“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” —Mark Twain
By Tom Peterson
What’s your purpose in life? Do you know? Hear the words of Benjamin Mays:
The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim, is a sin.
“What do I want to do with my life?” is such a simple question, but how many of us can answer it? This is nothing new. 2,500 years ago Socrates spent his days wandering the gathering places of Athens, challenging citizens about their tightly held beliefs. Persistently, and annoyingly, he would ask them Why? Challenging their underlying values. Socrates held that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”
First, let’s acknowledge that at one level we have more than one purpose. Any parent will tell you that one of their purposes is to raise their children well. For a time, a purpose may be to care for an ailing parent or friend. But when it comes to purpose, we’re talking here about that special calling, vocation.
What’s your dream? What do you want to accomplish? What your main purpose? Why? These ageless questions will follow your life-worth-living journey throughout your years. Sometimes the answers are clear. At other times, you’ll face doubt and a lack of direction. So take some time to name the star you’re reaching for.
Some questions to help
There’s no set formula for discovering or naming your purpose. If you already know it, congratulations, you know the power that having that clarity brings! Take a few minutes and write it down.
But if, like many, you don’t have a clear sense of purpose, why not take time to do it now? Start with some blank paper and ask one or more of these questions:
- What is my purpose in life, my dream, my life’s work? What do I care deeply about?
- If I were suddenly given $10 million, became financially independent, what would I do? What would I do even if I didn’t get paid for it? If I didn’t have a job, but wasn’t allowed to stay at home during the day, what would I do?
- What makes me feel alive? What do I truly love to do? What makes my heart sing?
- How will the world be a better place because of me?
- Where do I want to be in five or ten years? What does that look like?
As you wrestle with these question threads, make a list or several lists or journal about your ideas. Listen deeply to your innermost thoughts and write them down. Keep doing this until you’ve honed an answer that satisfies you, one that rings true in your core.
When you’ve gotten to that point, try to squeeze it down to a dozen words or less. A purpose that takes a paragraph or several minutes to explain is not clear. It still needs serious editing.
This process may take an hour or several days. It may take weeks. But it will be one of the most important things you do, ever!
Make sure it’s truly yours
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking,” said Steve Jobs. “Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Is this purpose truly yours—not your parents, your partner, your friends, your employer, culture? Is it from your inner being?
Having said that, you may, nevertheless, want to talk with someone you trust. Nothing beats honest feedback. (Just don’t let anyone talk you out of your dream.) Liberating Structures has an exercise called “Nine Whys” in which, like annoying toddlers, participants ask each other why? to a key question. And to the answer of that question, they ask why again, up to nine times. When you have written your purpose, ask yourself, or have a good friend ask, Why that? And keep layering down so you’ll understand the deepest motivation of your purpose.
Remember, while others may provide helpful feedback, only you will know your purpose. Be open to following paths that may surprise you. Enjoy the discovery process. In the end, a life purpose that’s truly yours will feel like good news, excite you, motivate you. Make your heart sing!
Set your course!
It feels great to know your purpose in life, why you get up in the morning, where you want to go. And, amidst all the noise and busyness, what can be more powerful than pausing and re-aligning our thoughts and actions toward that purpose?
With a goal that won’t be changing anytime soon, you have a constant. Sailors of old set their course by the North Star, something that wouldn’t shift, so they’d be able to reach their destination. The constant of a purpose helps you say no to distractions. It adds the power of orientation and focus.
Your purpose is now something to build actions upon. You can align goals and activities to that singular purpose. What do you need to learn? What new skills do you need? Who do you need to get to know? How do you move forward?
Paulo Friere asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?” I love this question. It could drive you crazy… unless you know what you want down the road.
Keep moving! What action will you take today to move toward your purpose in life?
Purpose in Life Quotes:
“A man is successful if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between; does what he wants to do.” — Bob Dylan
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” — Henry David Thoreau
“What can I do that isn’t going to get done unless I do it, just because of who I am?” — Buckminster Fuller
“One key to more flow in life comes when we align what we do with what we enjoy, as is the case with those fortunate folks whose jobs give them great pleasure. High achievers in any field—the lucky ones, anyway—have hit on this combination.” —Daniel Goleman, Focus
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy that is translated through you; and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.” —Martha Graham
“This is the true joy in life—that being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. That being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s sort of a splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” —George Bernard Shaw
Art: Photo, Tom Peteson, from Davis Chapel, Winston-Salem. Painting Sailing by Moonlight, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Wikimedia.