A reader asks:
I struggle with being a bit aimless and lost and would like help finding my purpose in life. I’ve been successful in many traditional senses of the word (good career and financially successful, happy marriage and good relationship with my adult children, etc.) but I’m always envious of those people who have a real calling or strong sense of purpose… I realize it’s a big question, but any suggestions?
I get a lot of questions like this. But I’ve avoided writing about purpose and finding your purpose because, to be honest, I find it kind of daunting. It’s such a big, complex topic!
But the more I reflect on it, I think I might have some useful thoughts that, even if they don’t give anything close to a comprehensive account of purpose, at the very least might help you to think a little more clearly about purpose and how to find it. And that’s a start.
So here goes… 11 questions that will help you start to find your purpose.
1. What are your values?
Values are qualities or ideals that guide and motivate you. Compassion, for example, might be a value for you, or adventurousness, or curiosity. While values and purpose are distinct concepts, my hunch is that the more clarity you have about the things that really matter most in your life—your values—the closer you will be to understanding what your purpose is.
Doing some values clarification might be a good place to start.
2. What are your consistent preferences?
Preferences are simply things you enjoy.
- I usually prefer staying in and reading a good book vs going out on a Friday night.
- I prefer working at small, newly formed companies because the relationships tend to be more intimate and there’s more excitement.
There’s a good chance your purpose is something you’re going to have to pursue and work at consistently over a length of time. And it seems to me that you’ll only be able to do this successfully if it’s aligned with a lot of your more innate and enduring preferences.
3. What makes you curious?
If preferences are the things you enjoy, then curiosities are the things that get you excited. And I would imagine that having sustained excitement and enthusiasm is a pretty key ingredient for a purpose in life. So, pay attention to what types of things stimulate curiosity and what types of things really bore you.
For example: If you find yourself constantly watching YouTube videos about space and the cosmos, maybe helping other people learn and get inspired by nature is part of your purpose?
4. What gives you energy?
If you look at people who have a strong sense of purpose in their life and are pursuing it, one of the things you’ll notice is how much energy they have.
I suspect this is because working in alignment with your purpose is energy net positive—that is, while it certainly takes a lot of energy to work toward your purpose, ultimately you’ll get more energy than you expend.
So pay attention to energy givers (and takers) in your life:
- Does socializing with other people give you energy or drain it? Are there specific types of people or social situations that give or take energy?
- Do you get energy from solving specific problems? Or helping people? Or being creative?
- Does a lot of structure in your life add or subtract from your energy levels?
- Like a good exercise regimen, what types of work leave you tired but satisfied?
- What activities feel easy to you but seem difficult for others?
Whatever your life’s purpose is, chances are good it contains a high percentage of energy-giving work.
5. Who are your heroes?
Who and what we admire often contain clues to what our own purpose might be.
- If you tend to admire activists and people who champion social justice, that could signal that your own purpose in that realm. Of course, it doesn’t mean your purpose is to become a social justice advocate, necessarily. Maybe your purpose is to use your talents with technology to start a company that builds software tools and infrastructure for local social justice causes.
- If you tend to admire artists, what is it about them that’s so compelling? Is it that they spend their days working with their hands? Is it because they’re always looking to shake people out of their usual perspectives?
Here’s a simple exercise that only takes a few minutes:
- Make a list of all the people you admire.
- Sort those people into categories or themes.
- Take the category or theme with the most people in it and ask yourself: *What connects all these people? And what is it about that connecting idea or theme that’s so compelling to me? *
6. What do other people admire or appreciate about you?
Sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves.
And understanding what other people admire or value about you seems pretty relevant to discovering your purpose.
Now, it might feel awkward, but try this:
- Make a list of 3-5 people whom you admire and know you pretty well.
- Send each of them a short text or email saying something like: “Hey, I’m doing this exercise around personal development and clarifying my purpose, and one of the assignments is to ask people who know me well to share one or two things they admire about me… Would you be up for that—sharing one or two things you admire about me? Doesn’t have to be long, like 3-5 sentences max. Thanks!”
- Look for patterns.
7. What are your deep frustrations?
We all have everyday frustrations and annoyances.
But deep frustrations are when you consistently get frustrated or angry about something of significance.
- Maybe reading articles in the news about local politics always gets you frustrated and riled up.
- Maybe you seem to get especially frustrated anytime you’re at a social gathering and the topic of gun control arises?
- Maybe you get incredibly angry and frustrated at work by how inefficient the processes and procedures are in your workplace?
The key insight here is that frustrations tell you something about what you’re really passionate about, which means they can be pretty good clues to discovering your purpose.
In other words, your purpose might be working to solve one of your deep frustrations.
8. What is your shadow work?
Shadow work is work you’re doing because it allows you to avoid facing up to the work you really should be doing but are deeply afraid of.
- For me, writing blog posts is shadow work against writing a book. It doesn’t mean writing blog posts is bad necessarily, but if I get stuck in a habit of using them as a way to avoid working on something much more important (and terrifying) like writing a book, well, that’s shadow work.
- Or, maybe you spend a lot of time watching/reading the news, especially about politics. While it feels productive or important in the moment, it’s possible that political news consumption is shadow work against getting directly involved in politics yourself.
Identifying your shadow work is important because, like deep frustrations, it can point toward the things you really care about deeply, which are likely strong indicators of purpose.
Put another way, your purpose may well involve the real work you’re procrastinating on with shadow work.
9. How would you like to be remembered when you’re dead?
Try the eulogy exercise…
- Imagine you’re witnessing your own funeral.
- Three people stand up and give eulogies about you, praising you and what you accomplished in your life.
- In an ideal world, what would those people say about you?
This is yet another way to get at the things that matter most to you. By filtering your life through the perspective of your future legacy, you can often get more clarity about what you actually want to spend your time in this life doing.
10. Maybe you have more than one purpose?
When people talk about finding their purpose, it’s almost always a purpose rather than multiple purposes.
But I don’t see why we can’t have many purposes rather than one big purpose.
In fact, it’s possible that what’s holding you back from identifying and chasing after your purposes is the mistaken belief that everyone has to have one big overarching purpose in their life. Because while that might be true for some people, that’s no reason to assume it should be for you.
- One of my purposes in life is to be a great dad and raise curious and kind kids.
- But another purpose is to teach people to think more clearly about their emotional health.
- And one purpose I had, but outgrew, was to be a famous archeologist (this was from the ages of 6-10, when I thought archaeologist = Indiana Jones 🙂
My point sharing these little examples is to introduce three somewhat counter cultural ways of thinking about purpose:
- You can have many purposes, not just one.
- You can have purposes of various sizes or “weights.”
- You can have different purposes at different stages of life.
11. What’s the purpose of your purpose?
Finally, it’s worth reflecting on the following question:
Why is it important to me that I find my purpose(s)?
I say this because a lot of people fall into the trap of putting purpose up on a pedestal hoping that, if they can just figure that out, it will address all their other challenges.
- If I knew my purpose, I wouldn’t procrastinate so much.
- If I knew my purpose, I wouldn’t feel so depressed anymore.
- If I knew my purpose, I’d have more energy and enthusiasm.
- If I knew my purpose, I could leave this lousy job I’m stuck in.
- If I knew my purpose, I wouldn’t feel so alone and empty.
Now, I’m sure discovering or clarifying your purpose would have some effect on all of these. But I think it’s a mistake to imagine it would solve them.
You don’t have to read many biographies of successful people with a clear sense of purpose to realize it’s no panacea for life’s challenges. If anything, many of your challenges in life might increase if you had and started working toward a bigger purpose!
So, take your time and reflect on the deeper why and motivations behind finding your purpose.