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De-mystifying the pursuit of Purpose

How to reframe common misconceptions related to Personal Purpose, so that you can live a more fulfilling life

Over the last year, I’ve engaged with exploration, articulation, and activation of Purpose on both personal & professional levels. I went on my own Purpose journey with the help of my therapist, journal, and coaching certification program, and I now help others understand their own. I also revamped the Purpose Activation strategy for my company, including conducting focus groups with employees all over the world. I found that the idea of ‘Purpose’ can be quite triggering. Especially if you’ve never engaged in intentional self-reflection before, it can feel intimidating — but it doesn’t have to be. So what even is Purpose?

Purpose is a north star to help guide decision-making and unlock a sense of meaning in life.

It can feel incomparably motivational or annoyingly unattainable; wholly grounding or anxiety-inducing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel a mix of these powerful emotions as you dig into what ultimately drives & motivates you, but in the end, you’ll have increased confidence & clarity.

Purpose is the key to sustainable motivation. Unfortunately, many people shut down at the idea — not wanting to open the Pandora’s box of their unexplored dreams & goals. Luckily, the most common challenges that I’ve heard related to Purpose can be reframed to make it accessible to anyone.

Challenge #1: Purpose is abstract

When I was applying to business school, the essay that tripped me up the most was Stanford’s ‘What Matters Most to You & Why?’. I rewrote the essay about 30 times, vying for something ground-breaking, insightful, unique. I overthought it, instead of listening to my gut, and it’s safe to say it was not my best work. I couldn’t see that my initial idea— supporting other people — was good enough. It was honest and true.

Purpose doesn’t have to be some grand, new idea. It can be simple — which doesn’t mean it’s not powerful. Caring for a loved one. Learning something new everyday. Maintaining good physical health. If your Purpose motivates you, it is good enough. Purpose — like Stanford’s essay — is not a trick or a trap, and the answer is probably closer than you think.

If you are struggling to define your Purpose — some helpful synonyms can be meaning, motivation, or your ‘why’. What lights you up? A good place to start is with values, which may feel more familiar. Look up a list of values online — pick the 10 that resonate most, narrow it down to 5, narrow it down to 2–3. Write out what they mean to you. What does that say about who you want to be? How you want to spend your time?

Challenge #2: Purpose has to be altruistic

There is an episode of the show Friends where Joey challenges Phoebe to find a selfless good deed. He claims that every good deed is inherently selfish because it makes you feel good about yourself. It brings you joy.

While Joey might not be right 100% of the time, I could argue that — for Purpose — he is. Your Purpose is meant to bring you real fulfillment, motivation, and contentment. You should seek out the ‘selfish’ actions that align with your values and make you truly feel good about who you are.

While studies have shown that the benefits of Purpose are stronger if it is in service of others, that doesn’t necessarily have to be in a traditional sense. You might not see at first how your Purpose benefits others, but most often it does — especially because when you live your Purpose, other people see and feel that. They get inspired to find that for themselves.

If your Purpose is to become an expert in your field, you’ll likely end up as a role model without even knowing it. If you dig into your goal of financial stability, you might find it comes from a place of providing security for your family. You don’t have to work at a nonprofit, be a frontline worker, or give away all your money to live a Purposeful life. You just have to do things you care about while doing no harm unto others.

Challenge #3: Purpose is unattainable

Many people are afraid to uncover their Purpose — and related dreams and goals — because it sets them up to fail if they don’t know where to start. However, chances are that you likely already live your Purpose in some capacity, and, if not, you can start with the basics. Moreover, the idea that you achieve your Purpose is a myth — it is a way of being, not an endpoint. It is allowed to evolve overtime as is the way you choose to live it.

My current Personal Purpose statement is ‘to actively support others according to their needs, so that people feel more connected to themselves and the world around them’. My day job is corporate strategy for a multinational professional services firm. Have I failed? Absolutely not.

Right now, I’ve found little ways to live my Purpose at work as I explore what it means to pursue a future career that is more Purpose-driven. Every time that I take something off my boss’s plate, support my direct reports in career growth, or bring humanity into the workplace, I am living my Purpose. Even more, having identified my Purpose, these small things now bring me significantly more satisfaction, fulfillment, and motivation.

But if ignorance is bliss, why pull back the curtain?

As defined above, Purpose is a north star. Paired with values, it will help you feel more confident in your decisions, direct your attention towards energizing activities, and tap into levels of motivation, productivity, & leadership that you never knew you had.

But Purpose is a headlight, not a GPS. It helps you see the road ahead more clearly, even presenting options you couldn’t see before. Purpose is there to guide you, but — at the end of the day — where you decide to drive is still completely up to you.

To increase your confidence & impact by living a values-aligned, purpose-driven life, follow Alex on Medium