Discovering your life purpose can have profound effects on your career and guide your decision-making in all areas of your life. But many people don't know where to start in finding theirs. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
What is a purpose?
A purpose statement can be like a North Star, guiding our decisions and preventing us losing a sense of who we really are in a world where there are a billion perspectives and a deluge of options. It is your raison d'etre, and the answer to the big "why" of your life.
Here are a few examples of different purpose statements. You’ll notice that all of them are timeless and aren’t specific to any areas of life.
My purpose is to:
- Simplify complexity
- Be a creator of opportunity
- Make big things happen
- Leave the planet in a better condition than I found it
- Unlock brilliance in others
Personally, I describe my purpose as “to be an enabler of happier lives.” This links all of my passions; when I’m living my purpose, I am learning, working with teams and supporting others in fulfilling their potential - all things I love to do. Another example of a purpose statement comes from Steve Jobs, whose passion for world-changing technology and innovation matched his belief that he was here to ‘make a dent in the universe’.
Why bother with a purpose statement?
I’ve seen some incredible transformations in people who have found their purpose and allowed themselves to be guided by it. From changing roles, changing careers, moving house or deciding to start a family. This exercise really does give you a chance to take stock of your life and question what is and isn’t working.
My work often involves coaching business leaders to help them discover their personal purpose and lead their teams in a way that feels true to themselves and their own values. When these leaders discover their purpose and live true to it, something very powerful can happen. They often lead more effectively, with more conviction, a stronger vision and fresh energy.
And yet, according to Harvard Business School, fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their individual purpose; something the School is addressing through its business programmes:
“Articulating your purpose and finding the courage to live it… is the single most important developmental task you can undertake as a leader.”
How do I find my purpose?
Below are some simple steps* to start the process of finding your purpose. I’m sure there are other ways of approaching this but I’ve found these guidelines effective.
1. Work with a buddy
I would recommend enlisting a trusted friend, colleague or coach to help you throughout the process of finding your purpose. Their role is to help you complete the below exercises authentically, drilling down into your thinking and extracting sincere and profound answers. You can also make this a two-way experience, simultaneously helping them to find their purpose.
2. Answer these questions
The first step is about identifying the areas of life that have the most meaning to you. With your buddy, talk through your answers to as many of the questions below as possible.
Note down all your answers and don’t filter out the ones that seem irrelevant or the things you haven’t done in ages. Equally, don’t rule out things that you have never done before. If you feel a connection to an idea, no matter how far-fetched, it could be that it sits within your true passions and can therefore help bring clarity in discovering your purpose.
What are you most passionate about?
When are you most fulfilled?
What energises you?
What or who inspires you and why?
When do you get so lost in doing something that you lose track of the time?
What do you love?
What brings most meaning to your life?
What do others think you are good at?
In what situations do people ask for your help and advice?
If you had to teach something what would it be?
What did you want to do when you were younger?
If you weren’t on this life path, what would you like to be doing instead?
What stages of your life have you enjoyed the most?
What would you regret not fully doing, being or having in your life?
What would you do with your life if money was no object?
When are you in flow?
3. Make a list of what you love
Now review your answers to these questions and start to identify the responses that have the greatest emotional charge. Your goal is to create a list of activities and passions from the answers to these questions. Try not to prioritise any of your answers based on what you think should be important. (For instance, things you do to look after others or pay the mortgage). This is all about what makes your heart sing, rather than “doing your duty”.
As examples, your list may include things like: painting, writing, singing, sports, presenting, helping in the community or inventing things. Which of these do you value most?
4. Look for themes
Once you have decided your true passions go one level deeper and start to think about the themes behind them. What is it you love about each of them? Perhaps your love of painting relates to an overall desire to be creative. If travelling is top of your list, is it the learning opportunities that discovering new cultures provides, or is it more about freedom and adventure for you? Perhaps you love organising parties and events. This could link to a deeper passion for connecting people. Whatever your passions, you are likely to find some common themes emerging from the goals and activities you have listed.
5. How to get to a working purpose statement
“It’s not what you think it should be. It’s who you can’t help being.”
The next step can be the most challenging as it is now time to identify your purpose. There is no singular way to do this, as purpose statements arise in different ways for different people but working through all or some of the steps below with your buddy should help guide you there:
Look at the themes you identified above collectively. Can you find any deeper meaning within them that relates to who you really are and what you love? Or what you feel you were born to be and why you are here?
From here, write down the words “my purpose is to…” and start jotting down the phrases that come naturally. You’ll probably find that the themes and passions themselves will not feature in your statement but the purpose will likely apply to all or most of them.
If a few suggestions come to mind, don’t rule any out. Write them all down and then, listening to your heart, rather than your head, underline the one that feels right.
Perhaps your purpose will jump out at you straight away but if it doesn’t, don’t worry. You may need to come back to these notes several times before you find a statement you are satisfied with.
Whatever purpose you land on should feel timeless and widely applicable to all areas of your life. A lot of people begin by hooking their purpose to specific areas, (e.g. to make a better future for my children). The likelihood is that your purpose transcends all domains of your life. It will innately contribute to your family’s happiness but their happiness will not be your purpose.
Once you have a purpose statement that sits well with you, you could discuss it with close friends, family, mentors or colleagues. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you get a response like, “Yes, that is what you’re about!”.
Keep refining this statement over time until it feels at its strongest, living with a version of it for a while, seeing how it informs your decisions and influences your life. Then revisit it. It is likely it will evolve but unlikely that it will change completely. For instance, my first version was ‘to help other people find their potential’. This shifted to “inspire others to use their potential” which didn’t quite work for me. Finally, I found the phrase “an enabler of happier lives”, which feels just right and energises everything I do.
I’d love to hear any questions you have around this and what your experience has been in determining your purpose.
*I don’t take credit for inventing this discovery process; these suggestions are widely recognised techniques in my field. My own excellent coach Ben Renshaw helped me discover my purpose and has worked in this area for many years. You can read more about Harvard’s approach to purpose identification and business impact here.