Many people struggle with knowing their purpose. It can be confusing, unclear, and intimidating. Here we bust the most common myths about purpose.
Of all the top personal development practices, discovering our personal purpose can be among the most challenging for many of us.
It begins with confusion about what purpose is. Our purpose is why we’re here, our reason for being. William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.”
Discovering purpose is also hard because there are many myths and misconceptions about what purpose is.
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Myths about Purpose
Here are the most common and damaging myths about purpose:
Purpose is the same as passion.
People often use the words “purpose” and “passion” interchangeably, as if they’re the same thing. They’re connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling or emotion. (This gets tricky because we obviously feel passionate about our purpose.) In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I noted that passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions. What are the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them? Those are great, but they don’t get us all the way down to our reason for being.
My purpose must be completely original.
We need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves when it comes to our purpose. There’s no competition for originality. The key is authenticity: have we landed on a sense of purpose that is real and true to us, that speaks to our essence?
Purpose is a luxury reserved for the select few, for the affluent and privileged.
Because it can be so hard and take so long, it’s tempting to conclude that purpose must not be for us. We can dismiss it as something reserved for the elite, or the fortunate, and not for us. But purpose is universally available. A hunger for purpose and meaning is built into human nature, and it’s accessible to us all, especially via connection with and service to others.
“Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
Purpose is abstract, theoretical, and impractical.
It can be easy to dismiss purpose as something that’s impractical. The notion of knowing our purpose can feel quite distant and philosophical. But in truth, purpose is utterly practical. It means infusing our actions with a deeper meaning informed by a highly motivating gift of clarity about fundamental aims. W. Clement Stone observed that “Definiteness of purpose is the starting point of all achievement.” In other words, the path to achievement and success starts with purpose.
“The difference between success and failure—between a life of fulfillment and a life of frustration—is how well you manage the challenge of making meaning in your life.”
-Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
My purpose should come to me in a revelation.
The notion that our purpose will come to us fully formed and crystal clear is unrealistic. Our sense of purpose can be messy and take time to unfold. We get a sense of purpose as we live our lives and make mistakes, observing over time periods when we feel “on-purpose” or “off-purpose.”
“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
Purpose is all about me and what I need and want for my life.
To some, the notion of discovering our purpose sounds like navel-gazing. To know our purpose, we must “monk out” and become a hermit in a cave thinking deep thoughts. And then when we figure it out, we’ll be happy and successful. But all this is backwards. We look inside to uncover our purpose so that we can look outside and actualize it in the world, with contributions to others based on real connections and a heart to serve. Purpose always comes back to others and to something larger than ourselves.
“You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments—whether to your religion, to an ethical order as you conceive it, to your life’s work, to loved ones, to your fellow humans.”
-John W. Gardner, public official and political reformer
Purpose is “out there” for us to go find.
Yes and no. We discover a sense of purpose within by bumping up against the world and getting a sense of what feels empty to us versus what fills us up with energy and meaning. And as we begin to discover it, and to feel it deep in our bones, the whole point is to take it out into the world, to actualize it. In truth, purpose is discovered with and realized through both reflection and action in the world.
When we go looking to find our purpose, it can elude us. Purpose is less something that we find and more something that we uncover by peeling off layers of expectation and obligation until we get to the root of who we are and what (or who) calls to us. Also, the point isn’t finding our purpose. It’s living it. The point is living a life that lights us up and beings good things to those around us.
“Purpose is that deepest dimension within us—our central core. It is the quality we choose to shape our lives around. Purpose is already within us waiting to be discovered.”
–Richard Leider, author and expert on purpose
I have just one purpose—or a purpose can only be manifested in one way.
Oh, the pressure. What’s my one purpose that will answer everything? The poet Walt Whitman once wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” And so it can be with purpose. While some may find purpose in ONE THING, others may find it in many different things, from family and relationships to work and hobbies. There are likely to be patterns and themes connecting them, but purpose doesn’t have to be one dimensional.
Purpose has to be big and bold (e.g., saving the world).
This isn’t a competition. Purpose is measured less in size and boldness and more in depth, truth, and commitment. Author Richard Leider distinguishes between a “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something you can dedicate your life to) and a “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how you can contribute to others). For example, his own BIG P purpose is to help others unlock the power of purpose, and his little p purpose is to make a difference in one person’s life every single day. Note that little p purposeful actions are just as worthy and valuable, but on a smaller scale, and they can compound over time into something remarkable.
My purpose will never change.
Some people may have the experience of an unchanging purpose that remains consistent over time. But many of us go through chapters and seasons in life, and new layers of purpose get revealed in that flow of time. We change in our circumstances and outlook, so our experience with purpose can evolve, for example, becoming clearer, deeper, and richer. It may be there was a deeper underlying purpose there all along, but we change in our ability to see and experience it.
My purpose will manifest in the one “perfect job” that I must find.
For most of us mere mortals, there is no one perfect job. We can have a great job, but change is inevitable. The key is continually infusing our work with meaning and contribution and making adjustments along the way. We can infuse any job with purpose, excellence, and contribution.
Once I find my purpose, I’ll be done and can move on.
Even if we’ve done the hard work of discovering our purpose (which few people take the time to do), there’s still further richness ahead of us. Most importantly, we must diligently infuse our life and work with that purpose. And we’re wise to continue revisiting that purpose through different chapters and seasons of life, such as school, early career, marriage, children, midlife, etc.
My purpose can be revealed to me by a wise elder, mentor, or friend.
There’s no doubt that a wise elder, mentor, or friend can help us discover our purpose. For example, they can ask probing questions that help us shatter our illusions. Or they can help us acknowledge when we’ve lost our way or are in a trap. They can help us see things about ourselves that we’re missing. But in the end, our purpose is our own, and it’s up to us to realize and experience it in its authentic depth as only we can.
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
Only some types of work are capable of being purposeful.
Some people self-select out of purpose on the assumption that only some types of work are purposeful. Purpose, they reason, is only the domain of activists, changemakers, and healers and not the domain, for example, of bankers, plumbers, and technicians. Extensive research from Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues has demonstrated otherwise. They’ve found three main ways people relate to their work:
- Job orientation, with work as a means to an end
- Career orientation, with a focus on advancement, success, and prestige
- Calling orientation, with work as integral to our life and identity
According to their research, any job can become a career or calling, any calling can become a job or career, and any career can become a job or calling. Much depends on how we craft our tasks, relationships, and thinking about our work—what Professor Wrzesniewski calls “job crafting.”
“You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.”
-Aaron Hurst, The Purpose Economy
As we’ve seen, there are many myths about purpose. Discovering purpose is hard enough on its own without having to break through these myths and misconceptions.
While purpose is powerful, of course it’s not enough in and of itself to bring us a happy, successful, and fulfilling life. We also need other critical foundational elements, such as values, vision, strengths, passions, relationships, and more.
But purpose is one of the essential elements of crafting a good life with good work. We’re wise to uncover our purpose and build our lives around it.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
-John W. Gardner, public official and political reformer
- Have any of these myths inhibited you from exploring or committing to your purpose?
- Which myths are the most common obstacles to purpose?
- What will you do to further explore or actualize your purpose?
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Quality of Life Assessment to help you discover your strongest areas and the areas that need work and then act accordingly
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!