A Brief Guide To Finding Your Purpose – 5 Characteristics, 3 Activities, Native Genius, 30 seconds, Pain + Love, Practice
Image by Ivana Cajina

What is your purpose?

It wasn’t until 2 years ago, in the aftermath of resigning from my own company, that I even thought to attempt to answer this question for myself.

I felt like I’d been through a crucible and was staring into a black box. I had no vision for the future and no idea of what might come next. It felt like I’d stepped off a professional cliff and was trying to build a parachute on the way down.

I needed desperately to find some sense of direction.

It took a while to realise it, but no matter how many people I spoke with, only I was going to be able to answer the question.

The first place I started was with an old statement I’d uncovered years earlier (more on how below):

to help others get the best for themselves.

Over time, with more reflection and iteration, my next version became:

to help people bring all of who they are to everything they do.

Many iterations later, my purpose today is:

to change the world’s relationship to suffering.

In that time, I’ve experimented with plenty of approaches to help clarify purpose.

As much as I’d love to say “follow this exact process and you will have a purpose”, in my experience it takes reps.

It didn’t happen in a blinding flash of inspiration. There wasn’t a single activity that helped me nail it first go. It’s taken drafts, reflection and refinement. And, like most important things, it’s taken time.

But ultimately, I’ve clarified my own to find that sense of direction and fulfilment and helped all sorts of people uncover theirs. From Olympic gold medallists to execs, from founders and business owners to elite soldiers. They’ve all been able to uncover their own and then apply that sense of purpose and direction to their work, families, relationships, health and communities.

Let’s explore how it’s done.

What is purpose?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

To me, Purpose sets the direction of where I want to go. It’s not a goal, because it’s never complete.

If purpose is my direction, then my Values (Love, Gratitude, Humility, Exploration, Contribution) are the characteristics of how I want to act along the way. After all, values are not words, or intentions, they are pathways for action.

Both Purpose and Values form an internalised criteria set for decision making that I can carry with me. It’s from this place that I can choose my response to the circumstances and complexity that surround me everyday and over which I have very little control.

And while the work to fulfil purpose and live values can never be completed, they help me align my goals and practices in service of them. (There’s an example in my last article about how I’m making my plans for 2024.)

5 characteristics of evolving my purpose

I’ve noticed that when my purpose evolved from the original statement to the one I’m using today there were a couple of characteristics that made me feel as though I was getting closer to the mark:

  1. It feels impossible to accomplish but infinitely worth working towards.
  2. It is a direction I would willing take steps towards for free and spend money on. I have done both many times and continue to do so. Some examples: I buy books, courses and event tickets that relate to the topic. I happily negotiate my price if the opportunity to speak to a group aligns with my ability to bring this purpose to life. I actively say no to opportunities that do not align.
  3. Initially it felt deeply uncomfortable to share publicly. I started by only telling a handful of people, then gradually screwed up the courage to share it more broadly in client sessions, keynotes, workshops and articles. It still feels uncomfortable to say aloud. I expect that will always be the case – to say it out loud means I’m accountable to walking my talk.
  4. In order to truly own my purpose too, I’ve recognised that the work begins with me. To paraphrase Ghandi, I would need to be the change I want to see in the world. As well as being in service of others, I need to practice and apply that purpose on the man in the mirror. I will need to continue to change my own relationship to suffering.
  5. When I think back to the previous versions of purpose, they felt powerful at the time. But now I’d give them a 6 or 7 out of 10 for my feeling of connection to them. My current one scores 9+.

Perspective shift

As I’ve explored my purpose, I’ve noticed a shift in perspective in how I think about it.

Rather than “getting a purpose”, it now feels to me more about “being purposeful”.

It’s a bit like physical strength. While I’ve often thought about “getting strong”, really it’s about “being strong”.

Which means that rather than seeing purpose as a proclamation of intent, I see it as an ongoing process that requires repeated action that will compound over time. (Compounding was my single biggest lesson from 2023.)

So while I feel deeply connected to it now, I love the fact that I have the freedom, the power and the responsibility to evolve it if I choose.

Activities to uncover and refine Purpose

Below are 3 activities I’ve found useful to begin to uncover purpose and direction.

Having run them for myself and others many times now, I’ve put them into a particular sequence here in order to help you get started as quickly as possible.

As I’ve said to many people, when it comes to purpose, it is literally infinitely better to have something rather than nothing.

By trying any one of these activities, you will have taken the hardest step – going from 0 to 1 on a first version.

Activity #1: Purpose in 30 seconds

Grab a notebook or open a note in your phone.

Set a timer for 30 seconds.

Ask yourself the questions: What is my purpose? What contribution, impact or difference would I like to make?

Then start the timer and write whatever answers/words/ideas/concepts spring to mind.

Stop writing when the timer goes.

And that is enough to get started – even if it is a shitty first draft.

Activity #2: Native Genius

My first draft of purpose – to help others get the best for themselves – came from a powerful group exercise that Adam and I ran with our team at Bluewire Media years ago.

It was from Liz Wiseman’s best-selling leadership book Multipliers. The exercise was called Native Genius. (Detailed instructions if you’d like to run this for your team here >>)

The Native Genius questions are also useful as a guide for self reflection:

  1. What do you do better than anything else you do?
  2. What do you do better than the people around you?
  3. What do you do without effort?
  4. What do you do without being asked?
  5. What do you do readily without being paid?

Activity #3: Pain + Love = Purpose

This equation I picked up from psychologist and author Dr Steven Hayes in his TEDx Talk: How love turns pain into purpose. I’ve found it one of the fastest ways for my clients to immediately get a sense of meaning and contribution.

My understanding of the equation is this:

  1. Take an experience that was painful for you in the past
  2. Add love by reflecting on the lessons you learned from that experience and applying your skills, experience and strengths to those challenges in order to lessen the suffering of others.
  3. Then you may find meaning in your pain and a sense of purpose and contribution that you care deeply about.

Practice and Space

The themes that emerge from any of these activities become the beginnings of uncovering purpose.

Then the iterations can start:

  • testing the statement with family and friends
  • experimenting to see if it’s useful as a decision making tool or as a filter for opportunity
  • reflecting on your connection score to the words: How would you score your connection to these words out of 10? Ideally we’re trying to get to a 9 or 10 out of 10. Refine the words as you need to increase that score.

And most importantly give it time.

Pushing for clarity can have the exact opposite effect.

It is often in the space and downtime between the effort that the gains are made, that the muddy water gradually settles and the next round of clarity emerges.

If we recognise clarifying purpose as an ongoing process rather than an event, then we give ourselves the chance to uncover it, be guided by it and derive the sense of meaning and fulfilment that can come with it.

I hope this guide can help you uncover yours.

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