Finding Purpose in Life
Our days are filled with raising families and building relationships, growing a business or pursuing a career, serving others and our communities, and trying to stay mentally and physically fit. How much time is there really to give consideration to the human purpose–the big Why?
The human purpose is and may always be elusive. The focus of today’s post is on a smaller, more answerable “why?”—not why are we here (the universal human we), but why are we here (individually)? The focus today is on finding your purpose.
Finding Purpose Comes from the Intersection of the Big 3
What gives your life meaning? This is such a difficult question. Many gurus will ask you to walk into a bookstore and see what stacks of books attract you. Or to write your eulogy to see what you would like others to say about you. These are all effective techniques as long as you take the time to go backward before you go forward.
Each of us is a unique mosaic of experiences, influences, observations, and beliefs. Some of our beliefs are truly authentic and deeply felt; others are simply baggage we have accumulated along the way. Some of that baggage might have been left on the soccer field by a junior high coach who had high expectations for you. Your family’s religious leader might have left an observation or belief that you picked up from the pew and brought home. At dinner, your parents shared (both knowingly and unknowingly) their unfinished desires and left them on the table. Your teacher taught you what she felt would keep you from making the mistakes she had or beliefs that helped her succeed. These are some of the experiences, influences, observations, and beliefs you carry with you today.
At times, this mental baggage feels disorganized, overwhelming, and overlapping. Some beliefs, however, are clear and compelling. Some you would defend with your life, literally. Perhaps you went into the military because everyone in your family has served, or you became a workaholic entrepreneur like your mother or father and gave yourself a heart attack.
Just where do your beliefs start and others’ stop? Which ones are genuinely your own, and which are others’ projections and expectations that you accepted as your own?
A good coach or mentor can help you figure out what really gives your life meaning. He or she can help you figure out which bags are really yours to carry and which you can now set aside. You can do this work yourself, too, but it’s hard to be the one who both asks and answers the tough questions.
“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.”–Epictetus
Once you shed others’ beliefs and expectations, you will feel liberated. Your life will not only have more meaning, but also more focus. That focus will help you assess what really makes you happy. Much has been written about happiness recently (books like The Happiness Project and The Happiness Advantage), but for the moment consider the word’s origin–the Greek word “eudaimonia,” which more exactly translates to “human flourishing.” Aristotle would see the pursuit of happiness today as the pursuit of virtue, health, wealth and beauty. The stoics would have you believe that happiness comes from living a virtuous life. What exactly does that mean in today’s context? What does it mean to live a virtuous life and to experience human flourishing?
The modern-day psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who studies positive psychology, came up with the term “flow” to describe those moments in your life when you become hyper-focused and the challenge is directly correlated with your skills. Time seems to stop and you feel like rapture, complete, and fully in sync with the universe. When you experience this sort of “flow,” you are flourishing. You are happy. It’s interesting to note that this sort of happiness and flourishing doesn’t come from inactivity, but rather from facing challenges and taking action.
Naturally, we aren’t always experiencing flow. Sometimes that’s because we overlook the connection between happiness and taking action.
“We underestimate the odds of our future pains and overestimate the value of our present pleasures.” - Daniel Gilbert
If you’re like most people, you find it difficult to delay gratification. You find present happiness hard to turn down, in part because you’re not sure you’ll have this sort of opportunity for happiness in the future or that you’re fairly certain that you’ll have other, different opportunities for happiness. Restraint and preparedness, though, are keys toward ensuring your happiness not only in the future, but also to experience deeper, fuller happiness in the present.
When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully; when unbounded, it leads us to cheat, lie, steal, hurt others, or trade things of real value for lesser value, etc.
When our fears are bounded, we are prudent and thoughtful; when unbounded, we are reckless and cowardly.
Happiness and flow come not from shirking responsibility, but from facing challenges and taking action that will lead to a more secure and promising future.
When looking for a company’s purpose, Jim Collins asks, “What can the organization be the world’s best at?” Ask that question of yourself. What can you be the world’s best at? You may be able to answer this question yourself or in work with a coach or mentor. Some prefer to use assessments like Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton’s assessment and book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, to discover their talents. Others ask friends and colleagues to weigh in. Kathleen Crandall, a personal brand strategist in Minneapolis, does this as one part of a much more elaborate process for her clients to help define their personal brand.
If you’re struggling to find your world’s-best talents, here are some other more pointed questions you might ask:
What do others seek you out for help on?
What are the things you love to do most?
What job functions are you in flow when doing?
What are your job dissatisfiers?
What are you known for?
Finding Purpose in Life
Your purpose in life lies at the intersection of what you find most meaningful, what makes you happiest, and what you aspire to be the world’s best at.
The more time you spend clarifying your answers to each of these three questions, the more clear your purpose will be. Don’t be satisfied with the first answer that pops to mind. Go into your zen place and search deeply. Trust me when I say the squeeze is worth the juice.
A worksheet you may find helpful: Purpose Venn Diagram