How to Find Your Purpose (and how to stop wondering if you’ve found it yet)
Last week, I wrote about two big questions: what are you doing (your mission) and why are you doing it (your purpose). Too often, people confuse what they do with why they do it. When they finish a project or achieve their goal, they lose their motivation to find the next thing. These smart and creative people are left treading water, wishing they hadn’t solved the unsolvable problem, because then they still would have a defined, achievable goal.
Discovering your purpose will inform your next mission, whether it’s your next step after school or your next career, job, apprenticeship, or internship. Since your purpose stays consistent throughout your life, you will begin a life-long journey of finding new missions as you are completing the one you are on, even after you retire.
Purpose isn’t what happens to you, it’s the bubbling joy and energy you bring to make something happen. Even if your work is noble, prestigious, or receives awards, the accolades of working is still “what you do,” not “why you do it”. Purpose cannot be created, because it is deeply rooted inside of who you already are—the purpose that lives inside of you is the creator.
You already know why you need to know your purpose, but you may be unsure if you’ve found it yet. If you have already put words to your purpose, you may be wondering if you’ve correctly identified it. As you read, you’ll learn how to locate your purpose and how to avoid getting trapped in overthinking your purpose. Before we talk about how, you should know why understanding your purpose now is more important than ever before.
Purpose In The Age of Agility
“More people than ever will be working with knowledge, but knowledge won't be the source of their greatest value. We need a new term: The most valuable people are increasingly relationship workers.”
- Geoff Colvin, Humans are Underrated
The information age is shifting. As we transition from knowledge work (hard skills) to relationship work (hard and soft skills), workers will be required to engage with their work on a deeper level. In the past, asking hard self-reflecting questions like “what do I value” and “why do I want to do what I do” could be avoided in respectable middle-class jobs. As we make advancements in automation and machine learning, the factory jobs and data entry jobs of the past are going away, which means NEW jobs are being created to take their place. These jobs require a higher level of engagement from their workers, meaning more creative problem-solving and clear, purposeful communication. This is great news for those who know their purpose, mission, and what skills they want to explore, and incredibly terrifying for those who don’t.
Why Thinking About Purpose Is A Heavy Topic
“But if sex is no longer the big taboo, what is? For there is always something taboo, something repressed, unadmitted or just glimpsed quickly out of the corner of one's eye because a direct look is too unsettling.”
- Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
Putting your life’s purpose into words can be intimidating, or can I say, taboo? Taboo is what the philosopher Alan Watts calls the search to know oneself. Sex? Violence? Radical religion? Bahh, that’s all on my news feed. Want to know what’s really scary? Honestly looking at yourself and your life through cold, sober eyes.
At least, that’s what we, as a culture, have turned self-reflection into: something scary. As you become more familiar with self-reflection, you’ll recognize that your purpose is in everything you do, and the pieces can be seen in every choice and decision you make. When you begin to name what your purpose is, you are only verbalizing what you already know is true about yourself. Your purpose may not have any words yet, and that’s okay, because you get to decide how you want to define it.
How To Identify Your Purpose
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
The philosopher Albert Camus grapples with the meaning of life in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus writes about the Greek myth of Sisyphus, a king whose punishment is to roll a boulder up a hill. Once he gets to the top, the boulder rolls back down the hill to where he started, and the cycle continues for eternity.
To Camus, the story is an allegory for human existence. What are we but a more technologically advanced version of Sisyphus? In the essay, Camus argues that we create our own meaning—no one else can do this for us. And even though we carry our rock to the top of the hill each day, and watch it roll back to the bottom each night, only to pick it up again bright and early the next morning, we can still find happiness in living an authentic life true to our purpose. And that’s the key, authentic and true to our own personal purpose. One’s motivation to wake up every morning might be hell to another person. That’s why your purpose is uniquely yours, and only you can define it.
Here’s the full quote I reference above from the last paragraph of Camus’ essay:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Your inward journey of pinning down the purpose you are already living begins with self-reflection. For me, it starts with stories. I see life and view the world as a series of stories, stacked up on top of one another with interconnected storylines and themes. When I reflect on my life, I’m looking for recurring themes, just as I look for themes in the literature books I read. But, it’s not the only way to find patterns in life. My math-minded friends see the world and everything in it as a series of equations (if a=b and b=c, then a=c). When they make decisions or try to find patterns in their life, it’s purely mathematical. Your brain is trained to organize information in a particular way and it might be story or math equations, or it could be through something else, like music, art, or cooking. However you look at your life, start looking for patterns.
Reflecting on the questions below will prime your mind for pattern recognition, but it probably won’t happen all at once. Give yourself some time and take notes throughout the day or week. When you notice a pattern, write it down. If you try to go too fast, you may only find a pattern for the mood you’re in at the moment, which may not be the many moods you feel over the course of a week or month. Besides, it’s hard thinking about our lives on command. It’s like when someone puts you on the spot and asks you a direct question (what’s your favorite band? Huh? Who is it? You don’t like music or somethin’?), and even though you know this should be easy, the answer is lost on you or you regret the answer you give. Here are the strategies I’ve used in the past to find the themes/patterns of my purpose in my life.
1. Think about the people in your life whom you admire. Make a list of family, friends, and celebrities you look up to, and next to their names write the qualities or traits you like about them. Why do you keep them around? What types of things stand out?
2. Go over to your bookshelf and take stock of the authors you choose to have in your home. What do you like about them? Why are they in your life? What types of emotions do these books and authors make you feel? If you don’t have many books, look through your music or your movie collections. Why these people? What traits or emotions do they amplify inside of you?
3. What other media do you consume? What types of articles do you click on? What documentaries do you watch? Podcasts? Can you identify a theme? When you think of your theme, how does it make you feel? Write down those feelings.
4. How do others describe you? If you asked the 10 people who know you best to describe you in three words, what would they be? Have you received any praise in the last two weeks; if so, what was it?
5. If you were to ask someone who has known you a long time what common thread has connected you from childhood to now, what would they say? What personality traits would they say have consistently stayed with you?
6. List all the jobs you’ve had, including volunteering, sports, and clubs. Think about the role you’ve played in each organization. Is there a golden thread that connects each role you played together?
7. What types of activities trigger you to enter a flow state (when everything around you drifts away and it’s just you and whatever you are working on)? If you had to put it into words, what lead you to such a deep focus? What triggered you to care?
8. You walk into a store and immediately you get sucked into the merchandise. What store is it? What do you hope to do with the products in the store? The question is two-fold: what do you hope to do with the products in the store, and why do you want to do it? Whatever project that is (even if it’s for selfish reasons), what do you hope to gain? What type of impression do you want to leave others with? And of course, why?
9. Where (or on what) do you spend your free time? Why do you choose to spend it there?
10. When you’re stuck on something, how do you find the motivation to complete the project? What story do you tell yourself to get the job done? What factors influence your decision making? Would you call any of these factors values? If so, what are some other values you have?
Let the questions sink in and feel free to add to your list over the next few days. After a week, return to your list and circle the traits that speak loudest to you. Write these words down on a separate piece of paper and carry it around with you for a week. When one of the words (themes) appear in your life, put a check mark next to it. At the end of the week, circle the top three to five words. What are they? Chances are, these words are the beginning of your purpose. What comes next is putting them in a coherent purpose statement.
What Your Purpose Might Look Like
How you describe your purpose might change slightly over the course of your life (becoming more refined with age), but the gist will always be the same. At the same time, your purpose shouldn’t be too specific, it should be broad enough to fit many careers—and it will.
You purpose might be to entertain people so they can forget about their work for a while, to make people laugh for an evening. Or to make people more informed about the state of the environment. It might be to provide every living person with safe drinking water. Or it could be to integrate healthcare and technology in a way that saves lives. Whatever your purpose is, only you inherently know it.
Right now, I have the opportunity to work with the state of Minnesota to build apprenticeships in fast-growing industries that need workers. Because my work resonates with my purpose, I could do it every day for the rest of my life AND I would continue to do this after I retired and didn’t need the paycheck any longer.
If I had to pin down my mission, it would be: to build sustainable educational programs to enable pathways to the middle class while supporting local business. But, this isn’t my purpose. This is my what, not my why.
Why I do it is because (here’s my purpose) I believe in empowering others, so they have the necessary skills to build a sustainable future. I believe in providing knowledge and opportunities to those who are eager to learn so they can become the best version of themselves. This has been my golden thread throughout the last 10 years of my life, starting with musicians and recording bands, creating an alternative newspaper in college and volunteering to teach chess to elementary and middle school students; eventually moving to the IT world with customer journey mapping and change management; then to publishing artists and authors; and now to anyone who is looking to make a career transition.
What I do has changed a lot in 10 years, and it will continue to change. Why I do it has remained the same.
The Purpose Trap
Those who struggle with this exercise tell me they fear getting stuck in an infinite loop of asking if they’ve correctly identified their purpose: Why am I drawn to my work? Or, why can’t I find any work that engages my whole self? The stress and anxiety creates a negative feedback loop of self-doubt and second-guessing: “is this really my life’s purpose?” or “am I wasting my life?” The problem they’re running into is wanting to focus on the details of the work they are currently doing instead of thinking about their purpose as a larger big picture theme.
Right now, you may only be able to pin down one big theme. Maybe you’ve identified that you have a history of helping people, and helping people using technology brings you joy. That’s great! Large brush strokes give you a place to start, and as you gain more experience, your purpose will become more refined. Herminia Ibarra, a professor at the London Business School, calls this a “working identity” because your purpose becomes clearer with age and experience. Too often, we narrowly focus in on the details of what we are already doing (it’s easy to confuse what we are doing with why we are doing it). To avoid getting caught up in the details, be confident, and keep asking why. Behind the details is what motivates you, and this motivation is your purpose.
“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know”
- W. H. Auden
The above quote was popular in the early 20th century, Auden only reintroduced it again in the 1940s, and it’s been lingering ever since. Meaning, it’s one that philosophers have been grappling with for over a century: if we are here to help others, what on earth are those who are being helped here for?
Willie: Teacher says that we’re here to help others.
Pa: Of course we are.
Willie: Well, what are the others here for?
- Chicago News, 1911 (source)
The answer overlooked for over 100 years is, all of us need help AND all of us have something we can share with others to make their life easier, more enjoyable, or in some way more fulfilling. It’s not a give and take, zero-sum game where there is a winner and loser. When you follow your purpose, you have fun and the people your work touches are positively influenced. It’s a win-win game, called a non-zero-sum game. True, some of us can help a little more than others, but those who can help the most had the most help themselves. At the root of the question is a silent ethical one: if my purpose to help others, how does my happiness relate to helping others? I can hear a skeptical reader thinking: Sure, helping people is fine and all, but if I always helped people, I wouldn’t be happy…I need to make myself happy, too. Some of you might remember Socrates’ light horse and dark horse analogy I wrote about in Age of Agility—if all we do is live a noble life (light horse), we will forget about the dark horse we need to keep in sync with (like eating, sleeping, resting, and having fun). Sometimes, we need to ignore others to live our purpose, better said by the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius: “Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others …” (more on conflicting information here).
Here is my best attempt at those questions.
Can my purpose be money?
Making money is a byproduct of what you do; money is still what, not why.
Wanting to make money always begs the question, why? What do you want to do with it? Or do you just want to feel powerful? And then what? Why do you want to feel powerful? What do you hope that power enables you to do?
Or, do you want money so you can support your family? Providing for your family so they have what they need to be successful and happy is a great purpose, only if making your family happy is fulfilling for you. The trap some people fall into is living a life to please others. When you are only living to please others, you forget to make yourself happy, and the best way to make others happy is by making yourself happy.
Does my purpose need to be “good”?
It depends on your definition of good. Throughout history, there’s been a lot of ambiguity around this. Even today, when a CIA Director Nominee responds to a U.S. senator by saying: “My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it.” Many of us are left with more questions, for example, whose morals? Mine, yours, the State?
What I do know is: we are an ecosystem. Living according to your true purpose inevitably makes the world “better”, whether it’s cleaning the environment or doing what you love in isolation. People are happier when they love what they do, and happiness is contagious.
It doesn’t solve disagreements, but it creates a space to have meaningful discussions.
Can I find my purpose in a menial job? (Sometimes called a “McJob” or “student job”)
Any job that doesn’t allow you to follow your purpose is going to have some kickback. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean others won’t—thankfully, there are plenty of people who find meaning doing jobs you hate. At the starting blocks of every journey is a McJob, whether it’s in healthcare, IT, business, journalism, or the skilled trades. These jobs allow us to experiment with career paths (to see if we can find our purpose reflected in the career). If you start as a server at a restaurant and realize you love the culture, love food, and love that you can make people happy by making food suggestions they’ve never tried before, this could be your start down a lucrative path in the food industry. If your job deals with data entry, you’ll learn quickly if sitting behind a computer for eight hours a day is a working environment that suits you. If you do like it, you’ll work at it to be the best you can be at it. You’ll ask questions. Your supervisors will take an interest in you and you will find your niche. A lot of high turnover jobs are starting points, full of possibilities, waiting for the right person to take an interest.
We’ll talk more about the role of jobs as they apply to your career goals next week.
In a McJob, you will gather info about the industry or skills you need to make a plan. Luckily, McJobs often don’t require a lot of mental stimulation—washing dishes or making food allows for downtime to think. Your next step into a career might be in the same industry, you may just need to learn how to get there. This downtime will help you come up with a strategy to do so.
Finding or naming your purpose can be tricky, but with a little inward reflection you will be able to identify the large brushstrokes. Once your purpose is identified, a challenge can be finding a career that complements your skills and supports your lifestyle. Next week, we’ll look at how all three, your purpose, skills, and finances, work together to create your perfect career .
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt