Elizabeth Gilbert: Your life's purpose in four words.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray Love and Big Magic among others, has written about finding meaning and purpose in our lives on her public Facebook page. It’s too good for anyone to miss so we’ve decided to share it with you below.


Dear Ones,

I get a lot of questions from people who are seeking purpose and meaning in their lives. And I get a lot of questions from people who are seeking career advice — especially about creative careers. And I get a lot of questions from people who are absolutely confused about where their energy is going in life, and why.

For anyone out there who is seeking purpose and meaning and direction in their lives, I thought it might be useful today to define and differentiate four very important words that relate to HOW WE SPEND OUR TIME IN LIFE.

Are you ready?

The four very important words are:





These four words are often interconnected, but they are not interchangeable. Too much of the time, we treat these words like they are synonyms, but they are not. They are gloriously distinct, and should remain gloriously distinct. Each is wonderful and important in its own way. I think a lot of the pain and confusion that people face when they are trying to chart their lives is that they don’t understand the meaning of these words — or the expectations and demands of each word. So me break down what I consider to be the definitions and differences.


A hobby is something that you do for pleasure, relaxation, distraction, or mild curiosity. A hobby is something that you do in your spare time. Hobbies can come and go in life — you might try out a hobby for a while, and then move on to something new.

I grew up in a family where everyone had hobbies (my grandmother made rag rugs; my grandfather made jewelry out of old spoons; etc) and I have hobbies myself. Gardening was my hobby a few years ago; now it’s Karaoke and collage-making You can tell when something is a hobby because your attitude toward it tends to be relaxed and playful. The stakes are SUPER low with hobbies.

Author, Liz Gilbert. Image: Facebook/GilbertLiz.

Sometimes you might make a bit of money out of your hobby, but that's not the point — nor does it need to be. Hobbies are important because they remind us that not everything in life has to be about productivity and efficiency and profit and destiny.

Hobbies are mellow. This is a wonderful reminder, and the concept should relax you. Hobbies prove that we have spare time — that we are not just slaves to the capitalist machine or to our own ambitions. You don't NEED a hobby, mind you, but it's awfully nice to have one. Even the word itself is adorable and non-threatening: HOBBY! What a cute word. Go get one. You have nothing to lose, and it'll probably make you happier. Also, my grandparents would approve. Back before TV, everyone had hobbies. It's nice. No big deal.

2) JOB

You may not need a hobby, but you do absolutely need a job. Unless you have a trust fund, or just won the lottery, or somebody is completely supporting you need a job. Actually, I would argue that even if you DO have a trust fund or a winning lottery ticket or a generous patron, you should still have a job.


I believe there is great dignity and honor to be found in having a job. A job is how you look after yourself in the world. I always had a job, or several jobs, back when I was an unpublished, aspiring writer. Even after I'd already published three books, I still kept a regular job, because I never wanted to burden my creativity with the responsibility of paying for my life. Artists often resent having jobs, but I never resented it.

unexpected redundancy
'Your job doesn't have to be awesome.' Image: iStock.

Having a job always made me feel powerful and secure and free. It was good to know that I could support myself in the world, and that I would never starve, no matter what happened with my creativity. Now, here's the most essential thing to understand about a job: IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE AWESOME. Your job can be boring, it can be a drag, it can even be "beneath you". Jobs don't need to be soul-fulfilling. Really, they don't. I've had all kinds of weird and lame jobs; it doesn't matter You don't need to love your job; you just need to have a job and do it with respect.

Of course, if you absolutely hate your job, by all means look for another one, but try to be philosophical about why you have this job right now. (Some good philosophical reasons for staying in a crappy job right now include: You are taking care of yourself; you are supporting your beloved family; you are saving up for something important; you are paying off debts. The list of reasons to have a job — even a bad job — goes on and on, and honor abides within all those reasons.)

Don't judge yourself about your job and never be a snob about anyone else's job. We live in a material world and everyone has to do something for money, so just do whatever you have to do, collect your paycheck, and then go live the rest of your life however you want. Your job does not need to be how you define yourself; you can create your own definitions of your purpose and your meaning, pulled from deep within your imagination. A job is vital, but don't make it YOUR LIFE. It's not that big a deal. It's just a job — a very important and also not-at-all important thing.



A career is different from a job. A job is just a task that you do for money, but a career is something that you build over the years with energy, passion, and commitment.

You don't need to love your job, but I hope to heaven that you love your career — or else you're in the wrong career, and it would be better for you to quit that career and just go find yourself a job, or a different career.

Careers are best done with excitement. Careers are huge investments. Careers require ambition, strategy, and hustle. Your career is a relationship with the world.

I used to have jobs, but now I have a career. My career is: AUTHOR. That means: Professional Writer.

When I think about my work in terms of my career, I need to make sure that I'm building good relationships in the publishing world, and making smart decisions, and managing myself well within a realm that is more public than private. I need to pay attention to what critics are saying about my work, and how my books are selling, and how well I'm meeting my deadlines.

Watch Liz Gilbert's TED Talk on Success, Failure and her drive to keep creating below. Post continues after video.

I need to tend to my career with respect and regard, or else I will lose it. I need to honor my contracts and my contacts. When I make decisions about my life, I need to think about whether this would be good or bad for my career. If I win an award, that's good for my career. If I get caught in a hotel room with a pile of cocaine and six exotic dancers, that's bad for my career. (Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that would be AWESOME for my career! Gotta look into that! HA!)


Let me make something very clear about careers: A career is a good thing to have if you really want one, but YOU DO NOT NEED TO HAVE A CAREER. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going through your entire life having jobs, and enjoying your hobbies, and pursuing your vocation, but never having "a career". A career is not for everyone. A career is a choice. But if you do make that choice, make sure that you really care about your career. Otherwise, it's just an exhausting marathon, for no reason. I really care about my career, but it's not the most important thing in my life. Not even close. The most important thing in my life is my....


The word "vocation" comes to us from the Latin verb "vocare" — meaning "to call". Your vocation is your calling.

Your vocation is a summons that comes directly from the universe, and is communicated through the yearnings of your soul.

While your career is about a relationship between you and the world; your vocation is about the relationship between you and God. Vocation is a private vow. Your career is dependent upon other people, but your vocation belongs only to you. You can get fired from your career, but you can never get fired from your vocation.

Writing was my vocation long before I was lucky enough to get the career of an "author" — and writing will always be my vocation, whether my career as an author keeps working out or not. This is why I can approach my career with a certain sense of calm — because I know that, while I obviously care about career, I am not defined by it.

When I consider my writing in terms of my career, I have to care what the world thinks about me. But when I consider my writing in terms of my vocation, I TRULY DO NOT GIVE A FUCK WHAT THE WORLD THINKS ABOUT ME. My career is dependent upon others; my vocation is entirely my own. The entire publishing world could vanish, and books could become obsolete, and I would still be a writer — because that's my vocation.

Julia Roberts played Liz Gilbert in the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love.

You do not need to make money from your vocation in order for it to have meaning. Writing had meaning for me LONG before you ever heard of me, and long before anyone else wanted me to do it. Vocation has nothing to do with money, with career, with status, with ambition. I often see people corrode their vocation by insisting that it become a career — and then making career decisions that destroy their vocation. (Amy Winehouse's career destroyed her vocation, for instance.) The day that I feel my career is destroying my vocation, I will quit my career and go get a job, so that I can protect my vocation. But I will never quit my vocation.

Nobody even needs to know about your vocation, in order for it to have meaning. Your vocation is holy because it has nothing to do with anyone else. Your vocation can be anything that brings you to life and makes you feel like your soul is animated by purpose. Tending to your marriage can be your vocation. Raising your children can be your vocation. Teaching people how to take care of their health can be your vocation. Visiting your elderly neighbors can be your vocation. I have a friend who finds his vocation in picking up garbage off the streets wherever he goes; this is his gesture of love toward his fellow man. Searching for light and peace and meaning can be your vocation. Forgiveness can be your vocation.


Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk who worked his whole life washing dishes in a monastery (because washing dishes was his JOB) but his vocation was to see God in everything and everyone, and that is why he radiated grace. (Awesome vocation, by the way. People came from all over the world to watch Brother Lawrence wash dishes, because of the way he radiated divine love in every act. THAT'S vocation.) I admire the Roman Catholic Church for understanding the sanctity of vocation, and for teaching that the purest human vocation is LOVE.

A vocation is the highest expression of your human purpose, and therefore you must approach it with deepest reverence. You can be called to your vocation by what you love (for instance: I love writing), or you can be called to your vocation by what you hate (for instance: I know people who dedicate themselves to social justice because of their hatred for violence and inequality.)

If you don't have a vocation and you long for one, you can pray for one. You can ask the universe with humility to lead you to your vocation — but then you must pay VERY close attention to the clues and signs that point you toward your vocation. Don't just pray and wait. Instead, pray and SEEK. Everyone wants the lightning strike, but the path to your vocation is usually a trail of bread crumbs, instead. Look for clues. No clue is too small; no vocation is insignificant. Don't be proud; be attentive. What brings your soul to life? What makes you feel like you are not just a meat puppet — not just heard to work hard and pay bills and wait to die?

You cannot be lazy or entitled about your vocation, or apathetic, or fatalistic, or calculating. You cannot give up on it, if things don't "work out" — whatever that even means. You must work closely with your intuition in order to find your highest meaning in life. This is hard work sometimes, but it is divine work, and it is always worth it. (Here's a possibility, for instance: Searching for your vocation can be your vocation!)

Watch Liz Gilbert's TED Talk on your 'elusive' creative genius below. Post continues after video.

You can choose your hobbies, your jobs, or your careers, but you cannot choose you vocation; you can only accept the invitation that has been offered to you, or decline it. You can honor your vocation, or you can neglect it. You can worship it, or you can ignore it. A vocation is offered to you as a sacred gift, and it is yours to care for, or to lose.


When you treat your vocation as sacred, you will see your whole life as sacred — and everyone else's lives, too. When you are careless about your vocation, you will treat your whole life carelessly -— and other people's lives, too. Your vocation will become clear to you through the act of PAYING ATTENTION to your senses and your soul, and to what in the world causes you to feel love or hate.

You will be led to your vocation, though the path is not always obvious. You must participate in its unfolding. Do not fall asleep on this job. Your vocation is hinted at through your talents, tastes, passions, and curiosities. Your vocation is calling you, even when you can't quite hear it. ("What you are seeking is seeking you" — Rumi.) When you embrace a vocation, and commit yourself to that vocation, your mind becomes a quieter place. When you accept the divine invitation of your vocation, you will become strong. You will know that — as long as you are tending to your vocation — everything will be fine.

My feeling is that people look for purpose in life without understanding these four words: HOBBY, JOB, CAREER, VOCATION. People blend these four concepts, or mistake them, confuse them, or try to have all four at once, or pretend that they are all the same thing. Or people just generally get freaked out and confused, because they haven't thought these words through, or decided which ones are most important. (Or which ones are most important RIGHT NOW.)

People generally want to know, "What am I doing with my life?", but they don't slow down long enough to really think about these four different aspects of this question — the four different possibilities for where our time and energy goes. People worry so much about their careers, for instance, that they often forget to pay attention to their vocations. Or people get so seduced by the grandeur of their vocations that they forget to have a job, and so they stop taking care of themselves and their families in the material world...which will only bring suffering.

Hey everyone! Tune in tonight at 8pm to @OWNTV to see my talk about passion & curiosity! #SuperSoulSessions

A photo posted by Elizabeth Gilbert (@elizabeth_gilbert_writer) on Dec 20, 2015 at 12:19pm PST


(Remember: Even Brother Lawrence had a job. He was not too proud to wash dishes.) Or people are so busy chasing social status and personal advancement that they forget to make time for the relaxing joy of having a sweet little hobby. And oftentimes people mistake a sweet little hobby for something that they think should be a job, or a career, or a vocation. Don't try to blend what perhaps doesn't need to be blended. Don't mistake a job for a career, or a career for a vocation, or a vocation for a hobby, or a hobby for a job. Be clear about what each one is, and be clear about what can be reasonably expected from each one, and be clear about what is demanded of you with each one.

Here's another thing I see happening: people get so embarrassed or resentful about their lousy day jobs that they forget to be grateful that they have a job at all — and this causes only more anxiety and confusion, which again, will make them stop paying reverent attention to their vocation, or enjoying their hobbies, or making plans for a career.

We live in a real world that is heavy sometimes with real-life obligations, but we also have souls that deserve care and attention. We can pay attention to our worldly ambitions and pleasures (hobbies, jobs, careers) without neglecting our mystical, otherworldly, beautiful and often impractical vocations. We can pay attention to all of it — but this requires sitting still at times and really thinking things through, with courage and dignity. And it requires an understanding of terms.

The important thing is to be sober and careful and attentive enough to know what you are REALLY talking about when you consider the question, "What am I doing with my life?"

It isn't easy to answer this question, but understanding and respecting these four different words might be a start.

And when in doubt, at least try SOMETHING. As the wonderful poet David Whyte says: "A wrong-headed but determined direction is better than none at all."

Good luck out there, brave seekers!



This post originally appeared on Liz Gilbert's Facebook page.
00:00 / ???