How to find your purpose in tumultuous times
(Originally published in Forbes. Photo by Getty)
As a professional and leader in your organization, there’s no doubt that your days are long and demanding. For some of us, it can begin to feel like the proverbial hamster wheel. We're continually running without stopping to examine our actions and purpose.
But Covid-19 and the global tumult of 2020 have led many to a reflective place and search for meaning.
What do I want? What’s my purpose? How can I make my life matter?
These are difficult and pressure-laden questions to field when you’re not sure. And I know from my own life and work as an executive coach that when you’re uncertain of your purpose and feel adrift, these questions can make you feel less than enlightened.
While asking these big questions and clarifying what gives your work and life meaning is not easy and may even feel intimidating, it’s always worth the effort. Especially now, as we navigate the rough seas of a pandemic and so much uncertainty, clarity of purpose can be a helpful lifeboat, keeping us afloat amidst the storms.
A recent study showed it actually correlates to improved physical and mental health. “Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it,” notes Dr. Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
A sense of purpose imbues your hard work with greater meaning and provides confidence and stamina when tackling the obstacles you’ll undoubtedly face in your career and life. It also allows for easier decision-making and goal setting rooted in self-assurance. In the words of leadership expert John Maxwell, “Your purpose is an anchor that keeps you grounded. It’s also your North Star that helps you soar.”
Recognizing your purpose is only achieved by looking inward, as it springs from your very essence. To guide your introspection, consider three timeframes to uncover your purpose and steer your ship with intention and conviction towards a bright destination on the horizon.
Mine your past for clues.
In Success, leadership specialist Kevin Cashman writes, “Purpose is that home within, that place where our talents, values, and service-drive reside. It’s there all the time, waiting for our arrival.”
Maybe you've been too preoccupied to notice. Fortunately, you've left a trail of breadcrumbs that you can follow. Reflect on the significance of the choices you’ve already made in your career and life. The decisions you’ve made are rarely accidental. Finding the through-line from these choices can reveal a sense of purpose that has been otherwise obscured.
Consider this: What motifs exist for you? What most energizes and brings you joy? Think about your most significant moments and what makes them so.
Writing or sharing your life story with others can also help create a clearer narrative out of your life — and reveal the purpose that has been long awaiting your discovery.
Consider the present to identify your uniqueness.
Purpose grows from your connection to others and using and developing your unique talents and gifts to make a positive difference in the world. However, our strengths come to us so naturally that we often have blind spots; we don’t see our strengths as special and think that others are — or should be — good at them also. The truth, though, is that your particular strengths and the way you see, process and do things are unique. You are one of a kind.
To identify your uniqueness, ask yourself the following questions:
What do you do that makes you feel terrific, alert and alive?
What activities are natural, easy and energizing for you?
What skills and activities have accounted for your greatest successes to date?
What do others appreciate about you or say you do well?
Now that you have a greater sense of your uniqueness, reflect on how, and to whom, your unique talents and work make a contribution. Ask yourself: How can you use your gifts to make the greatest difference in the world? How does your work leave people in a better place than they were before? What higher reasons push you to work so hard?
Contemplate your future to live with purpose today.
Lastly, consider the future. Imagine looking back on your life. What did you accomplish such that your life feels satisfying and well-lived? How do you want to be remembered? In other words, what is the legacy you want to leave?
Taking the journey within to discover your purpose and the meaning of your life may take time and effort. But the resulting combination of clarity, intention and energy can take you to a whole new level.
A famous parable perfectly captures the benefit of purpose. After the great fire that leveled London in 1666, the architect commissioned to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral came upon three bricklayers working on the project. The architect asked each bricklayer, “What are you doing?” The first man replied, “Laying bricks.” The second replied, “Building a wall.” And the third replied, “Building a cathedral.” It’s easy to imagine whose work held the highest meaning, provided the most satisfaction and stood out.
Right now, are you laying bricks or building a cathedral?
You are unique, and here for a reason. Mine your past for clues, consider your uniqueness in the present and contemplate your legacy to identify your cathedral and benefit from living on purpose.
Take a moment to imagine the fulfillment that comes from knowing you’re building your cathedral and the gratification you’ll feel when, years from now, you look back at what you’ve created.