Want to know something about me that most people don’t?
I’ve been to jail…3 times in all. Spending a total of 4 nights and 5 days behind bars.
That makes it sound kind of like a luxury vacation which, I can assure you, it most certainly was not. In fact, I think everyone should go to jail at some point to learn what it’s like and why it’s highly likely that if people weren’t criminals before they went in, they probably will be before they get out.
But that’s a topic for another day.
Right now my point is that I was arrested multiple times for a purpose: once for lying down on campus in the middle of the night to protect the Ethnic Studies program at my university; once for “maliciously blocking a public walkway” to get the attention of Neiman Marcus and persuade them to stop selling fur; and once for sitting down on the sidewalk in front of the White House to stop a pipeline from being built that would make it lucrative to extract oil from the tarsands in Canada.
I protested, I volunteered, and I worked for a variety of nonprofits and social enterprises during my first 12 years of employment because I thought you fulfilled your purpose by solving some major problem in the world. And yet after years of doing so much towards that end, I still felt totally unfulfilled and frustrated by how little impact my efforts were having.
In retrospect, my ego was probably more than a little involved in my desire to fix things. My heart was in the right place, but what I eventually learned through a full-on spiritual breakdown and subsequent years of introspection, study, and experimentation, is that purpose isn’t really about saving the world.
Purpose is certainly related to making positive changes in the world. But it’s also about contributing our talents in unique ways that only we can. And perhaps most surprisingly to me, it’s also about finding our joy, taking care of ourselves, and having fun.
The good news is, for the same reason that purpose can be hard to define, there are infinite ways to fulfill it. Which means you don’t have to find a new job or work for the Mother Teresa Foundation to start feeling a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Here are a few ideas for how to bring more purpose into your work without changing jobs:
1. Start to see the impact you’re already having.
Most people have a far greater impact than they realize. We rarely get feedback about the results of all our actions, so we never know that the kind word we said to somebody turned their day around or the seemingly meaningless data we programmed led to the successful launch of a new venture.
To be able to see the contributions you’re already making more clearly, you need to become a detective. Look for clues—did someone smile when talking to you today, did their mood shift during your conversation, did they thank you for something? Imagine what might have resulted from your actions—did something you worked on go on to create more clarity on an issue, improve a customer’s life, or make someone else’s job easier?
You can also ask questions of folks around you to find out how your work is impacting them and how it fits into the larger picture of the organization you work for. Your efforts may seem minor to you, but they probably have a bigger impact than you realize. Being aware of that impact can be key to feeling a greater sense of purpose.
2. Prioritize what matters.
Often we lack a sense of purpose in our work because we’re always focusing on what’s urgent while neglecting what’s important. If you take the time to get clear on what really matters most (to you, and to the impact you want to have through your work), you can prioritize that. You can give yourself permission to do less of what isn’t important and perhaps even do it less than perfectly.
When you prioritize what matters, you’re more effective in serving your purpose and get more done that feels meaningful and fulfilling
3. Share what you know.
We’ve all gained knowledge and expertise in certain areas just by living our lives, and whether it’s related to your current field or not, it’s useful. Offer to share what you know freely with others. Teach a class, mentor someone, or offer to let someone pick your brain over lunch. Recognizing that your wisdom if valuable and sharing it for the benefit of somebody else is a great (and easy) way to find more purpose.
4. Pay attention to what the people around you need.
Sometimes we get so busy trying to get $#!& done that we forget why we’re doing it in the first place. If part of the reason you work is to make a positive contribution to the world, you might do better to put aside your To Do list for a moment and take a look at the people around you. What do they long for? What do they need? What would help them with whatever is currently causing them pain?
I had a client who found a much greater sense of purpose in her work simply by bringing more empathy into her daily interactions. By paying attention to what would help those around her, she found easy ways to contribute—with a smile, a word of encouragement, a favor, or simply an open ear. Purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose, and the smallest actions can have big consequences when we’re present and attuned to what’s happening around us.
5. Ask for assignments and initiate projects.
When you know what impact you want to have, you can get creative and find ways to bring that into your current work environment. Maybe you could request to join a department or team that’s already working on that issue. Or perhaps you could initiate a project in that area. Do you want to start a recycling program at your office? What about spearheading a volunteer day, or working on the diversity task force?
I had a client who found a lot more satisfaction in her job by (1) initiating an important departmental change and managing its implementation and (2) spearheading a fundraiser for a coworker who was undergoing treatment for cancer. Both required an investment of time and effort, but because they were so meaningful to her, they gave her far more energy than they took.
6. Share more of your gifts in any way you can.
What are you good at? No, I’m not interested in what skills you put on your resume. I mean, what are you really good at, naturally? What do you do without even trying? What gifts do you give just by being who you are, and approaching the world in the way that you do?
Once you have a sense of what these are, find more ways to give them in any way you can. Not only will you increase your impact, but you’ll feel more satisfied too.
7. Pay attention to what you love.
This was the missing piece for me for a long time. I was doing operations and management work that I was good at but didn’t particularly enjoy. Once I started paying attention to my gifts and, in particular, my joy, I realized that my purpose wasn’t dependent on solving some major world problem.
Though I still think addressing those problems is absolutely worthwhile, I learned how to find my purpose more effectively in daily actions based on writing, creating, exploring, being outdoors, spending time with the people I love (and lots of animals too), helping others realize that they already have everything they need within them, and otherwise having fun.
I’ve felt much more fulfilled and purposeful ever since.
If you’re not sure what your purpose is, you’re not alone.
Most of us don’t know what we’re meant to do in the world, and we’re not taught anything about it in school. That’s why I’m so excited to be offering Clarify Your Calling and Find Meaningful Work You Love: a FREE master class webinar to infuse your life with more power, passion, and purpose. I’ll be walking you through some great ways to identify your purpose as well as your core strengths on the call.