What is my purpose in life?
This is not a frivolous question. While it may seem to be the purview of navel gazers and philosophers, it can actually mean the difference between life and death. In his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences during World War II as an inmate at Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp. The book is sobering, enlightening and curiously hopeful, in that Frankl identified a quest for meaning and purpose as a fundamental life-sustaining force in those who survived. Frankl cites Nietzsche, who wrote “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
A deep connection to our purpose grounds us. At its most subtle, it acts as a magnet, pulling us inexorably towards the unique contribution we should be making and tugging us in the direction of who we should be becoming. At its most profound, it becomes a lifeline, pulling us free of confusion and adversity, even such unimaginable adversity as imprisonment in a concentration camp.
Frankl goes on to say that purpose in life cannot be generalized; instead “the meaning of life differs from man to man, and from moment to moment.” Our purpose, then, is unique and it can change as our life unfolds and circumstances change. Our purpose in our early years may be quite different than our purpose at a later stage.
But how do we know our purpose? At any point in our lives? For some people, the answer is obvious. They seem to be born knowing who they were meant to be, why they were put on this earth and what contribution they should be making. This is a surprisingly small group, though. The blinding light on the road to Damascus strikes few and far between.
In practical terms, our purpose becomes visible at the intersection of what’s important to us (our values) and what we are uniquely suited to do (our talents). The magnitude of its expression is heavily dependent on how much effort we devote to tangible activities at that intersection. Purpose driven action in alignment with our values. That is where the rubber meets the road.
Most of us figure it out gradually, peeling back the layers of understanding as clarity emerges and our confidence grows. It’s like a life-sized game of Clue (hopefully without the body in the library), with hints and nudges. Clues like, “I love certain aspects of my job. When I’m doing those, my days pass very quickly. I’m “in the zone” – challenged enough that my interest is piqued and sustained, but I don’t come home exhausted.”
Knowing the WHY is vital. Why are we doing this work? Why are we in this relationship? What am I saving my money for? It’s the polar opposite of that sense of deep frustration and inertia many of us remember when wrestling with a high school math problem or a poetry composition. The moment when every child wails: “What is the point of this? I’ll never use this again.”
If we understand the WHY, the HOW becomes worthwhile. It’s the reverse of being “on a need to know basis”. Employees who know WHY a company exists and whose values align with that why, are much more engaged, motivated and likely to give their discretionary effort. Finding our purpose unlocks the energy to devote our discretionary effort in all the domains of our lives, not just our career.
There are several ways you can get clear on your unique “why” or purpose. They all produce clues, which when knit together, form a clear picture of your purpose-driven life.
- You – at your best. Reflect on a time when you were at your best, and by that we mean you were fully engaged, challenged and rising to the occasion. It doesn’t have to be positive experience – many people report they felt most alive and engaged during times of adversity, perhaps supporting a friend through their battle with cancer or starting a business on a shoestring. Take a few notes about the situation; what you were doing, and how you showed up as a person. What values do you notice? Values like perseverance, curiosity, compassion or bravery.
- What do you count on me for? In this exercise, you find out what unique contribution others see you making. Send an email to 10-12 people in your network. Ask them for two minutes of feedback. The question is: “What do you count of me for?” As the replies come back take note of the themes that emerge. You can compare this to your notes from the “you at your best” exercise. A clearer picture of your values and your unique contribution begins to emerge.
- What do I want my future to be? The ability to envision a future is a unique and powerful capability of the human brain. Think about a time in the future, it might be next year, five or even ten years from now. At that point you are at your very best. You are operating from a place of balance across your life domains of work, relationships, finance and health. If anything were possible, what does your life look like? What hopes have been fulfilled? Take note of your life, what you are doing, who you are with, the key markers that indicate you are making your unique contribution. This begins to shape a vision for your future, your purpose in action.
You’ve now gained clarity on several fronts. You have information on what you value, on what others consider to be your most valuable contributions and what you’d like your life to look like. These start to form the strands of your purpose lifeline, drawing you towards what is possible, and allowing you to focus much less on what you don’t want.
Finding your purpose. It makes all the difference.