I designed this article to help you answer one of life’s most important and challenging questions. “What is my life purpose?”. This is a question I have grappled with for years.
A few years ago as I was in the midst of a successful corporate career in the tech industry, the answer came to me in a sudden and startling fashion. It led me to quit my job, sell most of my stuff and travel around the world. It also led me to an entirely new and different career.
I will include some practical and simple questions you should ask yourself to come up with your own answer. The questions are simple, but taking action on them is the hard part. It’s wort it.
It’s not my goal to get you to quit your (in fact, most people SHOULD NOT!). Though, if you are like me, it could be a necessary step in your journey.
But first, a little story…
The Dalai Lama Goes Skiing
Slipping, sliding and laughing in his red robes, the Dalai Lama made his way around the top of a Santa Fe ski hill in the early 1990’s. He was joined by a gaggle of equally clumsy and jovial monks and suit-clad followers. None of the monks had seen a ski hill before. It reminded them of their home-land, a place from where they had been banished for most of their lives.
This trip was a spontaneous one. Tacked on to an another wise packed schedule of meetings during the Dalai Lama’s visit to the Southwestern part of the USA. Douglas Preston details the entire trip in his excellent article in Slate.
It was at this ski hill, after enjoying some refreshments in the warmth of the mountain ski hill cafe, that a profound question was asked, by an expected person:
As we finished, a young waitress with tangled, dirty-blond hair and a beaded headband began clearing our table. She stopped to listen to the conversation and finally sat down, abandoning her work. After a while, when there was a pause, she spoke to the Dalai Lama. “You didn’t like your cookie?”
“Not hungry, thank you.”
“Can I, um, ask a question?”
She spoke with complete seriousness. “What is the meaning of life?”
….There was a brief, stunned silence at the table.
The Dalai Lama answered immediately. “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.
“Thank you,” she said, “thank you.” She got up and finished stacking the dirty dishes and cups, and took them away.
I share this story as it sets up an important context to the pursuit of finding your life purpose. What is the point of a life purpose? You need a compelling reason why this pursuit it worth the effort. You also need a goal or motivation to put some direction on your pursuit.
You can run eastward looking for a sunset, and never succeed, but, yet you can run westward and find that sunset you are after.
Our proverbial sunset is the meaning of life.
If you believe the Dalai Lama (as I do!), the meaning of life is to be happy.
This is the goal we are after in life, happiness.
When I am happy, I spread joy and am best able to help others. But let’s get back to the Dalai Lama’s question, “What is happiness?”. This is a very tricky question. It is nearly impossible to answer when asked head-on. However we can get at it better by asking a slightly different question.
“What is my life purpose?” is such a question.
The pursuit of finding your life purpose is one method to find an answer to this question of “What is happiness?”. It implies a deeper level of committment. It also relates to what we do as “work” day to day. Work is something can control and commit to. It is a tangible aim. This is why we must tackle this question of “What is my life purpose?”. It is a solvable challenge to sort out and answer!
Let’s answer that: “What is my life purpose?”
The Payoff Of Living With Purpose
Living with purpose is one way to be happy. It is a way to find that inner “fire” that lights you up every morning to do work that matters. With this inner motivation comes joy, contentment peace and of course…happiness too.
The payoff of living with purpose is not that you get to lay on a beach all day and do nothing, it is that you get to do work that is meaningful to you. I find that when I am living and working from my life purpose, I work far harder and longer than I otherwise would. I am also happy.
The benefits I see of finding your life purpose are copious, though research and science will not “prove” any of them. This is a classic case where personal experimentation is paramount. The only way to know the benefits will be to take action and see what happens for yourself.
Do this in a committed way and I am certain you will experience less stress, financial freedom and a greater capacity to create a lasting impact that you can be proud of.
How To Discover Your Life Purpose
Step 1.) Become a seeker
Being a seeker is the first step. If you are not willing to ask yourself hard questions about the direction of your own life (and answer honestly), you will never be able discover and life our your life purpose.
Being a seeker means you are open to new possibility, and willing to engage in radical inquiry to see what answers may show up.
Anyone can be a seeker, though some find that it is easiest and most impactful to work with a trained coach to support the process (contact me if you are interested in help). This is not required.
Dedicate some time and effort to thinking and writing out the answers to these questions:
Why does finding my life purpose matter?
Without a compelling reason why you are going after your life purpose, your pursuit will not last through the resistance that will show up along the way. Why does finding your life purpose matter? How will your finances, relationships, contribution to the world and level of happiness change when you discover and work towards your life purpose?
How will you know you have found your life purpose?
You can’t arrive somewhere without first picking a destination. It’s OK if this destination changes, but you do need to start with a concept of what success means for you. How will you know you have found your life purpose? How will you feel? What will you (and others) have as a result? What will you see, think, feel and hear? Consider all the factors that will show up when you are living and working from your life purpose.
Congrats on getting through this crucial first step. You have just “tilled the soil of your mind” so to speak. Now you are ready to move forward and do some deeper work to focus on your life purpose.
Step 2.) Examine your own past
Success leaves clues. Sometimes these clues are so big we can’t ignore them. Other times we need to pay close attention to tiny details that show us we are on the right path.
To find your life purpose, you must first go back in time to uncover – in your past – when you had times of joy. It is very important that you only focus on times of joy. If there were times of struggle you dealt with in the past, let go of those memories.
Right now you must only consider times when you were happy, hopeful and living with purpose. Think about and write down your answers to these two questions. Capture every tiny detail.
1) When in your past were you operating from a place of joy and happiness?
2) When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Step 3.) Step into your future
If you have any belief in the law of attraction, you know that we have a capacity to shape our future based on our mindset, ambition and desires. We can tap into these future-creating powers by first getting clear on what we want.
In the last step you stepped into the past to uncover clues to your life purpose. These are the things that got you excited, and brought happiness and hope to you as a child.
The Rocking Chair Exercise
Let’s take a step forward to your future. Imagine a house in a peaceful place. This is your house, and you are much older than you are now (at least 80 years old).
You are sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch and enjoying the breeze. You are looking at one of the most beautiful sunsets you have ever seen in your life. As you close your eyes, express a deep sense of gratitude for your life and a sense of thankfulness for being able to life out your life purpose.
It is from this place of peace that you ask yourself one question:
What am I proud to have dedicated my life to doing?
Step 4.) Take action and learn by doing
Your life purpose can be fulfilled only through action.
Understand your childhood ambitions. Get clear on what you envision being grateful for in the twilight of your life. Use the powerful set of emotions from those thought exercises to uncover your life purpose.
Based on the previous steps in this exercise: What is your life purpose? Write down your answer!
My life purpose is to ______________________________________
Step 5.) Focus on your work, not the results of your work
The Bhagavad Gita, a renown Indian scripture, centers around a key tenet of committing oneself to work (whatever form or shape that work takes), but not desiring the fruit of one’s labor. This tenet is how you should go about acting on your life purpose.
While you might have a sense of what life will be like when living your life purpose, you will never know until you try. Dive into the work you need to do to live our your life purpose, but don’t worry about the results. Let go of the fruit of your labor and just focus on the actions and work you can control.
You also must realize that your life purpose may be a moving target! What you need to do now to fulfill yourself will change over the years, as you learn and grow and progress through the phases of life.
Periodically, take the time to check in on your life, how it is going and if you are still on track in living your life purpose. I like to do the exercises I outlined in this blog post yearly. It keeps me on track and makes it obvious when I have either veered off my “path” or simply when it’s time to take a different one.
Call to Action
Take regular (e.g. daily, weekly) action to discover and life your life purpose. This doesn’t mean that you need to quit your current job (though perhaps, like me, you have decided this is necessary). It does mean that you should get clear on why are you are working and what makes you happy.
If your work doesn’t bring you joy or happiness, that’s a signal that something isn’t right. It’s up to you to change this by either changing your mind-set around why you are working, or by changing what you do.
A great way to make progress and live your life purpose is to write down a list of small actions you can take EVERY DAY. These actions might be people you can talk to, things you can learn or small actions you can take. The smaller the better. Focus on baby steps, and build them over time. Aim for consistent action.
Life is short and we spend over 1/3 of it working or preparing to work. Living your life purpose makes this all worthwhile. Don’t delay. Discover it and start working towards it now.
If you need some help as you go through this process, just let me know.
Derek Sivers on The Meaning of Life
Zenhabits on Finding Your Life Purpose
The Atlantic on There is More to Life than being happy
Addicted 2 Success on 6 Reasons To Chase Your Passion
Steve Pavlina on How To Discover Your Life Purpose In About 20 Minutes