I’ve written before about life purpose, as finding a sense of purpose has made such a massive difference to my life, helping me to discover and unleash capabilities I didn’t know I had.
But how do we find a sense of purpose? If we don’t have a clue what our purpose is, where do we start looking? Or maybe we could pick any one of half a dozen purposes – how do we figure out which one is The One?
First, I don’t think we need to stress too much about this. For most of us, and certainly for me, I don’t think there is just one single purpose for an entire lifetime. Purpose is likely to evolve, or even change completely, according to our age and circumstances.
Second, purpose doesn’t have to look like a grand obsession with music, science, exploration, etc. Purpose can be a quiet creature, more values-based, being more about how we do what we do that what we are actually doing.
And third, purpose might just come and find you when it’s good and ready – which of course, might mean when you are good and ready. Sometimes we find it, and sometimes it finds us. I always take great comfort from the example of Mary Wesley, who didn’t publish her first novel until she was 71 years old, and still managed to rack up 10 bestsellers and 3 million copies sold before she died at the age of 90.
Having said all that, I’d like to offer a couple of pointers to rebels looking for a cause.
The Obituary Exercise
I have written and spoken about this countless times, but there’s a good reason for that. It works. It reminds you that you don’t have forever (Mary Wesley notwithstanding) to create the life you want. And because it begins with the end in mind, and invites you to reverse-engineer from there, it frees your imagination from the tyranny of “what am I qualified for?” So try it. Described here.
What is the Sunshine?
This is for those of you who have multiple contenders vying to be your purpose.
Back in 2004, it was my sudden awareness of the environmental crisis that first gave me a sense of mission and purpose. However, as time went on, other important issues came to my attention which seemed to be connected to, but not the same as, the environmental mission. Well-meaning friends and colleagues advised me to pick one, and focus on it, but as soon as I tried to, I discovered it was connected to all the others. It seemed impossible to fix any one problem in isolation, because it rapidly became clear it was part of a whole ecosystem of interconnected issues.
My solution was to map out all the issues that bugged me, group them together under headings, and then ask myself the question: “If these are the shadows, what is the sunshine?” In other words, if these were the things that I did not want, then what did I want? This was the result (to be read from the bottom upwards):
It turned out that what I really cared about was the freedom of humanity (and all other sentient beings) to evolve to its highest potential, and the things that really bothered me were the obstacles impeding this freedom. Clearly our extinction would impede our evolution very seriously, and so would the collapse of civilisation, leading to a barbaric world where we struggle to meet our basic needs. Inequality of any kind affects the freedom of the disadvantaged to become everything that they can be. Having previously been consummately conformist myself, I now found that my own shadow came back to haunt me: I knew from personal experience how easy it is to lie low, fit in, and be agreeable, to the detriment of mind and spirit. I also knew how easy it is to get caught in the salary trap, the rat race, or the hedonic treadmill, whichever phrase resonates most with you – almost (!) as if the capitalist system were designed to prevent us having enough time and space to think, in case we start a revolution against the insanity of it all.
Why evolution? Certainly, Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch, has been a big influence on me.
“The soul has come to the body, and the body to life, for the purpose of evolution. You are evolving, you are becoming. And you are using your relationship with everything to decide what you are becoming. This is the job you came here to do. This is the joy of creating Self. Of knowing Self. Of becoming, consciously, what you wish to be.”
I’m not offering evolution as a one-size-fits-all purpose. I offer it here more as an example of the process, than as a ready-made answer. Every person has to do their own inner work to find their own answer to the question: what am I doing here?
It is vitally important, in my view, that we ask this question. To read that the Gallup poll across 155 countries found that 85% of employees are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” is heartbreaking, a tragic waste of human time, creativity, and potential, especially when there is so much important work to be done.
As Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford commencement speech in 2005:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do… Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Given that he died at the young age of 56 (I’m 52, so 56 seems really young to die), it’s poignant that he mentioned the importance of accepting our mortality if we are to truly live. Paradoxically, recognising the inevitability of death gives meaning to our life:
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Ultimately, finding purpose is as simple as that. Follow your heart to find what you want to do, and then use your head to figure out how you can do that and pay the bills. But don’t, please, let the bills decide how you’re going to spend the one non-renewable resource – your time.
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
— The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver
Other Stuff: TEDxStroudWomen
Tickets are available at the early bird price for just two more days for TEDxStroudWomen. £5 for 9 amazing speakers is incredibly good value. Please buy at least one ticket, post, and share!
Please note – you don’t have to be near Stroud, and you don’t have to be a woman, to enjoy this event. We are live-streaming on 29th November, and all are welcome!
There’s a great video on LinkedIn of behind-the-scenes clips, along with shots of all our speakers and their topics. I’m so excited to be presenting these wonderful women to the world.