Many people struggle with finding their purpose. It can be intimidating and confusing. Where to begin? This article clarifies what purpose is and how to discover it.
Why are you here? (On the planet, that is.) What’s your purpose?
Do you know? Have you thought much about it? Are you living your purpose?
Note that we’re asking here about your purpose in life, not the purpose or meaning of life generally. Asking about your purpose is a practical matter, not a philosophical one.
Many people struggle with purpose. According to a New York Times article, only about a quarter of Americans have a clear sense of purpose. In a Harvard Business Review article, Nick Craig and Scott Snook noted, “we’ve found that fewer than 20 percent of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.” According to an Edward Jones report, 31 percent of new retirees say they’ve struggled to find a sense of purpose in retirement.
A lack of purpose is behind much of the pain and suffering in the world today, including many of our mental health challenges. We can have many good things in our life, including a nice family, a good career, and friends and experiences to enjoy, but we can still feel like something is missing. Often, it’s purpose that’s missing. Lack of purpose is also one of the drivers of the “Great Resignation” and a big driver of disengagement at work.
“The drive to be more purposeful explains much of the momentum behind the massive exodus from mainstream corporate life.” -Aaron Hurst
What Is Purpose?
Part of the problem is confusion about what purpose is (and isn’t). Purpose often gets conflated with things like passion, meaning, and calling. (See my article, “The Most Common Myths about Purpose.”)
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.” Note that purpose takes us beyond ourselves, to something greater.
Author Richard Leider distinguishes between two kinds of purpose:
- “BIG P” Purpose (a noble cause or something we can dedicate our life to).
- “little p” purpose (the day-to-day choices of how we can contribute to others). Note that “little p” actions are just as worthy, and they can compound over time into something powerful.
Purpose vs. Passion
Purpose and passion are connected but not equivalent. While purpose is why we’re here, a passion is a compelling or powerful feeling. Our passions are those things that consume us with palpable emotions, the things we love so much that we’re willing to suffer for them. Those are important, but they don’t usually take us all the way to knowing our reason for being.
Purpose vs. Meaning
While purpose and meaning are related, they’re not the same. Meaning is a broader concept. According to Dr. Michael Steger of Colorado State University, “Meaning in life refers to the feeling that people have that their lives and experience make sense and matter.” He notes that “Purpose is one facet of a meaningful life.” According to Steger and his fellow researcher, Frank Martela from Aalto University, there are three general facets associated with meaning in life: purpose, coherence, and significance. See the image below.
“…when people say that their lives have meaning, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied: they evaluate their lives as significant and worthwhile—as part of something bigger; they believe their lives make sense; and they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose.” – Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning
Purpose vs. Calling
There’s also confusion about the difference between purpose and calling. While purpose is why we’re here, a calling has been defined as “a strong urge toward a particular way of life or career” (Oxford Dictionary), and also as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action, especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence” (Merriam-Webster). So, if we have a clear purpose, it can flow naturally into a calling as a way to express it in the world.
“Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit. Since a calling implies that someone calls, my belief is that the caller is God.” -Dave Wondra
The Benefits of Purpose
There are many benefits to knowing and living our purpose. It can be incredible powerful, flowing through everything we do and how we show up in the world. When we know and live our purpose, it gives us the following:
- health (mental and physical)*
- connection with others
- enjoyment of life
When we have a clear sense of purpose, we can reduce our anxiety and stress (which are fueled by uncertainty and aimlessness) and also focus our efforts in the right areas, boosting our performance, earnings, and impact. Our purpose can also help us clarify which goals to pursue and make us more likely to accomplish those goals.
“When we are clear about our purpose, or at least working toward it, our lives come together in powerful ways.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives
We can also feel a strong relational and spiritual connection, a sense that we’re linked with others, part of the larger scheme of things, and in tune with nature, life, and God.
Finally, those who have lived purposefully tend to experience fewer regrets in life, helping them face and accept death with equanimity.
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.
How to Discover Our Purpose
So how to discover our purpose? Here are things we can do to help us discover our purpose:
- reflect on what kinds of people or groups we feel called to serve and what kinds of issues we feel called to address
- notice what energizes us (and what drains us) and what brings us joy
- observe what we’re doing when we’re making a difference in someone’s life and loving the process of doing it
- reflect on when we’ve felt the most fulfilled, noting what we were doing (and with whom and where and how), then finding patterns across those experiences
- ask what we have a fierce commitment to and what we’re willing to sacrifice for because it’s so viscerally important to us (e.g., family, friends, work, colleagues, community, cause), then reflect on how it might inform our reason for being
- notice what kinds of pain and suffering (yours or others’) affects us most (what Umair Haque calls our “zone of heartbreak”) and consider ways to turn that hurt into healing or growth
- develop our self-awareness, our ability to see ourselves clearly and understand our feelings, motives, desires, and character
- mine our story (our personal history), write it down, tell it to others, and find the themes that animate our lives, including what we loved doing when we were young and the meaning we’ve derived from the pivotal moments and adversity we’ve faced
“Purpose often arises from curiosity about your own life. What obstacles have you encountered? What strengths helped you to overcome them? How did other people help you? How did your strengths help make life better for others?” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
- read books and articles that feel meaningful to you (researchers have found links between reading things like fiction, poetry, and the Bible and having a stronger sense of purpose)
- take a holistic view of our life—thinking about our family, relationships, work, learning, community, beliefs, impact, and more—and noting what’s most important
- discover our strengths—the things we’re good at
- get clarity on our passions—what we love to do and what consumes us with palpable emotion
- pay attention to what we’re doing when we love our work
- clarify our personal values and consider instances in which we’ve honored or upheld them and what that suggests about our purpose
- try different things (experiences, projects, jobs, careers) and gauge whether they feel meaningful or not
- engage more often in “discover mode” (learning about who we are and what we can do in the world) and less in “climbing mode” (focusing so much on advancing up the ladder of success)
- take time each evening to reflect on the day that just passed and note the activities or situations that felt most purposeful
- think about our “ideal self” (the person we want to be, versus the person we are now) and what that person would be doing—and with and for whom
- connect the dots between the needs we see in the world and our strengths, passions, and values
- ask those who know us best to share the themes that make us who we are
- work with a mentor, coach, or small group to help us uncover our purpose
- ask ourselves what our older self or a wise mentor would advise us to focus more on
- preserve enough white space and margin in our lives so that clarity can emerge
- sit and get quiet with solitude and sanctuary so we’re better able to hear our inner voice
- engage in an iterative process of action and reflection, of trying things and then reflecting on their meaning and significance
- ask ourselves repeatedly what our purpose is (why we get up in the morning) and listen to what comes up
- engage in spiritual seeking, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, yoga, or pilgrimage, in the process seeking clarity about why we’re here
- project forward to the end of our lives and consider what we want our legacy to be, what we’d want said about us in a eulogy, or what we’d want to do differently if we had another chance at life (the deathbed test)
- consider what life is asking of us now and see if meaningful ideas emerge
- connect with experiences of awe, since they can help us feel connected to things larger than ourselves
- maintain a sense of gratitude (researchers have found connections between gratitude and our propensity to contribute to others, a key aspect of purpose)
- keep serving others (researchers have found connections between things like volunteering or donating to charities and having a greater sense of purpose)
In the process of uncovering our purpose, it’s important to slough off the layers of expectations put upon us by others, including parents, peers, teachers, coaches, colleagues, or society. We need to stop caring so much about what other people think and lean into being ourselves more openly and fully.
“Purpose reveals itself when we stop being afraid and start being ourselves.” -Richard Leider, “An Incomplete Manifesto for Purpose”
The Universal Purpose
It’s worth noting that discovering purpose is one of the most challenging personal development practices for many people. It can take time to unfold, like a fine wine.
So, what to do in the meantime? Should we sit on the sidelines and await clarity via revelation? Or “monk out” in a remote mountain cave?
Absolutely not. We must stay engaged with the world. Purpose isn’t about navel-gazing. It’s about knowing our reason for being and bringing it to the world via helping others.
Richard Leider suggests that, beyond our individual purpose, there’s also a universal purpose that animates us all:
“The universal purpose is to grow and give.” -Richard Leider
So, if we’re not yet clear on our personal purpose, we can keep growing and giving. When we do that, good things are bound to happen.
“If there’s just one habit you can create to help you find your purpose, it would be helping others.” -Amy Morin
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.
Examples of Personal Purpose Statements
Sometimes it’s helpful to see examples of purpose statements for inspiration and context. My own purpose is “to help people lead good lives.” For me, that means helping people lead lives of integrity, service, and purpose—and re-connecting them with what truly matters. I’m most keen on helping people develop their own conception of the good life and then bring it to life.
Here are some other purpose statements:
- “To love God and serve others.” –Bob Vanourek (my father and co-author)
- “To inspire and empower people to live their highest vision in the context of love and joy.” -Jack Canfield
- “To wake you up and have you find that you are home.” -Nick Craig
- “To help others unlock the power of purpose.” -Richard Leider “Big P” purpose
- “To make a difference in one person’s life every single day.” -Richard Leider “little p” purpose
- “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” -Oprah Winfrey
In the end, purpose is something we should be doing and not just thinking about. We should be infusing more and more of our home and work life with purpose.
The key is not knowing our purpose but living it. That also means focusing on things that are purposeful and avoiding things that aren’t as purposeful. It takes insight, persistence, and flexibility to figure out how to translate our purpose into effective action in the world.
Discovering our purpose doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to quit our job, change our career, or otherwise alter our lives dramatically. Often, we can creatively find ways to infuse our life and work with more purpose right where we are. (See, for example, Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski’s brilliant work on “job crafting.”) Other times, big changes may be warranted.
Discovering our purpose and living it is the work of a lifetime, and it’s incredibly rich and rewarding—especially when we connect it with our core values, vision of the good life, strengths, and passions. Wishing you well with it, and please let me know if I can help.
“You may be moved in a direction
You do not understand,
Away from the safe, the familiar,
Towards a vision that is blurry,
Yet still pounds against
The doors of your dreams,
Screams for recognition,
Petitions for understanding,
Whispers for acceptance.
Out towards distant possibilities,
You are propelled by a fire,
You will never fully comprehend,
But cannot extinguish.”
-Susan Rogers Norton, “Destiny”
- Do you know your purpose?
- Are you living it?
- What more will you do to clarify your purpose and build your life around it?
Related 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
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Personal and Leadership Development Resources, including assessments, books, blogs, organizations, and podcasts
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter
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Sources on Purpose
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
- Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
- Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning
- Hill PL, Turiano NA, Mroczek DK, Burrow AL. The value of a purposeful life: Sense of purpose predicts greater income and net worth. Journal of Research in Personality.
- Khullar D. Finding Purpose for a Good Life. But Also a Healthy One. The New York Times. The Upshot. Jan. 1, 2018.
- Morin, A, 7 Tips for Finding Your Purpose in Life. VeryWell Mind. July 12, 2020.
- Musich S, Wang SS, Kraemer S, Hawkins K, Wicker E. Purpose in Life and Positive Health Outcomes Among Older Adults. Popul Health Manag.
- Schippers MC, Ziegler N. Life Crafting as a Way to Find Purpose and Meaning in Life. Front Psychol.,
- Smith, Jeremy Adam. “How to Find Your Purpose in Life,” Greater Good Science Center, January 10, 2018.
Postscript: Inspirations on Purpose
- “If we lack purpose, we lose connection with our true nature and become externally driven, generating discontent or even angst. Because purpose can be so elusive, we often duck the big question and look for ways to bury that discontent, most often through ‘busyness,’ distraction, or worse…. What does life want from us? In the end, the task is not finding our purpose but uncovering it—not propelling ourselves toward a more successful life, but rather getting out of the way of the good life that wants to live through us.” -Christopher Gergen & Gregg Vanourek, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives
- “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
- “I believe that we are put on this earth to live our soul’s purpose. To me, that means using our unique gifts and talents to make a positive impact in the world and help create the world we want to see…. We are all born with an inner compass that tells us whether or not we’re on the right path to finding our true purpose. That compass is our JOY.” -Jack Canfield
- “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life…. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” -Victor Frankl
- “Purpose is adaptive, in an evolutionary sense. It helps both individuals and the species to survive.” -Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center
- “Purpose is the recognition of the presence of the sacred within us and the choice of work that is consistent with that presence. Purpose defines our contribution to life. It may find expression through family, community, relationship, work, and spiritual activities.” -Richard Leider, The Power of Purpose
- “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
- “Purpose is a universal need, not a luxury for those with financial wealth…. Money often conflicts with finding purpose, as it creates a false substitute for defining success…. You can find purpose in any job. It is all in how you approach it.” -Aaron Hurst
- “The most fortunate people on earth are those who have found a calling that’s bigger than they are—that moves them and fills their lives with constant passion, aliveness, and growth.” -Richard Leider
- “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…. Learning to make meaning from our life stories may be the most indispensable but least understood skill of our time.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
- “If you can find a way to use your signature strengths at work often, and you also see your work as contributing to the greater good, you have a calling.” -Martin Seligman
- “People don’t choose their calling, it chooses them.” -Richard Leider
- “You might do a hundred other things, but if you fail to do the one thing for which you were sent it will be as if you had done nothing.” -Rumi
* Researchers have linked purpose to better sleep, fewer heart attacks and strokes, longer life span, and a lower risk of dementia and premature death.
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!