― Gautama Buddha
Finding your purpose in life is easier said than done, in my experience.
So don’t be put off if you don’t have a purpose that you can tap into or trot out at will. It can take years to develop - or it can take a split second. There are no right or wrong ways to do it and there’s no magic wand to help you find your purpose. It seems to be an evolving process and one’s purpose can change over time and with different roles.
My current purpose as a professional mentor is ‘to reconnect leaders to their own wisdom, passion and humanity’. That evolved over several years and crystallised when I was finalising my website. ‘Enjoy the leisure of Adelaide’, was the purpose of my first business, taking people on walking tours. ‘Creating success’ I coined as the purpose of a later management consulting business, imagining that if I created success for others, it would flow on to me. It did.
Some people have a clear purpose for their work and a different purpose for each of the other roles they play in life. Thinking up a purpose for groups with a common interest or even for your marriage can be fun and very useful. Ours is “celebrating and sharing our abundance’ and serves as a gentle reminder to value and appreciate what we have and to be generous with others.
Why have a purpose? What’s the purpose of a purpose and how does a purpose differ from a vision or a mission, both familiar but often confused corporate terms? Put simply, a vision is usually a statement of what you intend to achieve in the future, a mission is what you actually do and a purpose is why you do it.
Andrew Stevens is the Director of Executive Education at the University of Adelaide. Their mission is ‘Developing Managers and Leaders for Organisational Success’. That’s what they do. Andrew’s purpose - the why he does what he does - ‘to help people think differently’, makes sense of his role leading the organisation and inspires him. He refers to it as his ‘beacon on the hill’ but not everything he does in life has to fit this purpose.
Jo Close runs an organisation called Research Innovations which, according to its website, has an ambition ’to inspire, support and connect researchers, research teams and communities. We believe that by facilitating improved research practices and outcomes, we are ultimately able to help change the world and lives for the better’. You can see how Jo’s purpose, ‘helping researchers make their greatest impact’ fuels her passion for this work.
Louise Hull is a fertility specialist. ‘Helping people create families’ gives her such a powerful sense of purpose that she thinks nothing of leaving home at dawn to harvest ova from women wanting desperately to have children, sharing knowledge with students and colleagues around the world and packing many other clinical and academic commitments into her long working days. As she juggles this with a family of her own, her purpose keeps her focused and energised.
The Walt Disney Company Vision Statement: “To make people happy” could easily also be their purpose. It meets all the criteria of a purpose, succinct and easy to recall, aspirational and inspiring. A guiding light for everything they do.
So what’s the purpose of a purpose? Just that. To inspire, to guide, to lift us up when we get tired, stuck or confused and remind us of why we do what we do. Sometimes quite literally to get us out of bed in the mornings!
Creating a purpose beyond our own self-interest is key to its success and usefulness. If it’s about other people, it shifts the focus from ourselves and calls us to be greater than we might otherwise expect ourselves to be. Knowing that we are ‘on purpose’ is a big ingredient of feeling fulfilled.
As well as an energiser and enabler, a purpose also acts as a guide for decision-making. If opportunity comes your way, an easy question to ask is “Does it fit with my purpose?” The answer is usually very obvious, and your response can then be clear and straightforward. Another question that guides choices and actions is “How will this further my purpose?”. If the answer is, “It doesn’t”, then don't do it. Say “No, thank you’. If it does, jump in!
So, if you don't have one, how do you find your purpose?
In my experience, it bubbles to the surface when you take time to reflect on what it is you love to do, the things you value and believe in, the people you admire, the skills and talents you have to offer, and the insights you have about what’s needed in the world that you can do something about.
The words themselves often emerge when you are exploring options, playing around with ideas and trying out terminology and phrases that exhilarate and excite you. Try different approaches, such as plasticine, drawing or collage. Just ask yourself the question, “What is my purpose?’ and see what your hands come up with. Dictionaries and thesauruses are very helpful, as are friends and colleagues, in brainstorming.
Don’t be discouraged if you don't nail it at your first attempt. Capture your initial ideas and sleep on them. Play with them, reflect on them, put them aside and come back to them later when your mind is clear and open, say, for example, after meditation or while you’re taking a walk or gardening.
When you come up with something thrilling and compelling, you know because you instantly want to start behaving in ways consistent with your purpose.
Then there’s no stopping you!
Please feel free to share your purpose and how it works for you.