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3 Steps To Discover Your Purpose
To have a life purpose is to be able to unify your life with an ideal.
Of course, a person can be happy living in the moment without knowing their purpose. Skipping from one pleasure—or so-called happiness—to another until they die.
But such a person will have lived a purposeless life.
Why It’s Important To Discover Your Purpose
One reason it’s difficult to know your purpose in life is that you don’t have to.
Your physical survival doesn’t depend on knowing your purpose—but your spiritual survival does.
You can well survive without knowing your purpose.
Indeed, you can make multiple-millions of dollars before you’re fifty-years-old and remain utterly ignorant of your life-purpose.
But a person who doesn’t know their purpose can be physically alive while spiritually dead.
So, to live without a life-purpose is to live like a zombie.
Death isn’t a problem for zombies—only food. Zombies suffer eternal hunger. And they are compelled by hunger to eat—which requires them to kill.
Zombies are driven by the necessity for food to stop the pain of hunger. But necessity isn’t yet a purpose. Therefore, to live as a human without a purpose is to live like a zombie—to roam with insatiable hunger to no meaningful, conscious, freely-chosen end.
A famous example of someone driven by blind necessity is Captain Ahab, a character in Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick.
Ahab is bent by revenge. He wants to kill the white whale, Moby Dick, because Moby Dick bit off his leg. Ahab is driven by pain. And the result of Ahab’s quest for revenge is that—except for one young man, Ishmael—Captain Ahab destroys his crew, himself, and his whaling ship, The Pequod.
Ahab fails to fulfill his quest. Some people see Ahab as a hero because of his strong, relentless will. But it’s more accurate to recognize Ahab’s tragedy for what it is: a failed endeavor whose purpose is not a purpose per se, but a pain-motivated drive to conquer nature, the result of which is death, destruction, and failure.
Melville uses Ahab as a critical symbol to express his, Melville’s, concerns with America’s growing pride over its formidable progress with the development of industrial technology. But Melville does not see technological prowess as an example of purpose. Rather, he fears the tragic effects that America’s enthusiastic—but blind—embrace of scientific, economic, and industrial power might have on life, on culture, on people, and on the human soul.
For Melville, to live—driven by compulsion—without connecting to deep sources of purpose, leads to a tragic end.
Also, without a purpose, moved by reactionary drives like Ahab’s thirst for revenge, your mind and your body have no place to rest.
So, without a clear sense of your life-purpose, you’re likely to keep busy distracting yourself by moving from one activity—one job, one city, one relationship, one project, one dream—to the next, unable to focus, to stay put, or to complete anything that satisfies you. And, to anyone who asks you why you do what you do, you will also not be able to offer a complete, satisfactory, straightforward, or meaningful answer.
Of course, you can answer the question about your life purpose in terms of needing money, or wanting pleasure, or ‘having to have’ various ‘things’ to satisfy your nervous system. But such needs are the demands of your biological organism, not the demands of your spirit—not the demands of core values like creativity, courage, beauty, kindness, or truth.
Biological needs—needs for survival, status, and profit—are not the demands of your spirit. The spirit lives for spiritual values like virtue, compassion, and wisdom. However, these days it’s almost laughable to think of living like Ivanhoe—giving your life and money away for something like truth or for love. Without acts of chivalry, valor, or selflessness, society becomes a bleak place to live. But such heroism cannot be achieved without a sense of spiritual purpose.
How To Find Purpose In Life
If you want to know your purpose, start by reading the works of others who’ve come before you, who questioned what it means to live a great life, and who pushed the limits of human possibility.
Reading Confucius’s Analects, or Buddhist Sutras, or the works of Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu, or Dōgen Zenji is a good place to start, as well as the poetry of Basho, Keats, and Shakespeare, or the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Miguel de Cervantes, Stendhal, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Marcel Proust, and André Gide to name a few literary artists on reading lists of classic literature such as you can find here.
In short, reading the literature and biographies of people who’ve built—and continue to build—human civilization is a good place to begin to understand what matters in life.
Also, reading helps you understand how deep thinkers, seekers, and visionaries have thought about what it means to be human, how to live, what the self is, and what the world is. Usually, the message has to do with something about love or death—as suggested by the title of Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, for example.
But however much great literature expands your awareness of the possibilities for human life, activity, and imagination, in the end it’s you who must declare and live your purpose—a purpose that’s both worthy of preceding luminaries as well as one that energizes you, excites you, and brings meaning to your life and to your world.
So, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a great teacher—as Aristotle had Plato, and Plato had Socrates—and as Master Shyuansha had Master Shyuefeng, to help refine, deepen, and polish your thought, insight, and understanding about what your purpose is and how to realize it in the world.
Three Steps You Can Take To Craft Your Purpose In Life
Culture must have heroes to flourish.
And just as culture is comprised of many selves, so is your mind.
Therefore, among the selves in your mind —the self that is a mother, the self that wants a professional career, the self that is a wife and wants time with her partner, the self that wants solitude, and the self that wants to be on vacation with her friends, the self that wants to be an entirely different self—competing to control and to realize themselves by using your body, you must choose one. You must find the self in your mind to which you want to offer your body.
Indeed, if you don’t have a heroic, spiritual self that you put into practice, your life will not flourish, and you won’t have the power to live in a beautiful, spiritual, or meaningful way.
Here are three steps to help you find the self to which you may want to devote:
Determine your core values.
To have your purpose is to recognize your core values. You must know the three to five ideals for which you live and the singular purpose to which those values give rise.
You can think of having a purpose as having core values and a vision for your life that demonstrates your values.
History provides ample evidence of purposeful lives. But you may not see — or want to see—purpose in life because a life purpose is a life demand.
Once you determine your purpose, it doesn’t make sense not to live for that purpose. Otherwise, there’s no point in having a purpose. But keeping our sense of purpose in the face of live events can take courage: for example, if your purpose is to stand for goodness and truth then it could be difficult to stand up to a boss who you feel has done something wrong knowing you may be fired.
Aristotle says that the purpose of human life is virtue. Therefore, if we accept Aristotle’s idea, human life demands of us that we live as best we can in a virtuous way—whatever virtue may look like in any given situation.
But it’s not always easy or convenient to be virtuous in life without getting blowback or facing other inconvenient consequences like getting fired for sticking up for equal compensation or a humane work schedule.
It may take you a few tries to determine your purpose as you look at different ways of life, and only you can know whether you are making progress toward bringing your life and your actions into alignment with your core values and purpose.
One thing you can do to help discover your purpose is to talk about it with friends that you trust—friends who will take you seriously and help you to reflect on who you are.
Also, there are many workbooks, worksheets, and exercises to help you put together a vision statement based on your core values and purpose. You can find an excellent worksheet that we designed for you, and that you can download for free here.
Some pitfalls to watch for in your purpose-finding project are:
- You may have more than one purpose, and your purpose might change with different stages of life. This is ok. The purpose that you have at age 20 may not be the same purpose that you have when you are 70.
- The very search for purpose can be a way to procrastinate about ever finding and making a commitment to one. Be aware that you could be fooling yourself and avoiding a commitment to your purpose by endlessly seeking the next new guru, spiritual trend, or wellness fad. This is an interesting avoidance mechanism known as spiritual bypassing. You can read about spiritual bypassing in a book of that title, Spiritual Bypassing, by Robert Masters. Spiritual bypassing occurs when, under the guise of seeking, you distract yourself from committing to the demands of the values by which you choose to live.
It’s important to know your purpose because without one you’re likely to harbor envy against those who have lively lives, or who enjoy cheerful, compassionate human relations, or who can smile at a flower, or a child, or whose eyes sparkle with health, mirth, and charm.
Interestingly, purpose isn’t something you solve like a math problem. To find your purpose requires self-exploration, which you can do through activities like journaling or talking with friends.
There are many ways to begin to explore your purpose. We recommend the fun and excellent book Personality Isn’t Permanent by Dr. Benjamin Hardy.
By reading Dr. Hardy’s book and doing the journaling exercises, you’ll begin to clarify what matters to you in life, and why.
For example, you might journal about questions such as:
- What is at the end of your yellow brick road?
- Where is your life going right now?
- What wall is your ladder facing, and where will you be when you get to the ‘top’?
Dr. Hardy also provides tips about how to prepare and to focus to get the most out of a journaling session. For example (from p. 103):
- Get into a distraction-free environment where you can think freely and without notifications going off (leave your smartphone away from your body or on airplane mode).
- Meditate or pray before writing.
- Review your vision or goals before writing (if you have them—ask what the purpose for your writing is?)
- Write about things you’re grateful for—past, present, and future.
Another book full of helpful exercises is Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Bill and Dave offer a comprehensive step-by-step approach to generating value-based visions for an exciting, engaging life.
A third excellent source is the HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose by John Coleman.
The second step—if you want to live with purpose—is to compare your purpose to others’.
This step is important because you must stretch the vision, depth, and breadth of your purpose until it can’t be stretched any longer. It’s good to choose a grand purpose, an ideal that you may never be able to fulfill because your purpose ought to energize, inspire, and physically move you to achieve great works.
For example, the Buddha states his purpose in the Lotus Sutra, proclaiming: “At all times I think to myself: / How can I cause living beings / to gain entry into the Unsurpassed Way / and quickly acquire the Body of a Buddha?” Thus, the Buddha’s purpose.
Also, a grand purpose gives you power to cull abundant spiritual content from an otherwise mundane, material world.
Gandhi and Thoreau lived for the idea of ahimsa—a life of non-violence in all their affairs, living with what a dictionary defines as “respect for all living things and avoidance of violence toward others.”
The third step —hold yourself accountable to your purpose.
Have you stated your purpose with enough clarity? Are you living according to your purpose? How many of the 1,440 minutes in a day—or the 4,000 weeks of your life—do you devote to your purpose in thought, speech, and action?
One way to determine whether you’re living according to your purpose is to generate SMART goals—which we write about here—around your purpose: goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound.
Also, you might find a friend who shares your purpose and ask them to help you by holding you accountable to your life. Set regular times to meet and check in. Hold each other accountable to your purpose and to your goals in a loving, caring, way that’s consistent with the positive spiritual values on which your friendship is based.
Additionally, you can choose to eliminate or spend less time with people in your life who violate your sense of purpose or who make your purpose more difficult to achieve.
The loss of friendships to the pursuit of your purpose raises another important point.
It’s much easier to be content with the traditions and social customs established by those who’ve lived and developed culture before you than to half-heartedly pursue the path of truth. To pursue truth in a lackadaisical way will likely lead you to sickness, confusion, and unnecessary financial loss. Therefore, undertake your quest with deep passion, courage, and sincerity.
To be sure, the search for purpose isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s better left untouched if you’re not willing to ‘go all the way,’ so to speak. Indeed, the path of purpose is not for everyone.
But if you’re sincere in your search for purpose—what might start as a difficult, bitter, impossible-seeming journey will grow into a strong and beautiful way whereby you realize the ease of truth and wholeness in your life.
What To Do When We Feel Like Life Has No Purpose
The question of human purpose is a question about how you want to feel in life.
What kinds of friendships and experiences do you want to have?
How do you want to spend your time?
Indeed, your purpose is the principle around which you decide how to spend your time—so as not to waste it.
Often those who feel like they have no purpose or vision for their life haven’t been encouraged to have one—or they don’t know where to start.
Fortunately, after reading this column, you’re not one of these people!
Nevertheless, many people have been raised in a challenging cultural environment such as under the tutelage of ignorant, shortsighted guardians, envious peers, or cynical teachers.
Whatever the case, if you’re reading these words, you’re free of these obstacles.
You can reflect on your life, engage with the material here, and the material recommended throughout these pages, and you can start to cultivate your sense of purpose—until you realize your freedom.
Unlike so much in modern, consumer-driven society, purpose is not something you can passively consume. To truly know your purpose requires some work, but the rewards of knowing your purpose—and crafting a life in which you can live it—are amazing.
Purpose is a thing that you must energetically examine, reflect on, craft, nurture, and develop.
The extent to which you take responsibility for—investing time, energy, and effort in—cultivating your purpose, is the extent to which your life will flourish, open, and reward you.
And with a lot of hard work and devotion it may even be that you are able to attain the state in which you become your purpose itself.
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