If You Want More Meaning, Start with Purpose
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
“Purpose provides activation energy for living.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
Life is often so busy that we don’t realize we're actually living it. We get up in the morning, brush our teeth, put on some clothes, make a coffee, eat breakfast, go to work, have lunch, come home, eat dinner, watch something on tv, go to sleep. When we're finally in bed, we realize another day just passed and we were barely aware of it. Was it a good day? Was it a day we wanted to have or was it a day someone else wanted us to have?
I never stopped to ask this question until I was almost 34. For the most part of my life, I went with the flow, letting myself guided by life’s meanderings and taking every challenge and every opportunity that came along; with optimism, resilience and without asking too many questions. I was doing my job, I told myself. I was doing what was right. Or at least what I thought was right.
And as one thing led to another, like a chain reaction, more things happened. A study trip where I met someone who gave me my first job. An insightful discussion with a professor, ending up in a year spent abroad to study gender studies. A coffee with a friend, that turned into a job interview. A curious thought about what it takes to be a baker, ending up in a four months baking course. Starting a second master out of boredom and applying for an Erasmus exchange in France. Saying yes to moving to another country, saying yes to becoming a manager without much previous experience. Having a baby without even having at least a quick starting guide. If there was a female version of Carl Allen in Yes Man, that would be me.
But while I was so busy accumulating, and so focused on always doing more and faster, I completely ignored the most important question. Why was I doing all of that? Why the busyness, the constant tiredness and the stress? Where was I running to? And why did it all matter?
It turns out that life has a mysterious way to show us the way, if we are ready to see it. I wasn’t ready to see it, but it showed it to me anyway. Ironically, it happened on the most ordinary day, one early morning of February, while spreading butter on the sandwich for breakfast. My vision suddenly blurred, and a wave of heat built up from head to toes, wrapping the entire right side of my body. I froze in a panic attack and could not swallow, nor speak. For weeks, I lost my sensitivity to temperature, while doctors could not find anything wrong. I wrote more about that scary experience and what caused it, in a previous text, Feeling OK there?
Benefits of a Purposeful Life
We all come to a point in our lives when we ask the big question. Why am I here? Why do I do what I do and what’s the purpose of it all? Like me, some of us start thinking about purpose after experiencing a major life event that just forces us to stop and rethink who we are and what we truly value. But there are other ways to start the process towards living a more meaningful life and I will come to that later.
There are two questions you can ask yourself now:
Do you feel that your life has a sense of direction?
Do you feel you daily activities are engaging and important for you?
Research has shown a clear connection between having a sense of purpose and the general state of one’s wellbeing and quality of life. People who feel a sense of direction live on average longer lives and have more positive and deeper relationships with the others.
Having a clear purpose, helps us find intrinsic motivation to do the right things even when we don’t feel like doing them. It also helps us take difficult decisions easier, because we already clarified the contradictions, the conflicting values and it’s easier to say no to those things that are less essential for us long term. There is also evidence that people who live purposeful lives have more inter-personal appeal and are able to connect easier to other people.
Overall life satisfaction depends not merely on having goals, but on having the right goals.
Most of us think about what we have to do in terms of to-do lists. But management guru Tom Peters also has what he calls “to don’t” list, an inventory of behaviors and practices that drain his energy, distract him, and must be avoided . So what we decide not to do is probably more important than what we decide to do. Having clarity on our long term aspiration, will help us achieve just that.
Having a purpose in life is linked to mastery and perfecting a certain craft that brings us joy and energizes us. By craft, I don’t necessarily mean a manual or artistic endeavor like being a painter or a writer. Any vocation and activity can be a craft, if it involves a skill we can train and perfect as long as we live. To me, leadership is a craft, coaching others is a craft, being a good designer is a craft. When we set goals that are linked to attaining mastery in one area, we find the intrinsic motivation to do the work, to practice, even when we would rather do something easier instead.
Whenever I talk to someone about mastery, I remember the story of Jiro Ono, now 97, who dedicated his entire life to the art of making the perfect sushi. "Once you decide on your occupation," says Jiro, "you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably."
When we put effort into something, it means that’s important to us. As Carol Dweck says, “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something , that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them. ”
So there’s no doubt that having a purpose in life is something we all need. When we lack purpose, we feel a sense of “je ne sais quoi”, what some psychologists have called languishing. It’s having the feeling that we’re only pursuing small meaningless tasks that don’t bring us any joy and don’t add up to a bigger picture. It’s feeling isolated, disconnected and not having any motivation and desire to create something. It’s feeling constant stress as we’re spreading ourselves thinner and thinner, without having any impact on the people and the world around us.
So What Is Purpose Anyway?
Anthony Burrow, psychology professor at Cornell University who has been researching the connection between purpose and identity, defines purpose as a forward-looking directionality, an intention to create something in the world.
There is a difference between purpose and meaning. Meaning is making sense of the world as it happened or it’s happening, while purpose is about aspiring to something that is ahead of us. If I am a manager and my purpose is to lead with humanity and compassion, I will look at the hour I just spent listening to a team member who struggles, as a meaningful experience and not as a waste of time that costs the company money. If my purpose is to be a good parent who teaches my child the right values and principles in life, the inevitable conflicts and tiring discussions that I will have with my child, are not sources of exhaustion but a meaningful necessity.
Purpose is like putting a pair of goggles that will help us see the world from a different, and more meaningful perspective.
There is also a difference between purpose and goals. A goal has a clear start and end date, so it’s an intention that can be achieved. Wanting to become a manager is a goal and you will be done with it once you got that promotion you were dreaming of. Wanting to be a good manager on the other hand, is an aspiration. You are never done with it, it’s an art that you can cultivate and keep improving as long as you will be practicing it. On some days you will feel closer to your vision of a good manager and other times you will be struggling. It’s OK and you should not feel bad about yourself, as long as you are making progress and you’re going in the right direction.
One important principle in coaching is what we call the ecology of objectives. If a client comes and says that her objective is to reach one million dollars in one year, we first need to spend time on that objective and discuss if it is the right objective. How does that goal fit in the bigger picture of the person’s life? What will be the effect on the person’s wellbeing, when she takes the necessary steps towards that goal? Are those actions aligned with who the person is and what her values are? Will those action have unexpected personal impacts, for example on her health or quality of her relationships? What happens when the client achieved that goal?
Achieving a goal, whether is being number one or becoming rich, doesn't give you a sustainable vision long term and you have to ask yourself: what then? What happens when I achieved that? Who am I then? If there is no bigger aspiration behind that goal, it will just become a struggle to hold on to that label and maintain it. The stories of Andre Agassi and so many famous people who became depressed because there was no higher meaning after all the medals were won, are stories we need to listen to and learn from.
Is Purpose Something We Find?
I don’t believe that purpose is something we find all of a sudden, like a revelation or a eureka moment. If anyone tries to sell you that promise, run away, it’s a trap. Finding purpose is a process, sometimes long, sometimes hard. It comes with many difficult questions it forces us to be honest and hold ourselves accountable for all the stories we tell. Purpose can be cultivated in different ways and while we go through different stages of life, our mission might change as we evolve and become the next evolved version of ourselves. Just like with Pokémon monsters.
I started to think about my purpose in life when my body forced me to stop and rethink what I was doing. There are moments like these when something ground shaking happens, often a life transition, a health related issue or a loss. There is a shift in our perspective and this process of change and rediscovery will eventually lead to finding one’s life mission and purpose.
But experiencing a big life disruption is not and should not be the only way. We can also gradually discover our purpose while immersing ourselves in activities we enjoy and in hobbies that put us in a flow state. As we spend more time pursuing those things we love, things start to connect and make more sense with time. What is key is that we spend time reflecting on what is happening and put effort in identifying patterns in our own behavior. When do we feel energized and when do we feel drained? How does the day look like when we are at our best, versus a day when we feel disconnected and misaligned?
A third way to start the process towards discovering more purpose is to observe someone else who is driven and has a clear mission. It’s important to observe actual behaviors and not get mesmerized by the results and the external appearance of the people who inspire you. What do they actually do every day? What do they believe in? Who are they surrounded by? How does their world look like, not on social media, but in the different areas of their real life?
It’s essential that we focus on behaviors, and not on goals. Goals are outside of our control. If my goal is to get an "excellent" on my performance review, that's not something I can control. My boss or someone else will actually make that decision, that ranking. Instead, I can focus on those behaviors that I value as excellent. What do I need to do to assess my own performance as excellent? What does excellence look like for me?
It’s a Personal Journey
We all want to have fulfilled and happy lives, to feel energized, alive and joyful. There are many scientific ways to accurately rate one’s level of happiness as Dan Gilbert’s research on happiness has shown. But what’s more difficult to assesses and group into categories is the nature of the experiences who make us feel happy and fulfilled. Everyone finds joy from a different mix of activities and interests, so the path to finding that optimal mix, is deeply personal and unique to each of us. There are no two people who have exactly the same mix of personality, drives, values and interests, so it’s never a good strategy to copy what someone else is doing to feel happy.
Purpose is internally driven, it's a subjective process. The question "what is your purpose?”, is not something that someone else and answer for you.
We all have a different journey and the potential to fulfill a higher purpose and create something unique. Like Viktor Frankl beautifully explains it in this lecture, if we want to avoid letting ourselves drift through life, and instead move towards something important to us, something that brings the best out of us, we need to know where we want to go, so we can assess we’re on the right direction when the winds is too strong.
You know you act with purpose, when you realize that you do what you do not because you want to be labelled in a certain way and validated by others, but because that's who you are and you feel inner confidence about your actions and decisions.
When you know who you are and who you want to become, you don't need external validation to feel good about yourself. You accept and love yourself the way you are and trust your own abilities to do what needs to be done.
Purpose must not be understood as this big scary thing that you must find or else you will be doomed to live a meaningless life. It can be a small thing that carries you with intent to the next day. Purpose can materialize at different levels.
Some people find more meaning in 1:1 interaction and when their work or actions have a positive impact on others. A doctor sees every patient as an opportunity to make an impact.
Others want to be part of a bigger organization and have a scalable contribution longer term. Think about aspirations around contributing to more creative and inclusive organizations.
And there are other people who find meaning at societal level. My actions and work have a bigger impact above individuals and organization. These are people who want to get involved in politics, NGOs, research or do social entrepreneurship.
6 Things You Can Do Today
Living a more meaningful life is not a matter of reflection and vision only. It requires action. Often, action followed by reflection will lead us in the right direction. All of us have a purpose in this world. A unique mission, so personal that you'll not find two people sharing the exact same one. My own journey to find more purpose started a few years ago when I started to reflect on my strengths and wanted to focus on having more impact around me, rather than spreading myself too thin across too many areas and activities. I will list a few reflection exercises that helped me in my own journey, but everyone’s journey is unique and it will evolve in a different way. All you need to do is start somewhere.
1. Assess the important areas of your life.
If we want to live more meaningful experiences, we can start by looking at our current life and assess how we feel about each area: work, health, love, play. I wrote about the Designing Your Life framework in a previous post. You can go through steps 2 to 5 and reflect on those things that bring you most satisfaction in each area of your life. As you start to intentionally choose to focus on those activities that bring you flow and energy, you will do less of the things that drain your energy and leave you unfulfilled.
2. Get a flow test
Set a reminder on your computer or mobile phone to go off at forty random times in a week. Each time your device beeps, write down what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and whether you’re in “flow.” Record your observations, look at the patterns, and consider the following questions:
Which moments produced feelings of “flow”? Where were you? What were you working on? Who were you with?
Are certain times of day more flow-friendly than others? How could you restructure your day based on your findings?
How might you increase the number of optimal experiences and reduce the moments when you felt disengaged or distracted?
3. Find your Ikigai
Ikigai is not a thing, it’s a feeling. A sense of fulfillment when you do what you love, but at the same time, you know it's something that the world needs, and it can also pay your bills. Start by writing down on a piece of paper and then transfer it to the Ikigai diagram.
Do what you love: What did you enjoy doing as a child or in your early adult years? What do you do now in your spare time that makes you happy?
Do what you are good at: Do you know your strengths and skills? What are they? What do people ask you to help them with?
Do something the world needs: What and who inspires you? What makes you annoyed or frustrated?
Do something you can be paid for: What service or product could you sell (what would people pay you for)? What job could you do?
4. Find Your Unique Ability
I wrote before about this concept, so you can check out the entire post on finding your superpower. This idea was developed by Dan Sullivan, owner of the Strategic Coach, an organization that helps entrepreneurs become more successful and happier. According to this concept, your unique ability is made of four elements:
An obvious superior ability that other people notice and value
You love doing it and you want to do it as much as possible
It’s energizing for you and others around you
You keep getting better at it and you feel you’re on the path to mastery
Make a list of ten people you trust and whose opinion matter to you. It can be family, friends, colleagues, a mix from different areas of your life. Send them a short message and tell them that you are working on better understanding your unique talents. Ask them this simple question: “What do you think my unique ability is? Something that I have or I do very well, that makes a difference?” Seeing yourself through the lens of other people is extremely powerful and it helps you understand yourself from a totally new perspective.
You will then read the answers and try to find some patterns. It could be that the pattern is so obvious that you will wonder “How could I not see this?” Or it might be that people see different unique abilities in you and you will need to spend more time making sense of the feedback and relate it back to how you feel about those things. In either case, this simple exercise will give you a great base to start thinking about your strengths and passions.
5. Coaching and mentorship
Working with a coach, a change strategist or a mentor is one of the most effective ways to get to the outcome you want, not only because it’s a personalized approach that guides you through the exercises that work for you, but also because it adds a layer of accountability to everything you say you want to do. Richard Feynman once wrote that “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”.
You probably read and hear everywhere how effective journaling can be for our mental well being. Well, it is. Taking a few minutes every day to reflect on what is happening, how we react and how we feel, helps us better understand our behaviors. Cultivating self awareness and a growth mindset has a direct impact on our interpersonal interactions and the quality of our relationships. Remember to regularly reflect back the 5 Ps of finding meaning.
P.S. I am curious to hear about your own relationship with purpose. Which path to purpose has resonated mostly with you? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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