Jeff Hittner is the founder of Your Project X, an organization dedicated to helping people (re)discover their purpose to build careers they’ll love. Previously, he founded IBM’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) consulting practice globally. He is a partner to global organizations focused on entrepreneurship and youth development, the father to a newborn son, and was an elite gymnast for nearly 15 years.


“The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” — Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. He kept himself alive by developing a purpose: to keep other prisoners from committing suicide. In the world’s darkest moment, his purpose kept him motivated.

Today, purpose is the latest buzzword. But according to the CDC, one out of three people doesn’t have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. They don’t have a “why.”

We have all questioned what we should do with our lives. Sunday night dread flowing into Monday morning is a particularly popular time to curse one’s surroundings. But where people tend to get stuck is not in the questioning, but in the traps that lead us away from search and discovery.

In our work at Your Project X — helping people change careers and launch businesses — we hear excuses all the time about why someone can’t make the changes they need to be fulfilled. In fact these obstacles are so consistent we call them our “four bear traps” to exploring purpose. Here are the traps and the actions you can take to turn them into opportunities:

1. “I’ll get a purpose when I have a cause.”

Let me spare you the suspense. Cause is not purpose. Purpose is a mindset. It is not tied to a specific event (or election). How can you be sure you’re falling into this trap? Consider your energy – does fear, anger, or frustration drive your focus, or does it well up from a place of hope, love, and meaning?

ACTION: Purpose is an inexhaustible fuel. It is connected to what you truly love. Purpose does not happen “to you.” It comes from within you. Feel the difference with this simple exercise: recall a time in your life when you were totally in the state of “flow.” Describe the experience. Write it down — all the little details of when you felt like you were doing what you were here to do, even if just for a moment. Notice where the energy comes from and how you feel as you describe it.

2. “True purpose comes as inspiration or revelation.”

Like a beam of light from the heavens, your purpose is revealed to you and your destiny is changed forever… NO. We are not in a Disney film.

ACTION: In the real world we need to cultivate everything we hold dear. This means acting first, reflecting later. Like an entrepreneur, successful explorers of purpose run experiments often, evaluating how they – and the world – react to their actions. Purpose is a practice. First we begin, then purpose moments appear everywhere.

Related Learning: 6 Excuses You Need to Eliminate to Achieve Your Dreams | Laurie Gerber

3. “Only a few special people have true purpose.”

I wasn’t born Justin Bieber (thank God), nor Beyoncé or Bruce Springsteen. Yet the only thing that stopped me from pursuing a singing career was my shower singing voice. History is filled with ordinary people that have found their calling.

ACTION: This is the most common rationalization we see at Your Project X for ignoring the search. Do you really think Takeru Kobayashi (world hot dog eating champion) was meant to discover his purpose and you weren’t? A quick fix: spend a day thinking about three people around you that have found their purpose. Maybe it’s a friend with a baby. Maybe it’s a mentor. Maybe a family member. Spend time talking to these people and learning about their purpose discovery journey.

4. “Purpose is a luxury. I need to make a living!”

Your calling is not only for the well-off or educated. It is fundamental.

ACTION: You need to travel. And not even out of the country. Find a community that’s well outside your usual “habitat.” Get yourself out of your routine. Do something you’ve never done before. Travel works because it takes you outside of your comfort zone, but even a small adjustment in your routine — taking a new route from work to home, for example — can set off a chain reaction of change.

Time for a good ole fashioned theft!

Great, now you know the bear traps to avoid but you are still so busy with, well, everything! The only way to commit time to discovering your purpose is to steal it from somewhere else.

These are our trade-offs. What are yours?

Will you put down your phone for 30 minutes before bed? Not answer the 50 emails in your inbox this morning?

Put yourself out there – it will be worth it.

*The 4 Bear Traps of Purpose is inspired by the important work of Richard Leider.