Purpose//

We Need to Stop Asking ‘How Do I Find My Purpose?’

An expert explains what we should be asking instead.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Treating our purpose, whether personal or professional, as something out in the world waiting to be stumbled upon may make it harder to actually find it, according to an insightful piece on the Harvard Business Review.

Writer John Coleman, co-author of the book Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, says that since publishing the book in 2011, hundreds of people of all ages have sought his advice on this topic. But Coleman argues people are getting it wrong: “we’re suffering from what I see as fundamental misconceptions about purpose,” he writes, something that is “neatly encapsulated by the question I receive most frequently: ‘How do I find my purpose?’”

That’s not the question we should be asking for three main reasons, he writes. First of all, it presumes that our purpose is out there waiting to be found (something he calls the “Hollywood version” of finding your calling) and it suggests that people have just one purpose that never changes over the course of their lives.

Coleman writes that in reality, purpose is more fluid and dynamic than we think. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but one specific takeaway is the idea that we have to build our purpose, rather than find it.

Finding purpose, ala the Hollywood version, means that “we’re all just moving through life waiting until fate delivers a higher calling to us,” he writes. And while that can happen, for most people, “searching for the silver bullet to give life meaning is more likely to end in frustration than fulfillment,” he writes.

Instead, we should focus on ways to build purpose in our lives right now. Coleman writes, “in achieving professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it.” Another way to put it: “purpose is a thing you can build, not a thing you can find.” That means “almost any work can possess remarkable purpose,” he adds. You just need to be intentional in how you think about your job.

While some jobs “more naturally lend themselves to sense of meaning,” he writes, “many require at least some deliberate effort to invest them with the purpose we seek.” He points to school bus drivers, nurses and cashiers—all roles that are purposeful. “But in each of these instances,” he writes, “purpose is often primarily derived from focusing on what’s so meaningful and purposeful about the job and on doing it in such a way that meaning is enhanced and takes center stage.”

Asking how to find purpose isn’t the question we should be asking. “We should be looking to endow everything we do with purpose, to allow for multiple sources of meaning that will naturally develop in our lives, and to be comfortable with those changing over time.”

Read more on Harvard Business Review. 

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