Try This 4-Part Exercise to Clarify Your Purpose

Your life's meaning is what you make it. Here are four elements to consider in your pursuit of a more purposeful career.

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Sandra Kaas / Unsplash
Sandra Kaas / Unsplash

I spent my twenties job-hopping in millennial fashion: four roles at four different companies in eight short years. 

Goldilocks is less selective than me, and to this day, I’m firmly against settling.

But I also have a better understanding of the ingredient that matters most in making career decisions stick, and that’s purpose. The concept of purpose has taken on near mythological proportions in recent years.

In my twenties I thought purpose was something special, a gift bestowed upon you by the career gods, and that you would just know if you had one—kind of like falling in love.

I didn’t just know my purpose, so for me there was only external achievement: a ladder, salary and title goals, and that was that.

Unsurprisingly, I was not satisfied. Quietly, underneath it all, my soul was craving more. I told myself that “one day” I’d figure out what I really wanted, which allowed me to ignore the issue—until I hit a rough patch. My employer was rocked by a bad financial year, and nearly thirty percent of the team was laid off. 

I survived, but suddenly it felt as if “one day” was coming to find me, and I didn’t know what to do. How could I create a vision for my future that felt equal parts soul-satisfying and practical? 

It took time and introspection, but my confusion ultimately led me to a new understanding of the ‘p-word.’ I realized that purpose is a feeling, not a label that you are meant to find and wear. Purpose is something that we choose for ourselves, and cultivate as we grow. 

So, how do you choose? For me, there are four components to experiencing a sense of purpose, which can be summed up like so: 

You are using your unique skills, in a way that you enjoy and which enables the life you envision, in service of something greater than yourself.

Let’s break that down.

1. Establish your vision. 

On a basic level, what do you need to survive? Now dream a little. What do you need to thrive? There’s no point playing small, if you’re potentially changing your whole life to pursue this path. Think about where you’d like to live, what you need to earn, how many hours you’d like to work and the support you’d ideally have.

Your vision should look and feel exciting, otherwise, what’s the point? Emotions drive behavior. If you’re not feeling love for a decision deep inside, you’re more susceptible to falling off track. When I decided to transition, my top priorities were flexibility and freedom of location; it seemed likely I would go out on my own in search of full independence. Most importantly, I wanted to do work that satisfied me, which leads us to the next idea. 

2. Decide how you’d like to spend your time.

If we’re aiming for soul satisfaction, the kind of happiness that comes from doing and not only achieving, then this is perhaps the most important piece. What feeds you? Where is the best exchange for your energy, and what brings you joy? This does not have to map to what you currently do for a living! There are many ways to monetize the activities you love, or to engineer more of them in your day. First identify what is you’d like to expand, and allow the answer to surprise you.

My key insight came as I was leaving a party. It was a big group gathering in a city where I’d recently moved, and I felt as alone leaving as I had coming. Reflecting on this, it occurred to me how much I value intimate one-on-one connection with others—to the point where I’d spend all day in deep conversation if I could. This was a clue.

3. Figure out how you can create value. 

What practical skills do you have that complement the activities you enjoy? I’m willing to bet you’ll find some overlap. My own career, for example, was heavily oriented toward user research. I was an empathetic listener, practiced at interviewing and observing people in order to learn about their needs. Not far off from what I loved doing in my personal, one-on-one conversations. 

I both enjoyed and had a knack for listening to others, helping them to feel understood and listening for insights that might inspire action. At the time, that skill lent itself to specifying software features, but I wondered how else I might apply it.

4. Combine your skills and interests in service of a bigger picture. 

So, I’d enjoy working for myself, connecting with others and helping them to feel understood. I identified coaching as a potential path forward based on this awareness. But who would I coach, and how would I differentiate myself? This is where lived experience comes into play. 

Think about the industries, problem sets or groups of people that you know best. How can you combine your skills and interests in order to solve one of their issues? With my background in advertising and technology, I’d seen firsthand how people and performance suffer in high-stress environments, so I decided to focus my attention on industries where my own experience had created empathy. 

Today, I get paid to be in intimate connection with others, as a coach helping the working world navigate stress. My chief requirements are met, and I’m connected to a sense of purpose that fuels me through challenges.

There’s never been a better time to pivot, and there are problems that you can solve in a way that will feed your soul. 

If you can identify just one step in the right direction—like investing in a book on your interest or reaching out to someone inspiring—you will be on your path.

Finding and living your purpose is a process, but that’s the point. 

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