Updated: May 19
What do you want to accomplish in your career and how do you go about realising it?
(Originally published in Accounting and Business.)
After the great fire that levelled London in 1666, one of the world’s most famous architects, Christopher Wren, was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral. As the story goes, Wren came upon three bricklayers and asked: ‘What are you doing?’ The first man replied: ‘Laying bricks.’ The second said: ‘Building a wall.’ And the third replied: ‘Building a cathedral.’ It is not difficult to imagine whose work held the highest meaning and provided the most satisfaction.
As a professional, you undoubtedly work long and hard hours. But why? What gives your work meaning? What is the larger contribution you want to make? Are you laying bricks or building a cathedral?
‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why’ Mark Twain
These questions get at professional purpose: in other words, your mission for your career. Finding your purpose takes time but, as the parable of the bricklayers suggests, it’s worth the effort.
Here’s why. Clarifying your purpose will support you in achieving your vision: what you want to accomplish and what success means for you. Purpose gives your goals deeper meaning and provides you with optimism and energy for overcoming the obstacles you will encounter on the way to your vision.
Understanding your purpose also makes it easier to make choices around fundamental questions. As Jim Collins suggests in his book Good to Great, when you’re aware of your values and purpose, the more likely you will be to make decisions and set goals that are solidly grounded.
Having a clear purpose also makes you more compelling to other people: employers, employees, colleagues and other critical business relationships.
Lastly, having a sense of purpose is associated with better physical and mental health. Without a sense of meaning, you may potentially feel a perpetual sense of something lacking.
Look behind you
Your purpose springs from your identity and reflects the essence of who you are. Therefore, clarity only comes from looking within. Contemplating three different time frames – the past, the present and the future – will help you uncover and clarify your purpose.
Starting with the past, reflect on the significance of the choices you have already made. These are rarely accidental and seeing the through-line of these choices can reveal a sense of purpose that has been otherwise obscured. As leadership expert Kevin Cashman notes, ‘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.’ Mine your past for clues by asking: what themes or threads have run through your life? What pursuits have most energised you and brought you joy? What moments have been most meaningful to you, and why?
Focusing on the present, consider the following questions: what is the contribution that you want to make through your work, and to whom? What is the most positive difference your talents can make in the world? How do you make people better off with the work that you do? What are the higher reasons you work as hard as you do?
Finally, think about the future. What is the legacy you want to leave behind? Imagine yourself at the end of your life. What would you have wanted to accomplish or done so that you feel your life and career have been satisfying, well-lived and with few regrets?
Make a statement
Next, your goal is to land on a concise statement that grounds you in who you are, who you want to be and the contribution you wish to make. For example:
‘I create new products to help people simplify and improve their lives’ – product manager
‘I interpret and translate the tax code so my clients can prosper’ – tax accountant
‘I write novels to help transport people away from their everyday worries’ – author.
You are not generating a bland statement that would make your parents proud. Your purpose statement must be grounded in your authenticity and needs to resonate with you and you alone. It’s not who or what you think you should be and doesn’t have to be cause-based, such as ‘solve world hunger’. If it gives you a sense of the impact you want to make and is inspiring to you, then it’s a viable mission statement.
Try this simple, four-step process to help you get started.
Step 1: List three strengths, talents or gifts that you have. Use nouns to describe your strengths, such as creativity, ability to think strategically, or communication skills.
Step 2: Describe up to three ways you express the talents and gifts listed in the first step. Use a verb ending in ‘ing’: for example, developing products, setting direction or building relationships.
Step 3: Describe your vision of an ideal world in no more than 10 words by completing this sentence: ‘An ideal world is one in which all people are/have/can/feel…’ For example, ‘receive due process under the law’, ‘experience peace’, ‘have access to healthcare’.
Step 4: Pull it together to create your first draft. ‘I will use my (strengths from step 1) by (activities from step 2) to help create a world in which…(ideal vision from step 3). If the first draft doesn’t feel right, continue to refine it until you love it. Ensure it feels true to you and inspires you in your work.
Writing a purpose statement is important, but not enough. Actions are what ultimately matter, you translate your statement into a plan to have the impact you desire. Start by envisioning the longer-term opportunities and outline your three- to five-year goals.
With your vision and goals set, start to work backward. First, clarify your two-year goals. From there, continue halving the time frame (one year, six months, three months, 30 days) to move from your grand vision to set specific actions for today. Zooming in on the next six months, three months and 30 days, what are the critical next steps you must take to accomplish your one-year goals?
All this requires time and effort. But it is worth it. Imagine the fulfilment of feeling like you’re building your cathedral each and every day, and the profound satisfaction that will come when you step back years from now and see that you did it.
Six routes to your purpose
According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, purpose grows from connection to others, and a crisis of purpose may be a symptom of isolation. To discover purpose in life, it offers six tips:
Read books that matter to you.
Turn hurt into healing for others.
Cultivate awe, gratitude, and altruism.
Listen to what other people appreciate about you.
Find and build community.
Tell your story to create a clearer narrative out of your life.