In working with hundreds of professionals each year who long to build happier, more meaningful careers, so many have shared some version of this specific challenge:
“Kathy, I have no idea what my life purpose is. I want the work I do every day to be more meaningful and useful in the world, but I just can’t figure out what my purpose is, no matter how hard I try.”
Men and women alike have shared that they believe they’ll finally experience the excitement, passion and success they dream of if they could only figure out once and for all the true purpose of their life. And they want to discover one ultimate direction they should be pursuing that would make them happiest.
The problem with this way of framing life purpose is that you’ll never identify it in a useful, practical way if you’re constantly looking for the answer to “What is my life purpose?”
What questions should you be asking instead?
What people tend to mean when they ask the life purpose question is this:
What activities would infuse my life with more joy and meaning?
What should I be doing with my time and my abilities that would be helpful and make a difference?
What direction(s) should I be pursuing that will feel better to me than this boring, meaningless work I’m engaged in now that leaves me feeling empty?
How can I stop feeling that I’m wasting my time in work that is just a paycheck and nothing more?
And what can I do in my time off from work that will help me feel my life matters more?
I do believe that each of us can identify a key, overarching purpose of our lives and live from that knowledge, and doing so is helpful and positive. And I’ve seen that when we do, we open the door to experiencing more joy, peace, satisfaction and positive energy.
But I’ve also found that discovering your “purpose” doesn’t necessarily look and feel like what people fantasize about.
It’s not the antidote for all the things that are wrong in your life, and all the ways you waste your time with activities that you’d rather not be doing.
That’s something you have to address now through closing the seven damaging power gaps that keep us from living the life we want. And it requires building much stronger boundaries, speaking up more assertively, and accessing more power, control, and authority over our own lives.
Below are three simple ways you can identify your life purpose, and start leveraging it powerfully today in what you’re doing both professionally and personally:
1. Understand what “life purpose” truly is
There have been many definitions of “life purpose” over the years, but the one key definition that seems to engage and enliven people the most is this:
Your life purpose is one, unifying theme or idea that exemplifies your key goals in life, a theme that has been evident almost from the beginning of your life. It’s the specific way in which you engage with life that makes use of all that you are and draws on your unique experiences, talents, abilities, and interests in a way that helps you achieve your highest goals while being of service of others.
One way to begin to identify your life purpose is to make a thorough review of everything you’ve ever done that has brought meaning, joy and fulfillment along with a sense of knowing why you’re on the planet at this time. Then you’ll want to intersect that with identifying how that meaning and fulfillment was tied to being of service — to another person, to your family or friends, to your community, organization, or to the world at large.
Make it very simple and straightforward, and don’t overcomplicate it. And realize that it can have a “self-oriented” focus, meaning that it can be about where you personally find joy.
Here are some great examples of my clients’ definition of their life purpose:
To be a catalyst for positive change in people’s lives.
To help people realize the light they have inside of them.
To bring order and calm to chaos.
To help organizations achieve their highest goals in the most effective way possible.
To turn my “mess into a message” and help others bypass my painful mistakes.
To help organizations lead and manage people more positively.
To bring joy and laughter through humor.
To nurture my creative talents and help others find theirs.
To be a loudspeaker for messages that need to be shared.
… and the list goes on and on.
To identify your life purpose, connect the dots from your childhood onward and discover who you’ve always been that makes a positive difference in people’s lives. (And if you have no idea how you make a positive difference to the people around you, go ahead and ask them to tell you how.)
2. Honor what you love to do and begin to move away from what exhausts and drains you
We can’t feel and honor our life purpose when we’re bogged down every minute of the day with activities we hate to engage in, with people we don’t respect. For instance, during my last years in corporate life, it took all the energy I could muster simply to get through the day at this toxic workplace that drained and demoralized me. Only when I finally left all that behind and said “Yes!” to myself and to the idea of transforming my career to something I’d be proud of, did my sense of life purpose emerge much more clearly. That was possible only when I took action that honored my own needs and values.
The key to uncovering your life purpose is to start behaving as if you’re worthy enough to have one.
Start saying “no” to work you hate. Redraw your boundaries. Tell your narcissistic “friend” that you simply won’t tolerate this behavior any longer. Share what I call your “dirty little secret” (that secret that lives within you that you’ve been afraid to let anyone know) with someone you trust who is safe. Let go of what keeps you in shame and humiliation. Stand your ground and become a person who demonstrates self-worth, self-esteem, and self-confidence.
Once you find the bravery to do that (and get some outside help if you can’t do it alone), the positive qualities within you that bring you a sense of meaning and purpose will be amplified and allowed to shine more brightly.
3. Recognize new ways in which you’d like to be of help
Virtually everyone I’ve worked with who has a clear sense of life purpose is focused on being of service in some key way that supports others. This can be through the way they parent or teach, or their personal hobbies, or volunteering for a cause that matters to them, or doing work (either in their full-time role or as a consultant, private practitioner, or in a side hustle) that makes them feel alive and of use.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have to be honoring your life purpose every minute of the day.
You are your life purpose. It’s not a particular action or career.
It’s in how you live, how you engage with others, how you speak, how you support growth and positivity, and how you use your talents that adds something of value.
If you feel you’re very far away of recognizing your life purpose, start with identifying one new way you can do something that lights you up. Joy is the way to finding your purpose. No one who’s miserable, exhausted, rageful, and beleaguered can find the energy to even feel or see their purpose. The quickest path to identifying and leveraging your life purpose is through doing things that bring you joy and enhance your life experience.
That’s the best and surest way to discover a compelling purpose and a set of overarching life goals that will nourish you and others around you, now and in the future.
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