Finding your purpose means discerning a point at which your strengths, talents, interests (or beliefs) come together, to indicate a direction and/or course of action in your life.
Your purpose should be congruent with your values and provide something of value to humanity.
Finding your purpose is a process, rather than a single exercise; very few people come to ‘know’ their purpose intuitively or through a flash of insight.
To do good, to care for those around you, to serve someone or something, to create with your hands, to entertain or inform others… Your purpose is what you like to do and what drives you. It should eventually give you a sense of worth.
Necessarily, this makes it an activity that excites you and seems meaningful to you. A person’s purpose is often closely linked to their choice of profession or occupation. For this reason, it’s fair to say that a sense of purpose can only begin to emerge with time, life experience, and a degree of maturity.
Not about happiness
Knowing your purpose isn’t about finding happiness, but it should give you a sense of fulfilment or value in life.
American philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said that the purpose of life “is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Finding your purpose
Finding your purpose is a process, rather than a single exercise. Most of us struggle with this; very few people come to ‘know’ their purpose intuitively or through a flash of insight. In this sense, purpose would not be a fixed point, as it can evolve and change over time. Learning, experience, and understanding ourselves all contribute to this process.
Standard advice about finding your purpose tells you, for example, to focus on what you have, to do things that inspire you, and to expand your range of experiences by trying new things. This is sound guidance if you are feeling directionless and without motivation in life, and it gives you a starting point.
However, one’s sense of purpose tends to be related to aspects of our being which are existential or philosophical, rather than practical. It is through doing things that we experience personal growth. If all goes well, we discover the things that give meaning to life, and eventually our purpose. So it is more of a spiritual exercise than a practical one.
This is an unfolding process and far more subtle than simply completing a ‘to-do’ list of activities. Our sense of purpose is defined by who we are deep down, not what we do. It guides us in our choices, behaviour, and actions.
Doing the actions by, for example, trying new things, exploring your passions, or being part of a community will help you to develop as a person. They are laudable and a great way to begin your search for purpose but, in themselves, they are not enough.
It’s a quest
Finding your purpose is a personal quest guided by curiosity and courage. You need curiosity to begin asking yourself about your purpose in the first place, to understand your strengths, and to work out what inspires you (and what doesn’t). It takes courage to be willing to look at yourself honestly so you can understand your limitations and any areas in life where you need to develop new skills or understanding, and where you ‘could do better’.
Having said that, finding your purpose is a legitimate exercise so long as you regard it as a process of personal growth, rather than a set of exercises leading to a particular goal. If you feel the need to understand your purpose, here are three ideas that might help you think your way through it:
1) What does ‘purpose’ mean to you?
One way to throw some light on this would be to ask yourself what will change for you when you have found your purpose. Will it provide direction, or help with decision-making, for example? Purpose is abstract, it means something different to each of us. Having a clearer idea about what it means for you can be a useful starting point.
2) What will it enable you to do, that you can’t do now?
If you are thinking about your purpose, does this mean you are waiting for an answer; feeling that you can’t progress until you find your purpose? If so, you could have a long wait, so while you are waiting why not move forward anyway?
3) Focus on today
Struggling to find your purpose can give you the idea that something is missing in your life. This may or may not be true, but it isn’t very motivating. Instead, focus on the day ahead, on being useful, on what you are good at and, above all, what you can learn. Experience leads to purpose, not the other way around.