02/21/2011 01:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Owning Our Unique Expression

Ever since I was a little kid, I've had this underlying sense that there was something specific in life I was supposed to be doing. Many people I meet tell me they feel the same way. But often they're not sure exactly what it is. Or they have something they love to do, but don't have much time or energy to devote to it because they're too busy making a living.

As a financial advisor, I meet a lot of people who share the belief -- often reinforced by their life experience -- that being financially successful and doing what they love are somehow incompatible. We may see others who have a "gift" or talent that they love and are able to make money from it, but these individuals seem like the exception, rather than the rule.

Not only am I convinced that we make a living with our unique expression, but I think it's arguably the only way we can truly be successful. It's often estimated that the average adult will spend 80 percent of his waking life at work. If we're spending all that time in a job we hate -- one that drains our energy so much that we have hardly any left for the remaining 20 percent of our lives -- then we could say that, energetically, we're living beyond our means. Once work is over, we'll find ourselves having very little left to give and needing to get energy back from the people around us -- particularly those we love.

The only way to start to find our way in the world is to take responsibility for the direction of our lives. It takes focus and commitment to find, develop and own the particular expression that we have to contribute to this world. Most people will admit that they are their own worst enemy. For reasons we perhaps don't fully understand, we judge and criticize ourselves more harshly than anyone else we probably know. And with all this self-criticism going on in our minds, it's very difficult to show up in the world as the person we're supposed to be.

The most important step in finding and owning our unique expression is to learn how to tap into the more intuitive part of ourselves. This is because the identification of our true, unique expression doesn't come from our minds. In order to access a deeper, more intuitive place, we need to learn how to disengage from our mind's endless chatter. In addition to utilizing our intuition, author Dan Sullivan, in his book, "Unique Ability: Creating the Life You Want," came up with four ways to know when we've discovered our creative expression:

  1. It's an ability other people notice and value.
  2. We love doing it and want to do it as much as possible.
  3. It's energizing for us and others around us.
  4. We keep getting better, never running out of possibilities for further improvement.

These observations echo the pioneering work of Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the best-selling "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience." Csikszentmihalyi defined the concept of "flow" -- as in, "in the flow" -- as an experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement and identified some of the key characteristics of this state, including a feeling of complete immersion in an activity. Other characteristics of flow:

  1. a sense of being stretched, but not overwhelmed
  2. a natural forgetting of all the things that bother people in everyday life
  3. a reduced awareness of the self as an entity separate from what is going on
  4. a feeling of being part of something greater
  5. an experience of being carried along with the logic of the activity

As we begin to explore our own creative potential, the insights of these thinkers can be helpful in illuminating the path forward. So many people are looking to the outside world to show them what they should be doing and to provide them with the energy to do it. Start right where you are, and look within. The most critical thing in life for any human being is to know what you want to be doing. When we start focusing on what we want to express and contribute, we discover a source of limitless energy and inspiration that is far greater than possession of any external object.

Adapted from "Beyond Success: Redefining the Meaning of Prosperity," © 2009 Jeffrey L. Gitterman. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books A Division of the American Management Association.