Do you have an answer when you ask yourself the question, “What’s my purpose?”
Pursuing your purpose may sound like an intimidating undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. You can begin with a few simple steps to point your life in the right direction. As someone who has gone from a purposeless life to purposeful, I can attest that this endeavor is worthy of your time and effort.
“Every person has a longing to be significant; to make a contribution; to be a part of something noble and purposeful.”
That quote, attributed to John Maxwell, perfectly describes how I felt for the first half of my adult life, but I didn’t realize it at the time. It took many years for me to honor the strong longing toward purpose that lived deep within me. Once I surrendered to that pull, my life began to blossom. I stopped going through the motions at work, I no longer counted down the minutes to Friday afternoons, and I didn’t experience Sunday evening blues anymore. In fact, I began to look forward to Mondays.
My entire life changed, because I pursued my purpose.
What is Purpose?
What do I mean by “purpose”? Anthony L. Burrow, associate professor of Human Development at Cornell University says, “Purpose is a forward-looking directionality, an intention to do something in the world.”
In his book “Purpose Work Nation,” Brandon Peele author and CEO of Unity Lab takes it a step further and defines purpose as “a transcendent identity beyond the concerns of self and family that includes many aspects such as: one’s vision for the world, mission, craft, greatest gifts, and most cherished values.”
Research indicates that purpose not only correlates to psychological well-being and physical health, but it also may help you live longer. A 2019 study including nearly 7,000 people over the age of 50 found that a strong purpose in life was significantly associated with decreased mortality.
My own career trajectory has shown me the benefits of purpose. When I began my career, I started out working in marketing at the athletics department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although it could be considered a dream job for many, I left after a few years to give sunny San Diego, California a try.
Within a month, I was hired to work in ophthalmology pharmaceutical sales. Once again, some might consider that to be an ideal career, and I achieved tremendous success in my role. Nonetheless, despite the company car, large bonus checks, and flexibility, I felt numb at work most of the time. That numbness carried over into the rest of my life, and I wasn’t the same energized and joyful person I used to be.
My career and life turned around when I started my nonprofit Compassion It 10 years ago. As a facilitator of compassion, self-compassion, and mindfulness trainings, I regained the pep in my step. My life became abundantly purposeful. A decade has passed, and I’m still as passionate about compassion as I was when I began this new career. My life has direction and meaning, and although this path hasn’t been easy, I can’t imagine living any other way.
Exploring Your Purpose
So, how can you find purpose? In the book “Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life,” authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans rely on methods from design thinking to guide the reader toward a purposeful life.
Burnett and Evans suggest that you begin by creating your own compass by taking time to write out your “Workview,” or why you work, and your “Lifeview,” or your thoughts about the meaning and purpose of life.
These are some of the journal prompts they offer for uncovering your “Workview”:
- ”Why work?”
- “What’s work for?”
- “What defines good or worthwhile work?”
These are some of the journal prompts for uncovering your “Lifeview”:
- “Why are we here?”
- “What is the meaning or purpose of life”
- “What is the role of joy, sorrow, justice, injustice, love, peace, and strife in life?”
Once you consider these questions, you can recognize if you have overlap between your Workview and Lifeview. If you don’t see any overlap, you can begin working toward it.
“By having your Workview and your Lifeview in harmony with each other, you increase your own clarity and ability to live a consciously coherent, meaningful life - one in which who you are, what you believe, and what you do are aligned,” they write.
Steps to Creating a Purposeful Life
After you uncover that alignment and create your compass, you can lean on it as a tool for remembering the path that you intend to follow - your “true north.” Burnett and Evans suggest that the next step for creating a purposeful life is to notice and document when you’re in these states:
When you’re fully engaged, feeling a sense of euphoria, having great inner clarity, feeling like time flies, and feeling calm and peaceful, you are most likely in flow.
What depletes your energy, and what fuels you? By paying attention to your energy levels throughout the day, you can begin to be more intentional about how you invest your attention.
Notice what brings you enjoyment, and do more of that. Although your job or home life undoubtedly have elements that don’t bring you joy, can you pinpoint what you do enjoy?
Once you’ve noticed what brings you flow, energy, and joy, you can intentionally do more of what puts you in those states and do less of whatever drains you. Keep a daily log for a week, and take inventory of how you feel throughout the day. You might be surprised by what brings you to these states.
Of course, it might not be so simple. Your job might not put you in flow very often; it might not be energizing or bring you joy. You can’t just stop doing your work, because your daily log has offered you this insight. Nonetheless, you can begin taking small steps to move you toward your purpose. Sit down with your manager and let them know that you’d like to do more work that allows you to feel energized. Or start looking into careers that you think will give you energy. Begin networking with people in those fields to find out what their day-to-day work looks like.
In the meantime, be intentional with your time outside of work and do things that put you in flow, give you energy, and add joy to your life. Once you deliberately point yourself toward your ‘true north,’ you’ll be much closer to answering the question, “What’s my purpose?”
Just imagine what life might be like when you find that answer.