Some people know their life’s purpose from an early age. I am not one of them.
For me, purpose was more like a spleen: I knew I had one, and I recognized that it was probably helpful, but I had no clear idea of what it was or how it worked. As a result, it seemed somewhat irrelevant to the larger decisions of my life.
It took me a long time to get clear on my purpose. It showed itself to me one small piece at a time, and only when I got serious about investigating its nature. I had to stay curious for years and gather clues one at a time until a bigger picture began to emerge.
The good thing about having to work so hard to uncover my purpose is that I now know how to do it.
Because purpose changes as we do. We don’t stay the same throughout our lives, and our circumstances certainly shift as well, so our purpose necessarily evolves with us. If you want to live a meaningful life true to what’s most important to you, you won’t define your purpose just once; you’ll do it over and over again.
Having spent significant time wrestling with my own purpose, and then helping others define theirs, I’ve found a few things you can do to make the process easier. The first is to recognize what’s getting in your way.
The debilitating myth that keeps your purpose hidden
Your purpose is a part of who you are, and you already have everything you need to recognize (or remember) it. The trouble is, we’re not taught anything in school about finding our purpose, and when we do finally decide to pay more attention to it, at best we don’t really know what to look for, and at worst we look for the wrong thing.
Movies, media, and popular culture have encouraged us to think that purpose is going to be like a lion or a hurricane. We expect that something as profound as purpose must be impressive, imposing, and intense. We think it has to operate on a grand scale and be big enough to inspire mass admiration from others.
In my experience, this expectation can lead you astray. From what I can tell, purpose in the real world is more often like an amoeba: richly layered, dynamic, adaptable, absolutely needed, and beautiful in its own way, but unassuming, without defined edges, and not usually grandiose.
Nobody wants to claim an amoeba as their heart and soul, so when it reveals a part of itself to us, we tend to scowl and turn our attention elsewhere, looking for something more extraordinary.
But if we can see those often underwhelming and perplexing clues for what they are and pay attention to them for long enough, a larger pattern begins to reveal itself.
How to read the signs
If purpose is like a wild beast that you’re stalking (or, to keep my metaphors consistent, perhaps a wild amoeba), then the good news is that you can find its tracks all over your daily life if you know where to look.
The key is to pay attention to your head, heart, and body. As you may have heard me mention before, we can get into trouble when we only listen to our thoughts and our rational minds. Our feelings and body sensations actually contain a lot of information and wisdom if we’re willing to tune into them.
Here’s a simple way you can do that:
For the next four weeks, pause 2-3 times a day (ideally once in the late morning, once in the late afternoon, and once in the evening) and take a few minutes to ask yourself the following questions. Take brief notes so you can begin to notice patterns:
- What sensations do I notice in my body when I feel a sense of meaning or fulfillment? When, in the time period since my last reflection, did I feel any of those sensations?
- In the same time period, when did something touch my heart? (In other words, when did I feel a sense of compassion, grief, outrage, etc.)?
- When was I moved to take action on behalf of someone or something other than myself?
Once a week, take some time to read through what you’ve recorded and ask yourself:
- What do these things have in common?
- What feels most important in what I’ve identified so far?
- What am I learning about what’s meaningful to me?
Putting it all together in a Personal Mission Statement
Once you’ve uncovered enough clues, you can use them to guide you in lots of different ways. There’s really no wrong way to do this.
You may already have some clarity about what your purpose is or, if not, at least in what direction it lies. If you don’t, it might be helpful to break your purpose down into parts and use them to write your own Personal Mission Statement.
There are 4 main components to consider:
1.Whom or what do you want to help?
For example: elderly women, young men, people struggling with depression, immigrants, lawyers, endangered turtles, homeless dogs, squirrels, cockroaches, old-growth trees, New Yorkers, etc. Whom or what are you concerned about and would like to benefit?
2.What do you want to help them accomplish or change?
This is your impact. What exactly do you want to be different for those you want to help?
3. How do you want to do this?
There are a few different ways of getting at this, for example:
- Do you feel called to work with individuals; groups and organizations; or society, policy, and systems at large?
- Do you enjoy working directly on causes (for example, going to disaster zones and offering direct aid) or indirectly (supporting those who do the on-the-ground work)?
- What types of action are most natural, enjoyable, or easy for you? (For example, creating, researching, teaching, counseling, planning, organizing, healing, inspiring, listening, designing, entertaining, etc.)
4. For what reason or larger goal?
This is the purpose behind your purpose. We almost always have underlying values or visions that inform our goals, and bringing them to the surface can be very helpful. Why do you want to make these contributions or create these benefits? What about them is important to you? (Keep in mind you might have more than one answer.)
When you have some clarity about each of these components, you can put them together in a Personal Mission Statement. Here’s the structure:
I help ____(1)____ to ____(2)____ by ____(3)____ so that ____(4)____.
One last (very important) thing
Now that you have your Personal Mission Statement, please don’t make the mistake of holding on to it too tightly.
I say this because your Personal Mission Statement is like Bruce Lee’s famous hand pointing towards the moon. It’s useful in showing the way, but concentrate too much on the hand and you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.
To use one final metaphor (the last one, I promise), purpose is like water. It’s dynamic and free-flowing. The more you try to hold onto it, the more it slips through your fingers.
Purpose is bigger than us. We do not create or control it. I don’t believe we can even fully understand it. All we can do is recognize it when it makes itself known, follow its flow, and create a container for it to run through our lives.
It turns out that this is enough. You don’t have to define your purpose to fulfill it. All you have to do is be curious, listen for your own truth, and take action on what you discover again and again.