I struggle with the word “purpose” because it feels overused, not to mention lofty and intimidating. It can send the best of us into a spin cycle of overwhelm. Believe me, I spent decades trying to nail down my elusive “why.” I always believed that it had to be some epic statement that would rock the world and instantly change my life. And that, my friends, was exactly the problem. Purpose doesn’t live in your head; it resides in your soul. Connecting with it is about embracing intuition over intellect. Intuition is that little voice inside you. You know, the one that you shush a lot, because it’s often in- convenient? I’m telling you, listening to it is a game changer. It will shine a far more brilliant light on your purpose than some buzzword bingo statement written to satisfy your ego.

Purpose can be many things. It can be a passion. It can be a kernel of curiosity. It can be an unrequited need. It’s often related to what you loved doing most as a kid, and maybe even still can’t get enough of as an adult. What are you so passionate about that you lose track of time when you do it? What brings you unparalleled joy? And how do you share that gift with others?

One example that gives me goose bumps is from Nick Craig, founder of the Core Leadership Institute and author of Leading from Purpose. Nick inspires leaders to discover their purpose in order to lead more authentically. His genius is coaching leaders live, to tease out the stories that inform their “why.” I’ll never forget watching a video of Nick coaching a senior executive with questions that powerfully connected her to her favorite childhood memories (going on new adventures) and her greatest passion (skydiving). The combination revealing a soulful articulation of her purpose: “I help others to soar and create new adventures in their lives.”

We all have something like this inside of us.

I’m not claiming to be an authority on purpose. My goal is simply to make the concept feel more accessible and less mystical— based on my own experience fumbling around in the dark, groping for the light switch. Start from whatever sparks the movement in you. Maybe you’ll even be inspired enough to spend time with the questions at the end of this section. I double dare you.

So, let’s start by calling bullsh*t on some of the myths that clutter the path to purpose:

Myth #1: We create our own purpose.

Quite the contrary. Purpose isn’t an intellectual exercise; it’s a soul story that’s revealed or discovered. It’s a powerful force that exists deep inside of us already. It’s the unique magic that we have to share with the world—and the reason we’re one of the miracles on this planet today. (Remember, no coincidences.)

The key to understanding it is connecting with ourselves and paying attention to what we love to do, what we are most passionate about, what change we want to see (and be) in the world. This is rarely a lightning bolt epiphany. The discovery comes as we spend time get- ting to know ourselves and exploring our values and gifts. Peeling back one layer at a time and getting curious about where it takes us. Trust the process—the scarier it feels, the closer you are to a breakthrough.

As you know, when I started this journey, I had achieved pretty amazing success by most standards, and, yet I still felt like I had only mastered the success part of successful. I didn’t feel “ful”—or fulfilled—at all. In the beginning, I was in search of my soul, afraid I’d lost touch with it for good and hopeful that it might be the por- tal to purpose (or at least something more meaningful). I certainly didn’t have a plan. I was living breadcrumb-to-breadcrumb, being transported on the wings of synchronicity from France to New Zealand to California to Canada. But your journey doesn’t have to involve travel. Only trust. Trust in your intuition, the voice of your soul.

We pay the price when we don’t listen to that voice. And we discover possibilities when we do. Following my intuition led me down this path to liberate souls and spark a movement.

Myth #2: Purpose has to be an earth-shattering idea.

I think this is the one that trips us up most often. Like I said earlier, I thought my purpose had to be worthy of global headlines. That’s a lot of unnecessary (and unhelpful) pressure. As a friend of mine says, there is little-p purpose—what you feel called to do day to day/ week to week/month to month—and big-P Purpose, a bigger mission that guides all your actions. The beauty (and relief) is that these two forces aren’t mutually exclusive; they coexist. Little-p passions may even lead you to your big-P Purpose, if you simply keep taking steps toward what brings you joy day after day. Forging your own path—not following someone else’s.

As you know, I spent a lot of my life in seeking mode. I wasn’t able to articulate a purpose until the end of my initial Soulbbatical, but I was always clear on my passion for travel and writing and pho- tography. Those passions eventually led me to my purpose—once I started listening to my soul instead of the script in my head. So, while you don’t have to have a perfectly articulated purpose, I invite you to get in touch with what really drives you, in its simplest form. Your soul has a story, and your story is your purpose. You just may have to sit still long enough to hear it.

And, don’t be surprised if what you hear sounds simple. Actually, don’t judge it at all. It’s yours. Own it. We’re shooting for earnest, not earth-shattering.

Myth #3: Purpose is not for profit.

I’ve heard people swat away the notion of purpose like a pesky mosquito, based on one single misconception: “You can’t make a living following your purpose.” But how true is that, really? How much of that is fear speaking? How much may it cost you to continue crouching behind those limiting beliefs? Language matters. We often use words like “can’t,” “should,” and “have to” to relinquish responsibility for the choices we’re making (or not). There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I won’t make a living following my purpose [or passion].” It simply means you’re not ready or willing to prioritize it or put it into action. Just be honest with yourself. (That’s the code of a Chief Soul Officer.) While we’re having this little truth sesh, let’s also get real about how many wildly successful businesses have been founded on purpose, from a passion to do better/be better/look better/feel better. A few of my personal favorites are Tom’s, Spanx, Beautycounter, and Mindvalley University. These companies were started in someone’s soul—some as side hustles, others as going-for-broke ventures, but all with the courageous conviction of “I can.” You know what they say—write the book you need to read, create the product or service you want to buy, and/or spark the change you want to see.

Now, I’m not saying you have to make a living following your purpose, but wouldn’t it be insanely fulfilling if it worked out that way? If you embodied your purpose every day of your life, whether working for a company with a shared mission and similar values or starting a company of your own? (Asking for a friend.)

Myth #4: You have only one purpose.

Nope. Purpose is not a one-and-done kind of deal, nor is it forever etched in stone once you’ve landed on something that feels meaningful. In fact, it’s far more likely that your purpose will evolve over time. (Hell, it might even lead you to discover multiple purposes in your lifetime. There’s no rule or limit.) As Jay Shetty, former monk and host of the popular On Purpose podcast, says so eloquently, “Give your purpose the space to grow, change, and deepen.” That means giving yourself permission to slow down, explore, and check in as often as you need. Feel whether you’re heading in the right direction or whether you need to course-correct. Stay flexible and open to what might present itself along the way. The only Waze app for this trip is your soul.

I have to admit that I’m buzzing about the possibility of my current purpose—“liberating souls”—deepening, evolving, or somehow paving the way to something(s) even more profound. That feels like exactly the kind of journey I want to be on. Are you with me?

Ultimately, purpose is personal, and one of the best ways to discover yours is to spend quiet time alone, tuning in to that inner voice. Even if you can only set aside a couple of hours a week right now, I challenge you to do it. And to commit to being uninterruptable— devices off, in a private space or out in nature.

If you haven’t practiced this before, it’s going to feel super awkward and uncomfortable at first. It did for me. I remember running my to-do list, planning my next meal, and ranking the sexiness of the Game of Thrones cast in my mind, until I allowed myself to settle in deeper. You may even start by asking yourself these simple yet profound questions—“Where am I not being honest with myself?” or “What do I know to be true?” or any of the questions from the “Soul Search” reflection sections in this book—over and over again, until the answers evoke a visceral reaction. That’s a good sign that you’re getting somewhere. When I uncover nuggets of truth, my body tingles, my gut feels warm, and my eyes often water. Do you know what clarity and knowing feel like for you?

I can’t predict what you’ll discover, but I know one thing for certain. This reflection time will become so sacred that you’ll not only crave it, you’ll defend it with your life. And you’ll be inspired to create more of it. It’s the wellspring for everything this book holds dear: authenticity, courage, purpose, self-compassion, and fulfillment.

Making Soulbbatical Your Own

So, you’re Chief Soul Officer of your own life, amped up on the commitment to nurture your soul, now what? I’m sure some of you are still thinking, How the hell can I make this work in my life? As I’ve said before, Soulbbatical is not one-size-fits-all, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to walk away from your career. There are so many different ways to approach this concept.

Whether you’re at a Fortune 500 company, a start-up, at home, or out on your own, the principles of Soulbbatical can help you to discover and create your best life. Exactly how that happens—and how far you want to take it—is entirely up to you. You can take tiny steps toward bringing more soulfulness into your life, you can jump straight into an inside-out gut rehab like I did, or find something just a little bit edgy in between. It’s a question only you can answer: What does greater soul-fillment look like for you? What is your soul craving? What is calling you to play so big you terrify yourself?

I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating. (My marketing training says we need to hear a message seven times for it to take hold. My mom would argue that stubborn people like me probably need a few more.) Soulbbatical is not a one-off escape or phenomenon (though it can certainly start that way). It’s a way of being that will shift your entire world if you lean into it. And, remember, you don’t have to know exactly where you’re headed (most of us don’t).

From SOULBBATICAL by Shelley Paxton, published by Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2020 by Shelley Paxton. All rights reserved. Purchase SOULBBATICAL here.

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  • Shelley Paxton is an author, speaker, and transformational coach. She spent twenty-six years as a highly regarded marketing and advertising executive stewarding some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Harley-Davidson, Visa, McDonald’s, and AOL. In 2016 she left the corporate world to become Chief Soul Officer of her life and, ultimately, her own company. She launched Soulbbatical with the mission to liberate the souls of leaders and organizations by inspiring them to realize their greatest purpose, possibility, and impact. As a certified professional coach, she works with executives at Fortune 100 companies, and with fellow rebel soul individuals and entrepreneurs. Shelley has also trained with some of the top teachers in the world including Brené Brown, researcher and five-time NY Times bestselling author, and master coach and coauthor of The Prosperous Coach Rich Litvin. Shelley is based in Chicago (when she’s not indulging her wanderlust). She’s living into her highest values of freedom, courage, and authenticity. And she’s obsessed with the color orange. Follow her on Instagram @Soulbbatical, on Facebook @SoulbbaticalCoaching, or on her website Soulbbatical.com.