For all the heartache it led to, the coronavirus pandemic was also an unexpected blessing for many. It forced us to slow down and pause, perhaps for the first time.
One outcome I’ve noticed is an undeniable shift in our collective values. Like butterflies bursting out of cocoons, many are emerging from periods of contemplation with a newfound appetite to live purposefully and to serve others meaningfully.
If you’re intrigued enough to read this post, you’re probably part of that movement.
At this point you might be understandably cautious – many articles on this topic degenerate into oversimplification, perhaps offering cookie-cutter formulas or generic soundbites on how to “find your purpose”. They often miss an important piece of the puzzle.
I wanted to take a fresh approach. To understand how to discover your purpose, you first have to consider what purpose is from a higher-level perspective. In other words, what does purpose entail on an experiential level? Having overindulged in well-meaning blogs and motivational YouTube videos, I’ve found this question is too often neglected.
I’m also not going to convince you on why trying to discover your purpose is worthwhile. Instead, I’ll point you towards Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece Man’s Search For Meaning (and if you need even more persuasion, this scientific research).
In this article, I suggest 3 helpful guidelines around how to discover your purpose. I hope they’ll support you in clearing up any fuzzy thinking as much as they’ve supported me. But remember, they aren’t prescriptive “steps”. They’re actually fundamental mindset shifts – conceptual tools with which to cultivate your purpose from the inside out.
1. The Purpose Pyramid
Think about the word purpose for a moment. What comes to mind?
Maybe it’s the image of someone putting in a hard day’s graft, head down, working away diligently.
Or perhaps you connect purpose with the idea of having a bold mission, a mission which enables you to leave an inspiring legacy.
You might go bigger still, to the purpose of all life on earth. We could call that Purpose, with a capital P.
But before you tailspin into a full-blown existential crisis, allow me to remind you that you don’t need to know the meaning of life in order to understand the meaning of your life…
Because simply put, purpose is your answer to the question “why am I doing what I’m doing?”
As beautifully illustrated by the following parable, there are 3 levels at which to approach this question:
A man walking down the street came across three stonecutters, each chipping away at a large block of granite.
Out of curiosity, the man asked the ﬁrst stonecutter what he was doing. The man grouched back, “I’m cutting this stone, can’t you see? Let me work!”
Approaching the second stonecutter, our curious person asked the same question. “I’m building a wall” the stonecutter said, pointing to the long wall taking shape behind him.
This helped a little, so the man turned to the third stonecutter and asked again. With a smile on his face, he replied, “I’m building a cathedral!” Sweeping his arm over the wall, he explained, “Decades from now, my grandchildren will worship in the grandest cathedral in the land. And I will have played a small part in building it.”
The activity is identical for each stonecutter, yet their attitudes differ wildly. To help understand why, we could label each level of purpose as follows:
- Ground-Level Purpose: our first stonecutter gives the most reductive answer of all – he’s just doing what he’s doing, and that’s that. He’s thinking at ground level. As you can imagine, this may not be very nourishing when the going gets tough, when he’s tired, when he feels like quitting.
- Instrumental Purpose: our second stonecutter operates at a higher level of purpose. He recognises the causal implications of his work, beyond the context of the work itself. Perhaps he sees that his work fulfils other roles too, like taking care of his family, or securing his retirement. This is far more powerful. As Friedrich Nietzsche says, “He who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.”
- Transcendent Purpose: the third stonecutter comes from a different kind of purpose altogether. This is the transcendent level, with purpose taking on a significance beyond the immediate concerns of the stonecutter’s life. This is essentially the level of ‘legacy’. Instead of being transactional, this type of purpose is more about ripple effects… What are we creating with our limited time? How does our outer doing express our inner being? What do we want to leave behind?
These distinctions are crucial. The higher up the Purpose Pyramid we go, the more our sense of meaning expands, thereby sustaining and energising us (and other people):
At least personally, I’ve found this to be true, even for the most seemingly trivial activities. Take an example – going out grocery shopping.
Being one of my least favourite weekly errands, I’m quick to approach it from ground-level purpose. My basic motivation is to just get in, get out, and go home. Much to my wife’s frustration, I often bring an unbearable sense of impatience and stress to the supermarket aisles.
But what if I elevate grocery shopping to a higher level of purpose? What if I approach it with the patience and love it deserves, recognising its vital role in nourishing me and my wife over the coming week?
I could even take the experience to a more transcendent level. I might choose to recognise the week ahead as a microcosm of my life as a whole – a life in which I’ve committed to being a positive presence around others. It’s worth considering how this attitude might shift not only my composure, but also the items I put in our trolley.
If we pay attention, we’re only ever doing one thing at a time, in this moment. One at a time – that’s all there is. And as soon as our actions become purely a means to an end – divorced from the present – then we’ve lost touch with the transcendent purpose that already lives within us. All you need to do is notice it.
As Mother Teresa teaches, “We can do no great things—only small things with great love.”
2. Inner Purpose vs Outer Purpose
The Purpose Pyramid points to a curious paradox: if our sense of purpose is related to the quality of energy we bring to each moment, is there even any point fixating on plans, visions, goals and material strivings?
This leads to the next guideline, borrowed from a favourite spiritual author, Eckhart Tolle. He distinguishes between inner purpose and outer purpose:
“Your life has an inner purpose and an outer purpose. Inner purpose concerns Being, and is primary. Outer purpose concerns doing, and is secondary.
Your outer purpose can change over time. It varies greatly from person to person. Finding and living in alignment with the inner purpose is the foundation for fulfilling your outer purpose. It is the basis for true success.
Without that alignment, you can still achieve certain things through effort, struggle, determination, and sheer hard work or cunning. But there is no joy in such endeavour, and it invariably ends in some form of suffering.”
Personally, I’ve found great truth in these words.
When my outer purpose is detached from the solid foundation of inner purpose, I find myself drifting sooner rather than later. Because what we do must always be rooted in who we choose to be.
On a practical level, this distinction shows up in my personal ‘purpose statement’. I remind myself of it often.
At this point, I invite you to commit your own purpose statement to paper, if you haven’t already. To keep it simple, write under two headings:
- Inner Purpose: who am I committed to being, and why is it vital for me to show up in this way?
- Outer Purpose: what are the current missions/projects through which I am channelling my inner purpose?
Note, the format doesn’t matter. Whether your answers are short statements or lengthy essays, all that matters is that they evoke inspiration, resonance, and motivation.
You might also choose to create certain ‘sub-purposes’ in addition to (or instead of) an overall ‘life purpose’. After all, you’re a complex person with various roles and responsibilities. So examine those everyday purposes:
- What is your purpose in business?
- What is your purpose as a father? A sister? A son?
- What is your purpose as a volunteer grief counsellor?
- What is your purpose as a resident of planet earth?
In clarifying each of these sub-purposes, you may even notice common threads coming into focus, giving rise to a unifying sense of purpose across all domains of your life.
Clarifying your purpose is about stopping to look down at your compass. Which way are you going?
But remember, purpose isn’t a destination to reach, in the same way you can arrive at ‘North’. You’ll set specific missions along the way (your outer purposes), but to discover your purpose – your true purpose – means deciding how you intend to show up in the world.
And more than ever, the world needs you to make that commitment.
3. Sudden Insight vs Gradual Uncovering
The final point is really an invitation: be patient with the process of understanding your purpose.
Treat any fear-based urgency to discover your purpose as a signal to slow down and anchor yourself to the present. This is crucial. Hijacking the present to get somewhere you imagine will be better only amplifies suffering.
One way this urgency shows up is by hoping for a flash of sudden insight on your purpose. For instance, impatience compels some people to look for their destiny in the metaphysical realm of dreams, intuitive nudges or even psychedelic voyages, which they use as the basis for nice-sounding purposes that don’t ultimately resonate.
Intuition can be very powerful, but sudden insight is fickle. It can’t be relied on. The alternative is far more empowering – trusting in the sometimes slow, organic process of gradual uncovering.
Clarifying your purpose (especially your outer purpose) is a creative activity. And creation can be hard work. Thomas Edison famously invented the lightbulb after 10,000 failed attempts, and when asked about those attempts he replied, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Contemplating your purpose isn’t so different. You have a vague sense of the building blocks – your life story, your desires, your aspirations – and from those blocks you’re attempting to construct a meaningful, resonant purpose. Out of the million things you could do, you’re trying to narrow down a handful of activities to base your life around.
If you rely on sudden insight, that’s a tall order. It’s like hopping on a canoe in Southampton and just hoping you’ll float over to Manhattan. If you don’t paddle, you won’t go anywhere.
This is important because our true nature – and purpose – may be obscured by layer upon layer of conditioning and falsehood. Wiping away those layers may not be accomplished overnight, but with effort and deliberation you’ll soon approach the truth of who you are and what you authentically desire to give in this life. That takes patience and commitment.
The process of discovering our purpose is iterative. It needs to be moulded mindfully, like clay. I’ve talked about this in a previous article, where I explain that authentic purpose can’t be ‘acquired’ or ‘invented’ out of thin air.
We can also pour 100% into our purpose, only to discover later down the line that we’re beginning to outgrow it. Perhaps it now feels stagnant, empty, pointless. This isn’t failure… it’s progress! It probably means you’re evolving, and learning to read yourself.
After all, you’re a living, breathing organism with shifting desires, needs and priorities.
P.S. If you’d like help with the inner groundwork needed to discover your purpose – and you feel now is the time to get support – then reach out for a free session through my coaching page.