Purpose and Burnout: Why the Small Things Matter

This post was written in response to an article that the Washington Post has published by a teacher who worked in a charter school in South Los Angeles for 5 years, that has been circulating around my newsfeed, and that I, myself, shared with a colleague over email. It is titled “The Day I Knew for sure I was Burned Out.” My piece is responding to the idea that when major things in our lives flame and fizzle out, it is often the small things that serve as the last straw—in jobs, relationships, unhealthy friendships. I attempt to understand why. I wrote this because I agree, it is difficult to persist when a student tells you to “get the fuck out of her face” when you ask how she is. It is difficult to persist when you work 12-hour days and then attend a 3-hour graduate class afterwards, and you realize there’s no milk for your bowl of cereal when you get home. But I also wrote this because I wanted to attempt to examine why the little things drive us to the edge. This isn’t written to shine a light on the conditions of first year TFA teachers, take a stance on charter v. public, or even attempt to untangle the beast that is our education system. It is simply a counter to the idea that these “small things” can hold so much power over the ways that we choose to see the world.

The idea of “purpose” is constantly present in American culture. For those who can afford to look towards a career, a job, or a sustained service activity that serves more than a means to pay the rent, ‘purpose’ is nearly always the second point of consideration, after fiscal feasibility. We hear of purpose in the rhetoric of our parents and guardians: do what you love. Translated to: do what gives you meaning in the world—gives you purpose. In some cases, people spend a significant portion of their adolescence exploring the possibilities of this “purpose.” In others, they go through experiences that shape their values and mold what exactly it is that we want out of the world, and want to contribute to the world. These could be things that they were denied, things that they were granted and believed all should have access to, or injustices that they felt ought to be ameliorated. I would venture that most experience a combination of the above.

There are two conceptions of purpose that I would like to distinguish before attempting to explain the connection between purpose, little things, and why it matters that there are different kinds of purpose. The first is purpose with a capital P. The second is organic purpose. Purpose with a capital P embodies the “begin with the end in mind” mindset, where action follows goal. Organic purpose is the opposite—it “comes” to us, and embodies the idea that goal follows action.

When people speak of purpose in popular culture, we often think of the “purpose with a capital P.” The purpose of our lives: our primary goals, the “thing” or “things” that infuse day to day living with reason and perspective. This conception of purpose gives us something to look towards and determine our future actions on the basis of.

In common terms, finding a Purpose in life is not about extracting meaning from day-to-day activities independent from one another, but recognizing that there is a common thread between the actions that we perform and engage ourselves in, that one day they will add up and create the grand “Purpose” that we have set aside for ourselves. Choosing a Purpose involves more pre-work than does “organic purpose” (to be discussed in subsequent paragraphs), in the sense that meaningful action does not unfold until we decide what the end purpose is supposed to be. For example, if one has decided that his/her/their purpose is to “make a lot of money,” then from the moment that he/she/they decides that this is to be their purpose, the actions that follow in day-to-day life somehow, some way contribute to the end goal of making money. If I take on an unpaid internship at JP Morgan after I graduate, in lieu of a $25,000/year position at Children International, don’t worry. My purpose is to make a lot of money, and that internship will open doors (or bank vaults) for me in the long-haul that Children International never would. The purpose behind taking this internship is to make a lot of money. Eventually.

The opposite approach is what I have termed the “organic purpose” approach, where one does not decide what the end goal of daily life will be, but rather lives daily life without a grand end goal, and one day happens upon something that they deem could and should be an appropriate end goal. For example, if I consistently volunteer at a homeless shelter in my undergraduate years, find myself interested in figuring out ways for other people to achieve their own dreams, and decide to pursue the $25,000/year position at Children International, I may decide that my purpose in life is to “help people” (a commonly stated purpose, I understand). This has been deemed my purpose because it is the common thread between all significant, meaningful actions that I have taken in my hypothetical life. Letting the purpose come organically is akin to simply going about our daily lives, and at one point or another, realizing that there is common meaning between all that we do (I do A because I believe or want X, I do B because I believe or want X, and so on…).

Both the Purpose with a capital P and organic purpose approaches to life and action make sense in the context of human action, and I would like to believe that when people choose to live intentionally and take the consequences of their actions into consideration, they experience a mixture of Purpose and organic purpose in their day to day lives. They are able to, either before an action or after an action, determine its meaning. Identifying an end goal is not only something that is deemed appropriate in our culture, but something that we have internalized and deemed appropriate in our individual lives.

While both meaningful and reasonable approaches to life, it is under both of these conceptions of purpose that we find ourselves vulnerable to what a former professor of mine called “getting caught in the weeds” of day-to-day living. Getting caught in the weeds happens when we place far too much emphasis on the “little things” that happen to us, letting them affect how we see the world, how we engage with those around us, and how we view the position of our own lives in the grand scheme of things.

When we are so enamored by Purpose with a capital P, or so enlightened by consequential organic purpose, we forget that simply having “purpose” as a singular entity is not taking out an insurance policy against the little things that seem to drive us to despair, drive us to quit, and drive us to exhibit characteristics of people that we do not believe ourselves to be. What is the reason that two meaningful approaches to living are so fallible?

The reason for their fallibility is that both focus on an end goal. How is this a problem, when there is so much discussion, rhetoric, and emphasis placed on having a goal to our actions? The problem with exclusively focusing on an end goal is when it yields the neglect of what fills the space between “now” and between that “end goal.” While having a goal is crucial to success in almost any sector or facet of living that I can imagine, when we neglect the “small p” purpose that our daily actions hold, it will most assuredly be the little things that break the camel’s back.

By nature, daily human life will not constantly be a reminder of the goals we have set out for ourselves. The spaces between “now” and the “end goals” in our lives, are filled with none other than life itself, an omniscient “thing” that is often composed of menial tasks, maintenance rituals, and daily obligations. These things will always fill the space between dream chasing and character cultivating. Always. This said, too often we view the “small things” as distinct from our character and our big picture goals, should we have those things at all. Because we cannot ostensibly connect something small such as making copies of a grammar test, to providing an opportune future for impoverished students, those small things begin to hold more and more weight. They hold more weight because the tangible results of the labor they require are not available. They hold more weight because we have trouble connecting small-picture successes (yay, copies!) to big-picture successes (breaking the cycle of poverty in his/her/their community). We quit because we see the copy machine breaking as impeding the path between “now” and the “end goal.” We quit because when a student tells us to “get the fuck out of their face,” we view it as an impediment to our relationship with, and education of this student. We do not view the copy machine breaking as a chance for us to get more creative. We do not view spewed profanities as a step forward in understanding and growth between two people. Along the way, so enveloped by a purpose, we forget that purpose is after all, a process.

If we are not to be obsessed and enamored with the idea of purpose, what is a feasible reason to achieving the end goals that we have? I am not suggesting abandoning goals. I am not suggesting venturing through life without structure. What I am suggesting, is finding ways to acknowledge the little things that happen along the way, not becoming frustrated when they arise. The alternative is at the intersection between capital P Purpose, and organic purpose, where “deciding” the end goal interacts with letting that end goal simply come to us.

This intersection occurs, quite simply, when we choose hope during the circumstances that seem most conducive to hardening us. Continuous choices as people will eventually yield a life that we have constructed for ourselves, good or bad, easy or difficult, loving or hate-filled. When the opportunities for us to be hardened present themselves (because they are difficult, inconvenient, or shocking), choosing to see those moments as a part of a thread is where purpose lives. It is the continual choice of hope, in the face of hardship, that manifests itself as what we have come to call “purpose.” Choosing hope does not mean buying into blind optimism that the difficulties we face are eventually going to get better. They may never get better. It also does not mean ignoring how hard our circumstances may be. Those hardships are what make certain positions more prone to burnout than others. However, choosing hope is remembering to acknowledge the space between now and our “Purpose,” today and our “end goal,” and the idea that each of our actions and responses mean something, so long as we make the choice for them to.


Image courtesy of Moyan Brenn, Flickr Creative Commons


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