In a previous post, I outlined a process for discovering your purpose. The process is one of self-discovery, understanding your strengths, passions and values and how they can be used to serve the needs of the world. When you apply what is most powerful, motivated and moral in you to solve problems, you are likely to enjoy and be highly successful in your efforts. But what exactly is a purpose? What does it look like? How do you know when you have one?
In its simplest form, purpose is the answer to the question – “how can I be of service?” But we ask ourselves this question in two different ways:
- We ask the question in a long-term, vocational sense. What is my calling? We want a purpose that will help drive our career and our relationships. A purpose of this sort is easily expressed once you know it.
- We also ask the question in a moment-by-moment, contextual sense. How should I orient myself toward this particular situation? As our energy levels and the circumstances around us shift throughout the day, we continuously calculate how to bring the best of us to the opportunities of the moment and to serve our own and others’ needs.
Purpose as a Calling
Many of us struggle with a sense of aimlessness in our careers. We may have even landed a “good job” with high pay and reasonable hours. But the hours we do work are interminable and we feel like our lives only happen around the edges, at night and during the weekend. This is the malaise that purpose seeks to address. When you know yourself well enough to have a deep conviction about how you want to serve others, the sense of aimlessness disappears and choosing a career is suddenly a much simpler process.
Purpose is not a particular career choice. It’s the “why” of a career choice, the way we feel called to serve others. Someone who is driven to “help people recover from illness” could work as a doctor, a scientist developing new drugs, or on the cleaning staff of a hospital. But this person would likely not be fulfilled working as an investment banker, no matter how impressive the compensation. The “why” is very helpful in narrowing the list of potential careers.
Similarly, not everyone with the same career must have an identical purpose. A great doctor’s purpose could be “to help people recover from illness,” “to provide emotional support to others in their most difficult times” or “to advance the frontiers of biological knowledge.” These are a few among many potential purposes that could lead someone to pursue a career in medicine. Notice how the each purpose would shift the way the doctor approached learning, selection of a particular field and decision making on the job. Purpose as a calling helps direct the arc of our lives toward a way of contributing that resonates with our interests, skills and values.
Discovering your purpose as a calling does not necessarily imply a career change. Sometimes it helps you find meaning and redirect your actions within the career you have chosen. For example, an executive who discovers that his purpose is to “help younger people succeed in their careers” could make a dramatic career change and become a career counselor, a university professor or a professional coach. But, he could also serve the same purpose in his current role. By shifting the way he approached his work and how he spent his time to align with his purpose, he could become more effective and fulfilled without having to change jobs.
Organizations operate best when their people are using their strengths and are highly motivated. If for some reason, the executive’s shift in focus to align with his purpose complicated his ability to honor all of his prior commitments, he would have to work with his team to make sure they were covered by someone who felt strong and passionate in those areas. In so doing, he would be shifting work from a less motivated and less skilled actor (himself) to a more skilled and more motivated actor, thereby strengthening his and his team’s commitment to the organization.
Purpose in the moment
Even when you feel like you have a calling, a way you feel compelled to help others, you are still confronted moment-to-moment with the decision of what to do. The deep self-knowledge of the purpose process helps orient you to this decision. The same way of thinking about your calling is helpful here. “How can I best be of service using my strengths, harnessing my passions and acting in accordance with my values?” But rather than use that question to build a context for your life, for example working in medicine, you use it within the context of a given moment.
In this case, there is not a single purpose that can be written down or simply expressed because your context changes so dramatically throughout the day. Whom and how you can help shifts with circumstance. You deal with a happy customer, then with a troubled family member, then a coworker who is struggling, then you work on a presentation. Each of these individual moments is informed by a calling, but is not strictly bound to it. The doctor whose broader purpose is “to provide emotional support to others in their most difficult times” doesn’t seek to do that directly when she is, say, at the playground with her children.
While a calling bigger than yourself and therefore externally focused is a necessary ingredient for a fulfilling life, sometimes it is important to turn your energy inward and serve yourself. You can best serve a self-transcendent, broader purpose when you are motivated, rested, in good health and happy. “Looking out for #1” is not selfish, it’s an important part of your contribution to the world, provided it does not become “only looking out for #1.” Because self-care is necessary for success, you should remember to include your own needs in your moment-to-moment assessments. Athletes monitor their energy levels and rest, take breaks and seek treatment to enhance their performance in the service of their broader aim of helping their team win a championship. The same monitoring of your own needs will help you, like an all-star athlete, better serve your broader purpose.
Using purpose to navigate life
The purpose process – seeking to understand your strengths, passions and values and to use them to serve others – is like navigating a ship. Your calling is your destination. Toward what distant point are you headed? Simply knowing your broader purpose won’t get you there. Along the way, you must continuously course correct. The moment-to-moment assessment of purpose enables you to make these small corrections.
Your deep self knowledge is like a map and compass that enable your decisions along the way. There are many routes to a final destination. Sometimes you are blown off course by the elements, sometimes you go off course due to your own actions. In either case, it is up to you to remind yourself of the destination, regain control and course correct. Like Columbus, you may be heading somewhere no one you know has ever been. You may even alter your destination point along the way as you gain new information about yourself and and the seas you’re navigating.
Without purpose, in the face of disturbances and distractions, you’d be blown about the sea endlessly. Each storm would be an individual problem, lacking greater meaning and thus pointless. With purpose, storms are still difficult to navigate and require courage, but they are imbued with meaning. Purpose transforms storms from suffering to opportunity. Each storm you survive hones your skills and brings you closer to your destination. You will know you have found your purpose when you begin to view the storms of your life not as needless pain, but as a necessary part of navigating the route you have chosen with deep conviction.