Purpose is important. When we have a purpose, we feel like our life is meaningful, that we matter, and that we contribute something good to the world.
Nevertheless, it can sometimes feel a little tricky to find our purpose. We don’t necessarily receive a lot of instruction in life on how to find it, and sometimes we may not even be sure what purpose is and how we know when we find it.
Let’s start with a few basics common questions about the concept of purpose.
What is purpose? Your life’s purpose is the reason or point of your life. It is constituted by the actions, beliefs, and accomplishments that give your life meaning and that help you to leave your unique mark on the world.
Can somebody else tell me what my purpose is? Only you can ultimately decide if something is your purpose or not, although you can ask other people’s advice about it.
And if you want my advice, I can tell you one thing about your purpose. The core of your purpose is to express creativity, wisdom, and love through your unique life and style.This is the core of everyone’s purpose.
This description of your purpose may sound odd, but I would like you to consider that the primary aim of your purpose is to bring more meaning, flourishing, effectiveness, goodness, strength, and clarity in your life and the lives of people around you. Expressing creativity, wisdom, and love through your unique life and style allows you to do this.
How exactly you should express creativity, wisdom, and love is your job to figure out.
You figure it out by noticing the activities or skills that interest you the most, that give you meaning, and that you are good at.
Your purpose is:
Expressing creativity, wisdom, and love,
Through your unique life and style,
In a way that improves your life and the life of others.
Does everyone have a purpose?
Yes! Everyone can do the purpose work mentioned above, and so everyone has a purpose.
Are some people’s purpose more important than others?
I believe everyone’s purpose is equally valuable. This can be hard to believe sometimes because it can seem as though people who have more fame, power, or prestige have a greater purpose than other people.
But please consider the metaphor of a building. There are a lot of massive beams that hold a building in place, and it may seem initially like they are the most important part of the building. But there are also a lot of much smaller screws, hinges, and other small joints that hold those bigger beams in place. Without those smaller fixtures, the building would fall apart.
The collective purpose of human beings is a lot like this building. Some people’s purpose–like the purpose of a president or nobel-prize winning scientist or revolutionary philosopher–is conspicuously significant. On the other hand, the purpose of a mom or dad or teacher or mailman or grocery store clerk or pastor or librarian may seem inconspicuous, but these folks are amazing because they hold everyone else together.
Your purpose, no matter how seemingly small and inconspicuous, is very important. So is everyone else’s.
How do we find our purpose?
Your life purpose isn’t something you find fully-formed, for example, under a rock…
…or in your brain. It is something you partly discover and partly create, and you express your purpose over the whole course of your life. I have included some reflection questions and action suggestions at the end of this post to help you start discovering, creating, and expressing your purpose. You can go do these now (or whenever you like or never) or keep reading.
How do we know when we find our purpose?
Discovering your life’s purpose is something that you do over a period of time. It is an ongoing process, and you may refine and even recreate your purpose several times over the course of your life. Because of this, there is no one sign that you have found your one true purpose.
But remember, part of your purpose is to express creativity, wisdom, and love through your unique life and style. Given that, here are some signs that you are headed in the right direction in both discovering and creating your purpose:
- You take regular time to reflect on your life experiences and to understand what you have learned from them. This helps you gain wisdom.
- You are gaining a clearer vision of what you are good at and what activities energize or interest you. This helps you become more creative.
- You are gaining a stronger sense of your main values and the primary activities that give your life meaning. You increasingly say “no” to activities and pursuits that distract you from these things. This helps you express love to yourself and others.
- You are willing to set boundaries with people who discourage you or keep you from pursuing the values and activities that give your life meaning. This also helps you express love to yourself and others.
- You have one or more (perhaps a set) of activities and project that you keep returning to consistently over time to refine your skill or deepen your knowledge of them.
Do we only have one purpose?
As mentioned above, the core of your purpose is to share creativity, wisdom, and love with the world through your unique life and style. However, you can do this in hundreds of different ways.
One way to think of it is that you have a core purpose with multiple ways of expressing it, and as long as you are acting with the intention of discovering, creating, and expressing your purpose, you are living your purpose.
What if we mess up and think that something is our purpose, and it is not?
Here’s the great thing about our purpose. Every single thing in our life can help us discover, create, and express our purpose, if we let it. Have you messed up really badly? Have you had some serious failures? Have you spent some large periods of your life feeling lost, aimless, and purposeless?
All of this can become part of your purpose. You have learned some critical lessons during this time. You have figured out what works and doesn’t work. You have learned how to keep going, even when you feel horrible. You have learned what you DON’T want to do with your life.
You can use anything you have experienced to deepen your own wisdom; to help people understand the human experience better; to help yourself move away from values and activities that don’t work for you towards ones that do; or to help people know how to be more effective or safe; to share wisdom.
When I find my purpose, will it solve all my problems?
Part of your purpose in learning to deal with the pain, disappointment, and suffering that is part of the human condition.
Discovering and creating your purpose does not completely take away all the pain of life, but it can give you the vision and love you need to keep moving through the pain. It can also help you understand how to transform your pain for your good and the good of the whole earth.
Does My Job Have to Match My Purpose?
Sometimes people’s jobs DO match their purpose. Sometimes, however, people’s jobs are more of a vehicle that give them the time or money or connections to live their purpose. Both of those types of jobs are okay.
My Story about Finding My Purpose
Before I end this post and give you some questions and activities to help you pursue your purpose, I wanted to tell you a little bit about my experience finding my purpose.
From my early teenage years, I have felt a strong desire to help and love people. I also really enjoyed drawing and writing and learning new things.
When I went to college, I wasn’t sure what to major in, and I changed my major six or seven times. At one point or another, I wanted to study psychology, nutrition, English, occupational therapy, linguistics, theology, and special education.
Eventually, my junior year of college, I decided to major in secondary English education because I loved reading, writing, and teaching. My mom also told me that teaching was a good career to fit around a family, and that made sense to me.
After I graduated, I got a job teaching English and PE in a small private school, and I was a camp director during the summer. I also taught aerobic dance during this time, which was something I loved doing. Two years later, I got married, moved, and ended up teaching English and history in another small private school.
Over the next decade, at one point or another, I taught English, history, Latin, logic, and rhetoric. I was also a middle school principal for three years, directed several Shakespeare productions, and I got a master’s degree in educational leadership. During this time, I wrote three logic and critical thinking textbooks for middle and high school students.
In my mid-thirties, I realized I wanted to get my PhD in philosophy. I had only taken one philosophy class in college, so I spent two years studying foundational philosophical concepts and was eventually accepted to grad school where I focused on ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of education. I also started drawing and painting again in graduate school, which I hadn’t done for over twenty years.
When I graduated, I got a job teaching philosophy at a local college, and I also have been developing a program at this college that helps college students flourish.
I also began this blog.
I write all of this because if you look at my work experience, there are some recurring themes in it (teaching and learning, for example), but I have also done a lot of different jobs. They all helped me figure out, and were a part of, my purpose.
In the last two decades, I have loved a lot of my work, and I have had days, months, and years in which I didn’t know what I was doing.
I have had times I felt euphoric about work and times I felt really depressed about it.
I’ve had jobs I loved and ones in which I learned a lot but would not do again, even if someone payed me a lot of money to do them.
I’ve had jobs I was good at and jobs I was not so good at.
I am so grateful for the jobs in which I failed or suffered disappointment, and the times I felt lost and confused, because they taught me really important lessons and gave me a clearer vision of what my purpose.
Over time, I have developed a clear statement of my purpose: My purpose is to help people Live from the Inside Out to build more resilient lives–personally, inter-personally, and politically.
I pursue my purpose through teaching, writing, designing curriculum, doing art, and being a loving friend and family member.
This most recent articulation of my purpose is fairly new, but the seeds of it were sown twenty years ago and even before that. I am also pretty certain that how I articulate my purpose will change, possibly a lot, in the next twenty years, and I am excited to see where my purpose takes me.
My understanding of my purpose continues to evolve, and yours will, too.
You have a purpose, Friend, and I am so grateful you are on the planet. I need to learn from you.
Exercise for Discovering and Creating Your Purpose:
I recommend that you get a journal or a piece of paper and write the answer to some or all of these questions.
- What are five to seven activities and skills that excite and interest you the most?
- What are five to seven activities or skills that other people tell you that you are good at?
- If you could wave a magic wand and make your purpose be anything, what would you want your purpose to be?
- If you could spend a whole week doing anything you wanted that would improve both your life and the lives of people around you, what would it be?
- After answering the questions above, list your top three our four activities or skills that interest you the most and in which you have some measure of competency (or in which you could develop competency.)
- Take these three activities or skills and turn them into a sentence that declares your purpose. It’s okay if you don’t think your sentence is very good or polished. It is also okay if it changes. I will give some examples below.
- Example #1: Maybe you really like organizing things, making routines more efficient, and helping perfect and clarify ideas. Your statement of purpose might be something like this: My purpose is to help people and organizations make their procedures, routines, and values clearer and more efficient.
- Example #2: Maybe you like nurturing small children (your own and others) and making them feel safe, loved, and like they have a fun environment to explore. Your statement of purpose might be something like this: My purpose is to help children explore, learn, and develop their potential.
- Example #3: Maybe you like figuring out how to fix electrical or mechanical problems so that people’s appliances works. Your statement of purpose might be something like this: My purpose is to fix things so people can get stuff done.
- Example #4: Maybe you like contemplating deep ideas, analyzing arguments, and figuring out the best evidence for a particular claim. Your statement of purpose might be something like this: My purpose is research facts and evidence in order to determine what people should think or do about certain topics.
- Note #1: Your purpose statements may be completely different from the ones above, and they might be much simpler. For instance, your purpose statement might be as simple as these: “My purpose is to draw pictures that make people laugh” or “My purpose is to be the best friend and family member I can be.” Purpose statements like this are great, too.
- Note #2: By the way, you may write several purpose statements, and that is perfectly fine. You may also find that later you can think of a larger purpose statement that encapsulates your other purpose statements. That’s okay, too.
- I recommend you give yourself a break after you have written your purpose statement. You might also want to talk it over with some supportive friends or family members so they can give you helpful feedback on your purpose statement.
- When you are ready to do so, look at your purpose statement again. Make any changes or clarifications that you think are needed.
- Now list five to seven activities, hobbies, educational opportunities, or jobs that allow you to express your purpose as you understand it right now. (It’s okay if your understanding and articulation of your purpose change.)
- After you list these items, circle two that you would like to do and can do this year.
- Make a plan to do them and give yourself permission to learn whatever lessons these activities have for you to learn. You may find that the activities you choose perfectly express your purpose. Or you may find that they don’t fit with your purpose–these activities can steer you towards activities that are better suited for your purpose.
For Future Reference
- Consider revisiting and working through this exercise in the next couple months or however much feels right to you.
- Your purpose is something that changes and evolves, and working through exercises like this periodically can help you through the process.
This activity is not the only way to help you find your purpose, but it can help put you on your path towards finding it. Remember, your purpose is something you discover, create, and express over time.
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Stay tuned for future posts on finding your purpose. In the meantime, you might like these posts about building your confidence and learning to be kind and compassionate to yourself: