It’s one of the first questions we ask as kids –
And it’s one of the biggest questions we ask as adults –
“Why am I here?”
Why am I in the job I’m in? Am I really making a difference there? Why do I still feel empty, even when I’m “successful”? Why do I feel as if I’m missing something huge in my life?
If you’re asking “why,” you’re not alone. Most of us have asked “why” at one time or another. And if you’re having trouble answering your “why” – keep reading.
The biggest reason a person can’t answer “why” is because they don’t really know what they’re looking for.
What is purpose?
- Is it a specific plan to use your specific, unique skills to help others in a specific way?
- Is it a general theme in your life to improve others’ lives? Something like: “Share hope,” “Be generous,” “Spread love”?
- Does it change? Is it constant?
Science shows that, whatever purpose is, it’s vital: In a new study led by University College London, Princeton University, and Stony Brook University, researchers found that individuals with a sense of purpose live 2 years longer on average than individuals without a sense of purpose.
So purpose, then, isn’t optional.
Your “why” can’t just sit unanswered.
Thankfully, while your purpose is unique to you, it isn’t something you have to discover all alone.
Below are the top 5 questions I personally use to help my clients identify and live their life purpose. Feel free to use them to discover your own purpose, and start your purpose journey.
1) What is the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done for someone else?
Why was it rewarding?
The first step in identifying your purpose is to recognize that your purpose is not a job title.
It’s bigger than that.
If your purpose was just a job title, you’d lose your purpose when you lost your job.
If your purpose was just a title, it’d be too small to really make a difference as the world changes, as technology advances, as you grow as a person.
Your purpose is bigger than that.
Your purpose is big enough to take you through the changing seasons of life.
Your purpose is meaningful enough to give you reason to be excited even in the hardest seasons.
Your purpose is your impact on others.
Let me say that again:
Your purpose is your impact on others.
Your purpose is independent of the job you hold, the industry you work in, the location you live, or the people around you.
Of course, some jobs make it easier to help others. Some places to live make it easier to become part of a community that helps others. But that’s not the point.
The point is: you can’t start with “What job should I have?” or “Where should I live?”
You have to start with “What kind of impact do I make on others?”
Starting with “What job should I have?” is like a doctor asking you, “Would you like Advil or Lactase?” without asking you what your symptoms are or what’s making you sick. You can’t find the right cure without knowing the disease.
So ask yourself, “What’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done for someone else? Why was it rewarding?”
- Did you cook meals all week for a friend who was recovering from surgery?
- Did you help your grandparents record their memories in a journal or scrapbook?
- Did you stay up all night talking to a friend who was going through a difficult time, reminding them they aren’t alone?
If you’re feeling purposeless in your life right now, chances are you haven’t had opportunity to impact others in a way that is natural to you recently.
So the first step to finding your purpose again is to understand how you best impact others – and then, you can start looking for the best job, best neighbourhood, and best relationships to maximize that impact.
2) How do others describe your impact on their life?
Sometimes, others can see clearly what we’re unable to see ourselves.
While you may feel like that night staying up with your friend was a big deal, to them, it may have been a lifesaver.
While you may not realize you’re unusually encouraging, others may feel huge relief when you tell them they aren’t alone and you’re on their side.
While you may not see your own impact, others may see it incredibly clearly. So when finding your purpose, it’s important to consider the things others have told you about your impact on their life.
You can look at two categories of impact: obvious and less-obvious.
Obvious impact includes:
- Things people have specifically thanked you for
- Words your friends use to introduce you
- Stories of times you helped your friends or family that they bring up repeatedly
Less-obvious impact includes:
- Times you’ve noticed you improved someone’s mood
- What your friends or family say if you ask them, “How would you describe me in one word?”
- Volunteer or work positions where your boss has been sad to see you go
If you write down what comes to mind with each of these points, soon, you’ll start to see a common thread emerge: the impact you have on others.
3) If you had all the time in the world to volunteer, who would you volunteer for?
Again, your purpose directly relates to your impact on others.
Where would you volunteer? A rainforest preserve? A third-world school? A political change organization? A local animal shelter? An orphanage? A summer camp for kids? A senior home? An orphanage?
This isn’t to determine your ideal job. You might not be able to (or want to) take a job on a rainforest preserve. This question will tell you a little about the causes closest to your heart: what would you go all-out to support? What do you want to change in the world? What do you care deeply about?
The reason I say “volunteer” and not “donate money” is because volunteering is work. You have early mornings and late nights. You don’t always have ideal conditions: sometimes there’s no AC or bland food. You have to have a bigger motive than just “do something good” to survive as a volunteer.
Your bigger motive: your purpose.
What kind of impact do you want to make in the world?
You may not be able to go work at an orphanage, but maybe your passion is helping people who feel alone know they’re loved. That’s a great start to finding your purpose.
4) What moments in your life have been the hardest?
Often, our hardships become our “causes.”
If you were bullied as a child, you probably are against bullying now – more so than someone who never experienced bullying.
If you had a natural disaster destroy your home, you probably want to help others who have experienced the same loss rebuild their lives.
If you had a loved one die of a disease, you probably want to help fundraise for a cure.
The hardest things in life become the things we want to change in the world. We don’t want others to experience the same pain we did.
The key is, once again, not limiting your purpose to “cure cancer” or “stop bullying.”
You have to dig deeper.
Why was it hard?
You may not be able to go help people rebuild their lives after a natural disaster. But maybe you realize that the natural disaster was traumatic because you lost possessions that were connected to precious memories. Maybe you realize you cherished the little moments in life, and you loved remembering them, and your purpose is to help others cherish life too – whether that’s making memories, or archiving memories so they aren’t forgotten.
Or maybe losing your home to a natural disaster was hard because nobody educated you on the insurance process for rebuilding your life. Maybe it was hard because you felt helpless, alone, and overwhelmed for months as you tried to sort through things. You may not be able to help others with the insurance process after a natural disaster, but you can help people who feel overwhelmed and alone in other situations know they aren’t alone.
5) When you look back on these years, what do you want to remember?
It’s cliche, but it’s true: if you want to know what to do today, imagine talking with your future self.
We often don’t realize the long-term impact of our actions. And we often forget how quickly time passes. One directionless day after another will turn into a directionless year; and while you’d like to see yourself as someone who helps others, if two or three years pass and you do nothing to help others, you’ll look back and regret that wasted time.
Instead, ask yourself:
“10 years from now, what will I want to look back on? What will I want to remember?”
Will you want to remember organizing a charity event to fund a local school’s theater and music program? Will you want to remember working alongside your coworkers to create a new project to help your clients more efficiently? Will you want to remember staying up late prepping for a friend’s surprise 35th birthday party?
What will you want to remember?
It doesn’t matter if the moments you want to remember are “big” or “small.”
One “small” moment can save someone’s life. It can turn someone’s perspective around. It can give someone the confidence to speak up for someone who’s hurting. The domino effect is a real thing, and “small” moments can change the world.
“Big” moments aren’t necessarily impossible, either. If you’d started on your biggest dream 5 years ago, wouldn’t you be closer today? The time will pass anyway. If you have a “big” dream, don’t write it off as “too big.”
What is a purpose? A purpose is a way that you impact others.
A purpose is the thing that keeps you going when life is hard.
A purpose is the thing that lets you know that your work is worthwhile.
A purpose is how you know you’re changing the world: because you’re changing lives, one human at a time.
What’s your purpose?