"What's your purpose in life?"
Does the question make you cringe a little?
I definitely do.
As a life coach I know I should be down with this "Find your purpose! Live with purpose!" stuff but most of the time I think it's just too much pressure.
What do people even mean when they talk about "purpose"?
Are we talking about knowing what our aim is in life or knowing why we exist?
I'm not sure if the latter question is answerable in a lifetime, unless you're visited by some divine insight. So let's put that aside.
If it's the former kind of "purpose" that you get stuck on, don't worry. Even if you have any of these thoughts:
I don’t know where I’m going.
I feel lost.
I don’t really know who I am.
I don’t know what all this adds up to.
This place can be lonely and scary. Yet I’ve seen so many people who have powerfully corrected their course from here (myself included).
It’s doable. Time, reflection and action will clarify your path. Plus, regaining your way can be an incredible adventure.
Three misconceptions about “purpose”
I've got two practical ways for you to clarify your own aim in life -- but first I want to clear up three unhelpful beliefs about purpose.
1. Your purpose in life isn't necessarily fixed or essential. It can be many things, at different stages in life.
We are ever-evolving people. It makes sense that our sense of our purpose would change too.
At one point, your purpose might be to build a career you love. Later, your purpose might shift to include being an awesome mom or dad.
2. Your purpose in life doesn’t have to be an extraordinary, rarefied thing.
Our purpose can be very simple, basic.
To illustrate: The dozens of sparrows living under the eaves of my roof right now seem to very much share the same purpose of life as the rest of their species: they chirp like mad all day long, swoop around, hunt, mate, nest and tend their young.
We are creatures of this earth too.
Our most basic purpose in life might also be to simply breathe, move, sing, love, live in community and care for each other. (Of course because each of us is unique, how we do that will be different and special.)
3. Your purpose in life won’t necessarily always be crystal clear to you in the moment. I think “purpose” actually becomes most clear looking backward.
For example, take the story of a historical figure we think of as being very purposeful: Martin Luther King, Jr.
You might argue that King had a crystal clear purpose: to champion and lead the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Yet did King always know that was his purpose?
Recently, while reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, I was surprised to learn that King was initially reluctant to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by Rosa Park’s arrest.
King was a new Baptist church minister in Montgomery. He was 26 years old, and had only been in town a year. He wasn’t yet sure of his role in the community.
When boycott organizers asked King to allow his church to be used as meeting space, he at first refused.
Organizers had to convince him.
Then, once King took this initial step, he was inspired into further action by the momentum of the growing Civil Rights movement. The rest, we’d say, is history.
Finding our “purpose in life” is a path of discovery. We learn by taking action.
Yes, sometimes our purpose is mysterious. Sometimes it’s evolving.
So don’t get discouraged if all is not clear to you right this moment.
Learn more about your own life purpose
If you’re ready, here are two simple and effective ways to discover more about your life purpose.
1. Reverse engineer it.
Look back on your life as your 96-year-old self, sitting in your rocker. You’re pleased with your life. You’ve done everything you wanted to do. You can die with no regrets.
What did you do? Who were you? How did you spend your time? How will people remember you?
You could even write your own obituary to fully imagine this moment.
Now, step back into today. What are some of the first steps you can take today to get where you want to go?
What might you need to change in your life – or yourself – in order to get there?
2. Stop thinking and instead just do.
Let the idea of “purpose” go for now. Focus instead in becoming a highly attuned expert in your own likes and dislikes.
What do you like doing?
What makes you feel happy and healthy?
What did you always love to do as a kid?
What would you do if you didn’t care about what other people might think?
Then do even more of it.
This is how you discover your passions. This is how you develop your strengths. This is how you realize your gifts.
Follow them where they go. Contribute them where they are needed.
Later, look back. What do you see?
Is that it? Is that your purpose?
What a beautiful, easy thing.
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