In your quiet moments, have you ever wondered about your purpose, your reason for being? If that question seems too weighty or “out there,” how about your reason for getting up in the morning? That’s pretty straightforward. Your answer to that question is your purpose. Purpose is fundamental. It is universal. Indeed, it’s the key to health, healing, happiness and longevity. To help you learn more about this topic, I’ve compiled answers to my seven most frequently asked questions on purpose from audiences around the world.
1) What if I don’t have a purpose?
If you have a pulse, you have a purpose. You’re here for a reason. Purpose—an evolutionary impulse to make things better—is in our DNA as humans. Case in point: I once had a conversation with an elder in Africa, a member of the hunter-gatherer Hadza tribe. “Do you know what the two most important days in your life are?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied, “birth and death.” He scoffed and said, “Yes, birth is the first. But, in our tradition, the second most important day in your life is the day you determine why you were born.”
If you’re unsure of your purpose, start with considering this default purpose: Grow and Give. Two simple words. If you get up every day with the intention to grow and to give rather than to take, you’re living purposefully.
Purpose is a verb. It’s what we do on a day-to-day basis to activate purpose that makes for a fulfilling life. When you ask yourself every morning, "How am I going to grow today? How am I going to give?" you will be on your way to discovering your purpose, to determining why you were born.
"Purpose is a verb. It’s what we do on a day-to-day basis to activate purpose that makes for a fulfilling life."
2) Can my purpose be my family or to make money?
No. The biggest mistake people make when they think about purpose is that it’s a goal, like helping my family or making money. But purpose is not a goal. Instead, it’s an aim larger than yourself and outside of yourself—and something you bring to everything you do. In other words, it’s a mindset. Purpose has three stages, maturing from self to others to all of us.
So, if your goal is to help your family, the way you do that is to bring a purpose mindset and attitude to the task, as well as to every situation and every interaction in your life. It’s about conscious intentional action and not “what” you bring but “who” you bring to what you do.
3) Can I have more than one purpose?
No. Purpose is always about service to others. At heart, purpose is compassion in action. It’s feeling strongly enough that you want to contribute to life, contribute to others, contribute to the community. Almost every religious tradition has purpose or compassion in action as part of their beliefs.
Again, purpose has three stages. Stage 1 is uncover. It typically occurs when we’re young and involves uncovering our gifts, passions and values. We’re becoming self-aware and learning who we are. We are completely focused on ourselves.
The next stage of purpose is discover. Discovering is about more than “me”—rather, it’s about “us.” Oftentimes, that us is our community and who we are collectively, however we define it.
Finally, Stage 3 is rediscover. As we mature, we rediscover that purpose is universal for all of us, knowledge we have thanks to “the wisest of the elders” who often hold a larger lens on—and so have a broader sense of—purpose.
4) Can my purpose change as I get older?
Yes and no. The way you act on purpose can change as you get older. How you spend your time, where you focus your energies.
To reiterate, purpose is not a goal. It’s an aim, from cradle to grave. The aim is to make a difference, to make a “dent” in the universe.
Back in the ’70s, I took part in the Harvard Study of Adult Development. A long-term investigation—and by that, I mean researchers followed study participants from early adulthood to death—it focused on participants’ experiences with money, health, relationships, work … virtually all aspects of life. Not surprisingly, the study found that what keeps people feeling alive, fulfilled and happy is people and purpose.
So, purpose can change in terms of the way you act on it, but what doesn’t change is this: It’s always about making a difference for others. As you age, there are new reasons, and new ways, to make your dent.
"To reiterate, purpose is not a goal. It’s an aim, from cradle to grave. The aim is to make a difference, to make a 'dent' in the universe."
5) Why is purpose always about service to others?
At its heart, purpose is compassion in action. It’s a strong feeling of wanting to contribute to life, contribute to others, contribute to the community. And it is spiritual: Almost every religious tradition has purpose or compassion in action as part of its belief system.
Holocaust survivor and one of my early mentors, Viktor Frankl, exemplified compassion in action. After his liberation from Auschwitz, he returned home to Vienna to heal from his horrific experience—an experience that had taken nearly his entire family from him, including his pregnant wife. A renowned neurologist and psychiatrist, he later became one of the most influential thinkers of his time.
In 1946, Frankl chronicled his years as a concentration camp prisoner in Man’s Search for Meaning. In this deeply reflective book, he writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
And, indeed, Frankl did choose his own way while at Auschwitz … a way that focused on answering the question “What is life asking of me?” Rather than succumbing to despair, he chose to look for purpose moments—moments that could give his life meaning. So, he made a conscious decision to, for example, give a fellow prisoner a hug or perhaps a kind word. Maybe a crust of bread. These purpose moments, he wrote, gave him the will to live and helped him make it through another day.
6) What if my purpose doesn’t align with my job or the values of my organization?
If you’re looking at the question of “fit” in your work, do what I call the napkin test. The best ideas start on the back of a napkin, right? On your napkin, write this formula: G + P + V = C, or Gifts plus Passion plus Values equals Calling. That’s the heavy lifting of purpose. If you approach every day with an intention to use your gifts on things you feel passionate or purposeful about in an environment that aligns with your core values, you’ve got a calling.
Next, ask yourself: Am I using my gifts at work? Gift are enjoyed talents, the things you love to do. You may not recall learning how to do them, but you do them naturally—and well. If you’re not using your gifts in your job, I challenge you to bring 25 percent more of those enjoyed talents to work and see what happens.
Here’s what happened to a Boston cab driver I met years ago. When I gave him the address of my destination, he asked why I was going there. I replied that I’d be giving a speech entitled “Whistle While You Work.” “Give me a break!” he responded dismissively. He admitted that he drove a cab only to pay the bills and that nothing about his job fed his passion, which, he said, was coaching soccer. But when I asked him if there were any people he enjoyed serving more than others, he said yes, he loved driving older ladies. “You’ve got a calling, then: giving care to older women through driving,” I told him. “You’re right,” he replied, “I do. I come alive.” Sometimes, purpose is not what you do, but who you bring to what you do.
If you aren’t coming alive at work, I’d encourage you to do some self-reflection with the help of the napkin test and then try to bring more of your gifts to your job. Look for the “purpose moments” and use your enjoyed talents to reinvent your job. Seventy percent of people who do this self-awareness exercise decide to stay in their current work role; the other 30 percent find a different job more in line with their purpose.
7) My spouse/partner/child/friend/colleague needs to find a purpose. How can I make that happen?
First, be your message. By that I mean model your purpose—be purposeful, live purposefully. If you’re going to be believed, you’ve got to live it, right? Walk your talk. Secondly, help a young person understand his own gifts, passions and values … do the napkin test with him so he’s clear about his offer, what he brings to life and to the world. And third, help a young person get outside herself by volunteering to help somebody else, whether in her own family or in the community. We know young people can be self-absorbed, and the opposite of self-absorption is purpose.
Just as important, be a committed listener. A committed listener is somebody who practices “care” versus “cure”—somebody who cares about you but is not interested in curing or fixing you. He or she is an important member of your “sounding board” (the others are a wise elder, a wise younger and a mentor). There is ample scientific evidence showing that having somebody to talk to is fundamental to our health, healing, happiness and longevity. Your committed listener doesn’t judge you and lets you tell your story without providing any feedback or weighing in with a point of view. This can be difficult, of course, because in good faith, when we’re acting as committed listeners, we want to help. But the fact is, listen, listen, listen means listen, then listen more, and then listen even more. And if someone feels like he’s being heard, you’re going to create a deep, meaningful relationship with that person and model your purpose.