Some people come into this world knowing what they are here to do. My father and father-in-law were those types of people. My father fashioned himself a first aid kit and took it to the playground in elementary school and attended to the scrapes, bumps, and bruises. He became a doctor. My father-in-law memorized the voting records of U.S. congressman when other kids his age were memorizing batting averages of major league baseball players. He became a U.S. congressman and worked for Middle East peace.
I’m not one of those people. When it comes to sensing my purpose in life, it has been a bit chaotic, to say the least. Boatbuilder. Aspiring architect. Photographer. Accountant. Management consultant. Business executive. Coach. Leadership and personal development teacher, consultant, and online entrepreneur. Get the picture?
How about you? Are you clear on your purpose? If not, do you want to be? Know how to? This is what we will explore…
After I was fired from my corporate job back in 2002, I was a mess. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was. I did know I was done with “working for the man” as an employee, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea about what the alternative looked like. I’d never really done anything else in my career other than “worked for the man”.
I was desperate to find my purpose. I felt that if I could just latch on to that, I’d be okay. I knew how to work hard. I just felt like I needed to know which direction to work toward. Give me the answer. Quickly!
Desperation often isn’t an ally. I was so obsessed with finding my purpose that my mentor nicknamed me “porpoise.” “How’s my porpoise today?” he used to ask. I didn’t see it then, but he was guiding me to lighten up and loosen up.
You don’t figure your purpose out as much as you sense it. Sensing and desperation — at least in my experience — are mutually exclusive. At that time in my life, I didn’t know about the concept of liminal space (which I wrote about here). My sense of purpose didn’t start to unfold until I stopped grasping for it and just got on with what was right in front of me. The things that weren’t being done and needed to be attended to. More on this, the power of intentional action, later.
Let’s define the term. Here are the definitions I find online…
- Noun: “a person’s sense of resolve or determination.”
- Verb: “have as one’s intention or objective.”
Your purpose in life is the reason you are here. I don’t think it is any more complicated than that. It is incredibly nuanced, but not complicated. In fact, purpose is very simple. Just not necessarily easy. There are some tips I can share — but first, the why.
Why Having a Sense of Purpose Matters
The funny thing about life is that it seems to have no lasting meaning if we aren’t living it in alignment with our purpose. Let’s first of all talk about “lasting”. Yes, big accomplishments, peak experiences, breakthroughs, windfalls, and wins can have a tremendous amount of meaning immediately after they occur. Yet, the funny thing is, they fade. Unless those are coupled with one’s purpose. Then they don’t fade away altogether. They dim a bit, usually. But they don’t become hollow after the “rush” is gone.
Purpose makes meaning possible. Meaning is what we long for, isn’t it? After our basic safety needs are met, after we are giving and receiving a sufficient amount of love, care, warmth, and support, we long to contribute. What we want to contribute seems to be connected to our purpose, and making this type of contribution brings a sense of meaning into our lives. A life well-lived.
When we sense our purpose we know what to say “no” to. A big part of life is about being able to say, “Hell, yes!” to the ONE thing. It isn’t about accomplishing a lot of things. Purpose cuts through all the dizzying options. We can sense the vital few things that desire our heartfelt YES and cut away the rest. The rest that we cut away are other people’s yeses.
And there are significant health and happiness benefits! The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a premier research institution with some of the brightest scientists and researchers working on the connection between a healthy mind and human flourishing. They cite research findings that clarity of life purpose and living in alignment with purpose directly impacts health and happiness. For example, intentionally living in alignment with purpose has benefits such as:
- Increase in psychological well-being
- Faster and better emotional recovery after experiencing a negative event
- Increased life expectancy
(For more information on the above three points, see the cited articles under “Additional Resources” below.)
Are you clear on why you might want to know your life purpose? It increases health and happiness. It enables a more meaningful life because it helps you say no to the thousands of things and yes to the vital few things. And, those vital few things you are saying yes to please your higher self and transcend your ego. Our higher self guides us towards our unique contribution, our purpose, and therefore towards meaning. Our ego guides us towards approval-seeking, self-gratification, and away from our purpose and therefore a life of meaning.
How to Sense Your Purpose
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I keep talking about “sensing” your purpose. I didn’t use the word “define”. Purpose — to me — is more of a felt sense. It isn’t mental. It isn’t a thought. It is more of a feeling. Further, it is a feeling that unfolds over time as a result of the decisions we make and the actions we take.
I personally don’t feel that our purpose is “set”. I think we interact with it through our lives. The twists and turns and vicissitudes of life and the extent to which we grow and evolve shape it. And, in turn, it shapes us. It’s more like a dance.
Start by just writing down what you think or feel your purpose is. Hold onto it loosely. Hold on to the question, “Is this in the right direction, or is it something else?” Take action. And watch how life responds. However, don’t expect a response from inaction. Take intentional action, and watch for the response from life. All the clues life drops but we normally miss because we aren’t curious, we aren’t awake, we aren’t paying attention.
What do you do if you draw a big, fat blank on what your purpose might be? No problem, my friend. That’s more common than you might think. And there are some easy solutions to filling in that big, fat blank.
- Option 1: My purpose is to discover my purpose by taking intentional action and carefully watching what happens.
- Option 2: My purpose is to gain self-knowledge and to apply it in the direction of serving others and life around me.
- Option 3: My purpose is to treat everyone with compassion and kindness while being totally honest and true to myself.
- Option 4: My purpose is to learn to work with my mind such that I feel at ease in the world and embody equanimity.
These four options are simply expressions of our common human condition. In a foundational and fundamental way, our purpose is one and the same. The above four options revolve around that. I won’t explain the reason behind each. What I will say is don’t limit yourself to them. Not to the exact words, nor to the gist. Perhaps in reading them, they will stir something within you. Write down that which stirs you. A stirring is a sensing. Go there. Write that.
Writer’s often free themselves to write by giving themselves permission to write what they call a “shitty first draft.” This is a draft that no one sees. They don’t tweak as they go, for this extends the writing cycle needlessly and sometimes endlessly. Some writers will tell you they actually don’t know what they are writing about until that first draft is done. They think they know. But there’s something about the intentional action of writing it in the spirit of curiosity and discovery that the book they are writing seems to write back to them.
So let go of perfection. It is a barrier, a tyrant, and an excuse to not get started.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” –Anne Lamott (more from this remarkable person, here)
Allow your first drafts of your purpose to be imperfect. Start truing up your actions to align with that purpose, and watch intently for the signs that will say (or whisper), “No, not this way” or “Yes, come closer” or “Warm, but adjust this way.”
Purpose is made clear through intentional action and sober, careful reflection. It is as simple as that. That’s the way forward. That may not be what you want to hear if you are a “check the box” kind of person and want to mark this as done. Soren Kirkegaard said it well in this quotation:
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.“
Shake loose from the oppressor. Shake free from needing to have it perfect before you act from it. Life doesn’t work like that.
But what if you want more of a feeling for what your purpose might be? I do have one last thing that might slake your thirst and quicken your pulse a bit.
Four Powerful Questions
I came across an article called “Four Questions to Access Your Highest Passion” in July of 2005. It was written by Patrick Harbula in Science of Mind magazine. This article (which I could not find available online) made two very important points:
1. Purpose isn’t necessarily first and foremost something you do. For many people, their purpose may be more about how they are. It is a way of being in the world, a way of relating to others. Cultivating a certain way of being is a contribution to others and to life around them.
2. What we want to contribute is often what we feel we didn’t get. Not a single one of us has come to this point in our lives unblemished, unscathed, and/or unwounded. Many of us emerge from childhood wishing we had received something we didn’t receive. There seems to be a longing in many of us to give to others what we didn’t receive ourselves.
Harbula’s four questions reflect the above two points. Here they are:
1. What do you love to do that makes the world a better place, or in some way contributes to the lives of others?
2. What is the most profound experience you would like someone to receive as a result of experiencing your service or through any interaction with you?
3. What is the most important quality or guidance that you did not receive enough of as a child?
4. How does it feel when you create or share that quality or guidance with someone else?
Pondering these four questions deeply may put you into a state of sensing. They may open something that will help you start to more clearly sense your purpose in life. I personally received a lot from answering these questions and the feeling that arose has informed my development of my own sense of purpose. I share them in hopes that they might help you, too.
Over to You
Your mission — should you choose to accept it — is to write a short purpose statement for yourself. Let it be imperfect. Let it work on you. I hope it unfolds for you right up through your very last breath. And that in that final exhalation, that there’s a slight smile. Gratitude for a life well-lived. One based on an ever-unfolding sense of purpose.
If that lofty ideal is a little too much for you, I get it. Having a sense of purpose happens to be intensely practical, too Just look at your sense of purpose as helping you be healthier, be happier, live longer, make much better decisions and wasting a lot less of your time, money, and energy. Is that practical enough for you?
And, secretly, I wish for both to be so. Both the practical and the idyllic benefits.
This article is part of a series.
- The original article — Eight Things I Think You Should Know — is here.
- The first of those eight things is to have a sense of purpose. That’s — you guessed it — this article.
- The next article will be about the second thing I think you should know… which is all about having a Tangible Goal. Something very specific you want to accomplish and will challenge you to grow in order to achieve it. It’s your ONE Thing. Achievement of that Tangible Goal should be an expression of your Sense of Purpose.
- My thoughts on identifying and writing a Tangible Goal is what is next. Stay tuned!
Want to dive deeper into purpose? You might want to check out one or more of these resources.
Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — Articles they cite:
- Purpose in Life and Psychological Well-Being
- Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional Recovery from Negative Stimuli
- Purpose in Life and Its Relationship to All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events
- Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck (335 Amazon reviews, 4.5 stars)
- A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle (4,226 Amazon reviews, 4.5 stars)
- The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren* (4,728 Amazon reviews, 4.5 stars)
* I’ve not read this very popular book–all others I have. I’m citing it here simply because it is so popular.