor. There might be a chemical reason for feeling the way you do; you just never know. If your hormones are wildly out of whack or you are deficient in some key nutrient, a visit to your doctor will rule it in or out. Your doctor may diagnose depression—which of course might be true—but unmet needs or a lack of purpose and values alignment are often diagnosed as depression.
Of course, the feeling might just lift on its own, but I do encourage you to continue your inquiry—it can only help. Good luck to you. There is so much joy to be had in this life. I hope you can find your way back to it.
About the Author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team. Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.