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What's My Purpose?

By Becca Carnahan and Heather Wilkerson

You’re all tucked in, trying to get to bed early for that elusive eight hours of sleep and your eyes pop open. 

“What’s my purpose?”

It’s a question we would all like to answer because knowing that answer could truly change your life. Yet often the enormity of it can overwhelm us to the point of inaction.  

What if you could break down the question of “what’s my purpose?” into a workable process that helps you integrate your whole life, combining career goals, personal dreams, and values?  At Pathwise we have pulled insights from great thinkers and resources from our experienced career coaches to help you do just that. Our goal? Help you create a more meaningful and fulfilling career path. 

What is purpose?

Before answering the question, it’s critical to know what we mean by purpose. Your life purpose consists of the central motivating aims of your life—the reasons you get up in the morning. 

A workable definition was proposed by Chris Myers in Forbes after exploring the Japanese philosophy on life purpose called Ikigai. “It is a lifestyle that strives to balance the spiritual... and the practical and the balance is found at the intersection where your passions and talents converge with the things that the world needs and is willing to pay for''.  

Purpose can guide your life decisions, influence your behavior, and shape your life and career goals. It builds a sense of direction and creates meaning in your everyday endeavors. Often people find they return to this question of “What is my purpose?” when they are feeling stuck in a position, relationship, or career field, or they realize there is a lack of simple joy in their lives.

Why is purpose important?

For some of you who prefer very practical decision making and shy away from incorporating your  “whole self”  into your profession, it is easy to ignore the idea of life purpose when making career decisions.  However, there is research that validates the importance of honoring life purpose. 

One 2008 study found that those who see meaning and purpose in their lives are able to tell a story of change and growth. A second study conducted by the Institute of Coaching indicated that a connection to purpose in life was positively associated with self-image and negatively associated with delinquency.  

In addition, many anecdotal stories and articles highlight the benefit of having a tuning fork that lets you know you are on the right track.  It provides us with clarity and builds your personal power to own your choices and take back control of your decisions.  PathWise's Career Coaches agree, most clients report a higher level of joy when identifying a clear life purpose. 

What if you ignore it?

Many people ignore feelings of restlessness, aimlessness.  What’s the big deal?  It’s just a job right?  

However, without this exploration process life often feels like a struggle.  A career lacking connection to values, motivators, and strengths has proven to be  “de-energizing” and can lead to depression.  In extreme cases, people experience feelings of victimhood and sometimes sabotage their current careers.  

The bottom line indicates that uncovering and connecting with life purpose not only leads to more joy but that it is the underpinnings of a satisfying career.  Whether looking for a career to provide you with the complete fulfillment of your life purpose or to provide the means for achieving success, life purpose helps you choose an environment congruent with your values, where you can thrive and tap into your natural strengths.  

How to find your purpose

What do I really want in life?  What makes me happy? What makes me fulfilled?  

These big questions can be broken into some practical steps and combined with experiential learning.

Exercises and Tools

In an interview with Brene Brown, Maya Shankar, the once child prodigy violinist and current cognitive psychologist, shared her view on uncovering your real motivators. 

“It’s much more sustainable to attach my identity to the features of pursuits that light me up and make me tick, rather than a very specific activity or thing.”  Uncovering your motivators, values, and joy-providing skills open up worlds of career possibilities.  There are several exercises you can use to help shine a light on these hidden gems.  

Start with visualizing a few scenarios.  Here are a few examples:

  • What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?  When was a time you had your best day?  What were you doing? Experiencing? In these scenarios, notice what is important to you.  
  • What do people appreciate about you? What are you known for? What are your strong points? What does that tell you about what you do want?

Storytelling: 

There are several ways to use storytelling to work towards finding your purpose.

  1. Use everyday occurrences to find meaning in the changes you are going through. Noticing what resonates with the story, the everyday events will hone your tuning fork and over time, it will provide more clarity.
  1. Think about your ideal career and write your story of what you want the future to hold, not what you are afraid it will hold. 
  1. Tell your past from the lens of all the signs that point towards your strengths, your successes.  Take advantage of whatever life sends your way to revise, or at least reconsider, your story. 

This is the beginning of clarifying your values, your motivators, and eventually your purpose.  For a deeper dive into your values, uncovering your motivators and vision check out the assessment section in Pathwise. 

Make it Real and Actionable

Create your personal branding narrative based on your new self-awareness.  What are the strengths you want to capitalize on, values you need to honor?  

Then set short-term actionable goals by testing out some scenarios.  Herminia Ibarra in her book Working Identity says  “We rarely think our way into a new way of acting. Rather, we act our way into new ways of thinking — and being.” Start with goals that allow you to explore the future.  Create a list of possible career steps that give you a chance to move in the right direction.  

With these short-term goals in mind, start making small changes. James Clear in Atomic Habits suggests it is better to start with small incremental steps instead of making a huge change.  This allows you to test the waters.  Instead of dumping your whole career can you start a side gig? Can you join a committee that is more in line with your values or your possible new career?  Is there a hobby you can explore that is closer to this role?  It is hard to know if as an accountant we would be happy switching to a career in physical therapy.  No amount of thinking about it will really help you know.  But what if you take a day and shadow a PT, interview several PT’s or volunteer for a sports team?  

 “Almost no one gets change right on the first try. Forget about moving in a straight line. You will probably have to cycle through a few times, letting what you learn inform the next cycle.”  

Your career when aligned with your Life Purpose

Connecting to a life purpose provides some clarity for making hard career and life choices.  Following the direction you’ve identified, even if it is a hard choice, will be easier if it resonates with your values, motivators, and life vision. 

Aligning your career with your life purpose may also require advocating for yourself In order to honor who you are and your vision.  Use the information you’ve gathered about your life purpose to craft ideal positions, volunteer for committees that are more in line with your new path, and hone your innate strengths into strong skills that support your success.  Advocating for yourself may not come easily, but it’s a necessary step to make a change.

Ikigai reminds us that everything is connected - life and work.  By focusing on your purpose you have an avenue to find joy and fulfillment in the everyday, including your career.  Exploring life’s purpose and intertwining it within all aspects of your life is not a small endeavor.  If you want to explore more in-depth and take a deeper dive into uncovering your values and strengths, defining your life purpose, and writing a new career story, reach out to us at PathWise.  

Resources

Berkeley University. How to Find Your Purpose in Life

Chris Meyers. How To Find Your Ikigai And Transform Your Outlook On Life And Business. Forbes

Herminia Ibarra. Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

James Clear. Atomic Habits

Greg Levoy. Callings 

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