Real talk: For a long time, I worried about not having a compelling purpose.
By purpose, I don’t mean a reason to get up in the morning, or something I really enjoyed doing, or a major milestone I was working toward. I always had plenty of those.
I mean Purpose with a Capital P — that simple, profound, awe-inspiring catch-all phrase that described What I Was Meant to Do on Earth. You know, the sentence you bust out at dinner parties and conferences that captures the brilliant essence of what you do and makes other people go, Oooh, now this guy’s got it figured out.
Yeah, I didn’t have that.
What I did have was a disparate collection of intense interests: engineering, travel, foreign languages, and psychology, to name a few. I spent my adolescence and early adulthood going really deep into these fields, but they didn’t exactly lend themselves to a clever mission statement.
All I knew was that I was pursuing these topics because I genuinely loved them. And for many years, they had no immediate benefit and no obvious connection to my deeper purpose, whatever that was.
Over time, these random interests started to coalesce into a general area of inquiry: why people do what they do. The one thing tying all my random hobbies together, I began to realize, was a simple but profound curiosity about human psychology.
Maybe that was my purpose, I thought. To Figure People Out.
That was my guiding interest when I began walking the path that led me to where I am today, and if anyone asked me what my purpose was back then, I probably said some version of that. Not bad, as far as neat summaries go. At the very least, it accurately described my interests.
The only problem was that I didn’t feel much of an emotional connection to it. Even though I really loved what I did, this purpose statement was just that — a few choice words strung together to make my passion for social dynamics sound more important. On some level, I knew this was mostly a clever idea — and a way to not sound dumb when people asked me what I did.
And so the confusion continued. For several more years, I worried that I was missing something huge, something essential, for failing to know what my function in life really was.
If I couldn’t articulate it, did I really have a purpose?
And if I didn’t have a purpose, was my work actually meaningful?
What I didn’t realize back then was how many people ask themselves the same question all the time. And how most of us carry around some shame and insecurity about this question, because no one wants to admit that they don’t have something so important figured out.
A few years back, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a major study on Americans’ well-being.
In the study, the researchers asked people about their sense of purpose and meaning in life. The findings are pretty astonishing.
When asked if their lives have a clear sense of purpose, only one in five Americans strongly agreed.
When asked if they have a good sense of what makes their lives meaningful, only one in three strongly agreed.
And when the researchers asked participants if they’ve discovered a satisfying life purpose, nearly 40% of people reported that they hadn’t.
Which paints a pretty astounding picture — and, I think, a reassuring one.
Because while most of us feel that we’re one of the few flailing without a purpose, the research shows that most people are wrestling with this question at any given moment.
We just don’t know it, because no one wants to talk about it.
Why is that?
The Cult of Purpose
One of the most common emails I receive from our listeners is about finding a purpose.
And almost every one of those emails comes down to the same basic problem.
I don’t know what my purpose is, and it’s making me unhappy.
I rarely get emails that say, I don’t know what my purpose is and I’m having a lot of fun trying to figure it out!, or I can’t figure out my purpose but I’m still loving life!
In almost every case, the quest for purpose goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, fear, depression and insecurity.
Which echoes a lot of scientific research in this area. Several studies have demonstrated a clear link between purpose and happiness, and between our ability to find meaning and how fulfilled we are in life.
So it’s no surprise that an entire industry has developed around this problem. Browse career websites, see a life coach or check out the top self-help books, and you’ll find no shortage of experts trying to help you check this huge task off your list. Finding Your Purpose is kind of having a moment.
Actually, it’s been having a moment for the last several hundred years. As civilization progresses, and humans continue to climb Maslow’s pyramid of needs to higher and higher tiers of self-actualization, we hunger more and more for the loftier values of meaning and happiness. Now that we don’t have to worry every second about surviving this world, we can obsess endlessly about why we’re in it in the first place.
As George Bernard Shaw famously put it, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”
Which is true, of course. As meaning-making machines, we humans are designed to seek a purpose beyond mere survival. There’s real joy in that — discovering and pursuing what we’re meant to do. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t be worrying so much about not finding it!
What Shaw didn’t talk about was how elusive and frustrating that “mighty purpose” can be.
The pressure to have a Mighty and Recognizable Purpose — and to be able to articulate it clearly with other people — has become endemic in our generation.
Our culture celebrates ideas more and more — especially big, romantic, noble ones — and expects us to embody those ideas in everything we do.
Social media and the personal branding movement only made this obligation worse, by requiring us to publicize our self-summaries to the world, and by penalizing us if we don’t.
And so we see other people busting out their purposes with ease and being rewarded for their vision, while we quietly wonder if we’re the only ones who haven’t figured it out.
Finding our purpose then becomes a real problem, and we start obsessing over our purpose from a place of obligation, doubt and fear. We read books, we attend seminars, we poll our friends, we take career quizzes, and we fantasize about all the other things we could be doing to make our lives more meaningful.
Because if we don’t, we worry that we’ll lose the game. We’ll just be directionless meat puppets in a purpose-driven world, all because we don’t have that One Profound Idea about ourselves.
That’s what I call the Cult of Purpose.
This idea that we have to know why we’re here in order to thrive.
That we should be able to talk about our purpose easily and confidently with other people at any given moment.
That if we can’t, then we’re failing in life.
That if we don’t, then we’ll never really be fulfilled.
The Cult of Purpose is how the exciting journey to find out what we want to do with our lives becomes a desperate quest to satisfy an external idea of who we should be.
That’s the mistake I made when I was trying to figure out my purpose early on. I looked at all the varied topics I was interested in, articulated a purpose that tied them together in an elegant way, then reverse-engineered an identity that satisfied that purpose.
But as I know from my own life — and you know from yours, I’m sure — that approach just doesn’t work. Not really. Not for long, anyway.
Rather than generating true meaning in our lives, grasping at an external purpose and then fighting to fulfill it is an excellent recipe for imposterism.
Because instead of stepping into who we already are, we’re creating an idea, a mental fiction — a very attractive mental fiction, but a fiction nonetheless! — and then trying to become that.
Which, of course, is the very definition of being an imposter. Instead of being ourselves, we try to become an idea of ourselves.
And on the deepest level, we know we’re so much more than an idea.
The truth is, purpose isn’t something we just decide. It’s something we discover.
More than that, it’s something we develop.
Which is why we need to rethink how we find it.
How to Actually Find Your Purpose
Several years into the podcast, I realized that my early stated purpose — to figure people out — was starting to take on some new dimensions.
Because I was building a platform and interviewing experts all over the world, I was putting that idea into action, and realizing just how much I loved hosting the show.
My project opened up new questions. Why do people do what they do? What makes some people successful? Is there a psychology of success? How can I learn from the world’s most successful people, and share their insights with other people?
Suddenly, with very little conscious thought, my “purpose” was becoming incredibly clear.
I was here to learn as much as I could about life, success and happiness by interviewing top performers, and to share that wisdom with as many people as possible.
Interestingly, I didn’t really care about the actual words. They didn’t matter as much.
What did matter was what I was doing.
My new purpose — which wasn’t actually new, since I had unconsciously been pursuing it for more than 10 years — that purpose was coming to life.
Like a path that unfolds as you tread it, my purpose simply became what I was doing every single day.
How did I know to do it? I didn’t “know” anything. I was just doing what I loved the most, and living the process of becoming better and better at it.
In other words, I didn’t build a show because I decided it was my purpose; the show became my purpose because I built it.
I’m convinced that template applies to every single one of us.
But how do we actually do that, if we don’t know what we truly love?
And how do we know if we love something enough to put in the hard work to master it?
In my view, the answers come down to three key strategies.
And the first one is to…
Help the people around you.
Heather, a fashion designer and JHS listener, recently sent me a long update on her two-year journey to redefine her purpose.
After struggling with everything we’ve discussed in this article, she finally realized that Making Beautiful Clothes — what she thought was her purpose for almost a decade — wasn’t enough to make her excited about work anymore. She still loved the art of fashion, but she had evolved dramatically as a person, and her sense of meaning in life had changed too.
But the more she sat down and thought about what her new purpose might be, the more convinced she became that she was lost. She was also scared, because she had built a network and an expertise in fashion, and stepping away from it felt like a huge risk. After months of inquiry, she was more stressed than ever, and no closer to an answer.
So finally, she decided to stop working on her purpose all the time. It was just too frustrating, she said.
Instead, Heather did something incredibly simple and incredibly smart: She carved out a few hours each week to help the people in her network.
The idea, she told me, was to stop focusing on herself so much, and to hopefully open her eyes to new possibilities by investing in the people around her.
One day, she reconnected over coffee with an old colleague who had left the fashion world to join an unusual nonprofit. Her friend’s organization provided professional attire and career mentoring to job-seeking women, so they could feel confident in their clothes and presentation when they went on interviews and navigated their careers.
Heather was immediately intrigued. Her friend’s nonprofit combined clothing and philanthropy in a way she hadn’t considered before, and it gave a whole new meaning to the role of fashion in our lives.
So she decided to ask her friend how she could help.
As it happened, the nonprofit was in the middle of a major fundraising drive, and was looking for a corporate sponsor to match funds. Heather’s current employer had a philanthropy arm, so she shared the nonprofit’s materials with her colleagues and helped set up a donation partnership. Heather ended up securing half of the nonprofit’s budget that year, and suddenly found herself more excited than ever to go to work.
Over the next six months, she stayed involved in her friend’s nonprofit, making introductions and coaching her informally on the side. The way she explained it to me, she did it purely out of love. It was the first project in years that she just wanted to pursue because she enjoyed it.
Eventually, her friend offered her an advisory role in the nonprofit. She continued her work as a member of the board. Then, a couple months ago, the nonprofit offered her a permanent position, and Heather — convinced that this is what she was meant to do — finally made the jump.
She’s now a director at the nonprofit in charge of corporate partnerships and new initiatives. In her last email, she said her purpose now seems so obvious: to use fashion and mentorship to empower other women.
In Level One of Advanced Human Dynamics, we talk in depth about the power of helping the people in your life. Generosity as a mindset is hands-down the best way to deepen relationships and create new opportunities for yourself.
But helping out your network is also one of the most powerful ways to find your purpose.
For one thing, being of service in general is, in the broadest sense, our fundamental purpose on earth.
No matter what particular mission you adopt in life, your deeper purpose will always depend on adding value to someone’s life. Whether it’s money, insight, information, support or survival — value is the currency that bonds all of life together. In a way, that’s the one universal purpose we all share, no matter what we do: to simply be of use.
But more concretely, helping other people — without worrying immediately about the benefit to ourselves — is an excellent way to discover what we do and do not want to do with our lives.
Heather’s story, to me, is a perfect template for discovering — or rediscovering — our purpose in life. By deliberately building social capital, she organically created an opportunity that revealed her deeper purpose when it seemed impossible to find.
Don’t just do what you love. Do what you’re willing to work hard at.
As we’ve seen, an invisible thread running through the quest for a purpose is doing what we naturally enjoy.
This is, of course, how a child operates, and children are really talented at living their purpose, which is generally to pursue the things they like for their own sake.
But as I often talk about on the podcast, we shouldn’t necessarily turn our hobbies into our life’s work.
Contrary to the popular wisdom to “do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life,” I don’t believe in blindly turning every hobby you enjoy into your work. Some activities are meant to be just activities. A beer aficionado doesn’t need to start a brewery in order to be happy. A consultant who enjoys painting doesn’t have to paint portraits every weekend to find meaning. Simply enjoying something doesn’t mean it should become your life’s purpose. In fact, making a casual hobby your life’s purpose could rob it of the simple pleasure it’s designed to afford you.
But if you enjoy an activity and you’re willing to work hard to become great at it, then it might be a sign that that activity holds the key to your purpose.
So how do you know if you’re willing to work hard at it?
By doing it in earnest for a period of time, and paying attention to how you respond to the work.
Think about Heather. She loved working with the fashion nonprofit. She was moved intellectually by its mission. But only by actually helping the nonprofit for over a year did she realize how much she enjoyed the process of raising money for a nonprofit. Fundraising is incredibly hard, frustrating, hands-on work. But by doing it for a long time while keeping her old job, she learned that she loved it enough to work through the challenges and become great at nonprofit management. If she hadn’t, she might have rushed into another false purpose.
So if you find yourself looking for your purpose, start by paying attention to the things you already love doing.
Then go a step further, and ask yourself if they speak to you beyond pure enjoyment.
If possible, work at them for a period of time — a few months, at least — and discover for yourself whether they’re something you could imagine devoting a significant portion of your life to.
If they give you more than just pleasure or distraction — if you find yourself exploring them in depth, thinking constantly about them, wanting to go through the hard work involved in becoming great at them — then you can trust that you’re moving toward your purpose.
Focus on action, not ideas.
I recently caught up with my friend Richard, an amazing essayist who’s been publishing books and articles for over 40 years. Over lunch, I asked him when he realized that his purpose was to write.
He chuckled a little, and rolled his eyes. “I don’t know if I ever realized it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused. “You’ve spent your life writing. It’s obviously your purpose.”
“Well, I guess it is now,” he said. “But I never really decided that in my head.”
“So how’d you find out?”
He thought about it for a second, then shrugged his shoulders. “I wrote.”
I thought about his response for days after that. It was so simple I almost found it disingenuous — until I realized how deeply true it was.
Because the other invisible thread running through this quest for a purpose is action.
As we’ve seen, we don’t find our true purpose by writing it down and then trying to make it real out in the world.
We make something real out in the world, then follow it until it reveals our purpose.
For some reason, popular wisdom still treats the process of finding a purpose as an intellectual activity — an exercise we sit down with a pen and paper to work on. As we know, that approach rarely works. It definitely didn’t work for me, for Heather, for Richard, or for any of our listeners.
The one thing that does work is action — pursuing something, building something, fostering something, or creating something, big or small, out in the world. There’s just no way around it. I mean, even if you did find your purpose intellectually, you’d still have to do something about it, right?
So as you search for your purpose, commit to execution. Grand ideas are nice, but they won’t mean anything unless you put them into motion.
So make that introduction between two people in your network.
Carve out an hour each week to create a prototype of that bottle opener you thought up.
Spend 15 minutes each night writing pieces of the novel you’ve been playing with.
Whatever it is, commit to doing something, and find out what it’s like to actually embody that activity in your life. That’s the only way to know if you enjoy it enough to continue doing it, to struggle, and to become great at it. It’s also the only way for that potential purpose to become real.
At the end of the day, the words we use to describe our purpose matter way less than what we do with that purpose.
In fact, I’d say the words are pretty much irrelevant, no matter what those personal branding books and dinner party people tell you.
We have to embody our purpose for it to be real, and the way we embody it is by acting upon it.
If we do that, our purpose becomes a lot more interesting, a lot more fun, and way more meaningful.
Because then we’re not just trying to “find” our purpose all the time. We’re living it.
[Featured image by Austin Chan]