Most of us will, at some point, find ourselves at a crossroads. Or maybe less of a crossroads than a place where the road dead-ends into a field. Maybe it’s all psychological, maybe you’ve had a sudden career change, breakup, or some other situation where it seems like the earth shifted beneath your feet. Or maybe you’re young, just getting started on the journey of adulthood. In all of these cases, a sense of purpose will be the most effective guide.
Your life’s purpose isn’t a road or even a destination, but a compass. The road and destination can change, even the purpose itself can change. Figuring out your purpose in life, as well as learning how to discover your purpose, may be central to your growth and proliferation as an adult. It takes on countless forms but more than anything it’s at the intersection of what you’re good at, what you love doing, and what you can do for others. Here are some tips to get started.
Before you can discover your purpose, you need to understand your own wants, needs, beliefs and values. Practicing mindfulness is an excellent tool here. By practicing mindfulness, you’re better able to notice the kinds of thoughts and feelings passing through your mind. The things that bring you comfort may be simpler than you think, and your thought patterns may surprise you once you’ve paid attention to them.
An alternative to mindfulness could be looking back at your past activities. What are you good at? What do you do that people seem to appreciate more than other things? Is there something you’re qualified to teach to others? It’s worth noting that your purpose may be harder to find during the pandemic. As Berkely’s GreaterGood site deftly points out, A crisis of purpose may be more likely to occur in isolation. So with that in mind, be kind with yourself. Discovering your purpose can take time- even outside of the pandemic. Few things will guide you better than getting to know yourself. From there, you can branch out into your skills and how you relate and connect to others.
Understand What You’re Good at
This is perhaps the most deceptive step, and is why understanding your needs and abilities is so important. Even if you’re older, you may have an affinity for something you haven’t even tried yet! It’s important to experiment and find out if you have a talent for something you didn’t expect. It may be something you didn’t even know existed, or something that had important qualities you didn’t know about. As long as you’ve got the time, keep trying new things! Just keep in mind that you aren’t going to be a prodigy at something the moment you pick it up. Understand that anything you do for the first time, you’re going to be pretty bad at. Don’t pay too much attention to how inept you are when you try something for the first time. Focus on how it feels to do it, and ask yourself how much time you can voluntarily put into it.
An important caveat, though, is that your purpose in life and what you do for a living may not intersect. Your purpose may lead you to something that you just can’t make a living from, and that’s okay! There is nothing wrong with working one job to pay the bills and support others and yourself, then having something on the side that gives your life meaning. That also doesn’t mean you should neglect your responsibilities, and certainly not your basic needs such as food and shelter. Keep Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in mind- your independent self-actualization and your need for acceptance from others need to be balanced with needs for survival (which in the current era may be more financial than anything). If following your life’s purpose becomes too much of a hassle, it may be worth looking for a new approach, or consider looking for a different purpose entirely. Your purpose isn’t permanent or nailed into place, it may change or it may be the same thing for decades. Personal growth means your priorities and values may change, and that may change how focused you are on your life’s purpose.
Understand Where You’re Needed
This one can be tricky. Notice how in place of the word “purpose” I haven’t said “dream” or “passion”? The reason is that dreams and passions, significant as they are, prioritize yourself, while a purpose is concerned with the greater good. That’s not to knock dreams and passions, but those are less tethered to reality than a life purpose. Dreams and passions are often destinations, and some people achieve them only to find they were just that- dreams. Maybe the work is demeaning, or the pay insufficient, or the primary goal you thought would be everyone’s focus is drowned out by office politics and egos. A purpose, however, is greater than you or anyone else. The only downside is that unlike dreams and passions, a purpose may not manifest in an actual career. As mentioned above, how you handle that is up to you, but there’s no shortage of inspiring stories of people who made it work. And you can turn a lot of things into a career if you’re dedicated, smart, and willing to put in the time.
One thing to ask yourself is “what have I learned to heal from?” Your life experiences, particularly the challenging and difficult ones, are significant learning experiences and sharing what you learned with others may help them avoid pain or learn how to heal from it. In addition, this could lead you to take an old, existing pain of your own and turn it into a deep fulfillment.
Be Malleable and Committed
As mentioned, your life’s purpose is likely going to be something larger than yourself or any one person. That doesn’t mean you’re a slave to it, though, nor are you limited to one purpose forever. Maybe you’re feeling drained, maybe changes in the world have made your focus less urgent. Maybe your purpose was based on a temporary issue. Just as you needed to know when to switch gears and pursue this greater good, you’ll also need to recognize when you should stop or try something else. Consider climate change, for example. Many people are passionately devoted to it. But let’s say they succeed in getting all the legislation they could possibly want, and there’s no longer a need to lean on the government to act because they’re doing everything they can. What would climate change activists do? They would fracture out into the individual remaining issues- some would fight water scarcity, some would organize reforestation efforts, and some may move on to totally different paths.
What’s important is that they have something to keep them going, because a purpose is nothing by itself. This leads us to one of the most important factors in finding and dedicating yourself to a purpose- it isn’t a passive thing. You have to be proactive and engaged in your purpose in order for it to actually matter. Anyone can say they have a purpose, or daydream about it, but your purpose manifests in how you act on it. A helpful goal is to pick a task you can do every single day to practice it or prepare yourself for it. Or you can devote a few hours each weekend to it. Either way, what’s important is that you’re taking that purpose, breaking it down into chunks you can accomplish, and acting on it. Your life’s purpose is an idea, it has no corporal form, so you have to give it one through action.
Have you struggled to find a purpose? Or maybe you achieved this and your life has new meaning? If you have any advice to add, please leave it in the comments!