Do you know what all these song titles have in common; The Middle by Jimmy Eat World, Place In This World by Taylor Swift, and Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2? The common theme among these songs is a longing to know where one belongs or what one is supposed to be in life. In other words, they are looking for their purpose. Many of us turn towards movies, self-help books, or other opportunities to provide direction to a life of fulfillment. But what happens when instead of clarity, we find confusion about where we are supposed to be heading? What if, with every attempt to identify our purpose, we come up short? Why is purpose so hard to identify and pursue?
First, we need to consider our perspective on how we think about purpose. If we consider purpose as a destination or something to achieve, we will have created an obstacle for ourselves. Purpose is not a person, place, or thing. Instead, it is an intention, a reason, or a meaning that drives our day. I like to think about purpose as more of a formula:
Purpose = preferences + non-ego inner self OR what matters to you + the kind of person you want to be
The formula perspective of purpose invites us on a journey that we cultivate with our actions and reflections of those actions as we move through life. We uncover our purpose through life lessons that we can measure through milestones and transitional events on this journey. Each one of these milestones holds lessons that teach us something about ourselves.
Unlike a goal, purpose shifts the focus from “doing” to “being” as we find motivation in our values and morals. As we focus on who we are, it frees us from our constant knee-jerk response to do what we think society or our culture demands. This process toward purpose invites us to learn who we are without the “masks” of what we’re supposed to be and how to fit in. Undoubtedly this is a challenging journey, but this labor’s fruit offers us the time and energy to be still and learn. In this stillness, we can listen to our discomfort and identify how we long to share ourselves in a way that fulfills our purpose and altruistically serves others.
Progress Over Perfection
Second, because purpose is not a goal, its unique feature is that it can’t be “checked off a list” as achieved. The definable difference between our purpose and a goal is that we learn to find comfort in progress over perfection. We will stumble as we learn about our preferences. We will discover constant battles between our ego and non-ego inner self that will take us in and out of feelings of achievement. And we will often not recognize our purpose in the moment, which is why being reflective and mindful is essential. While our purpose rarely changes, our calling, or how we apply our strengths, changes as we learn more about our longings and how we want to use our gifts. How we apply our purpose can change over and over again throughout our lifespan.
American culture today aligns success with being busy. To “keep up” with neighbors, families, and friends instead of finding comfort in our calling and gifts. As Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why” states, purpose requires the difficult task of learning “your why before your what.” Starting with your why helps you clarify your beliefs so that they can act as a guide on what you choose to do. To learn our why we need to be present in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Additionally, we need to determine how we found our beliefs and how they have shaped and formed our past decisions and present intentions. Once we understand our why we can then decide how to use our motives and values to make successful progress with our purpose.
Evaluate Your Journey
Lastly, purpose is defined by the individual. The process of defining one’s purpose can look the same as another; however, our purpose will look different given our preferences, beliefs, connections, and intentions. Working through an impartial process allows us to view our life experiences less critically and provides space for us to prioritize our life passions. Gaining a big-picture view of our experiences grants us the opportunity to evaluate our past decisions and determine how we would like to move forward. This perspective also allows us to interpret our behavior less aggressively and with more compassion and kindness, primarily by helping us value moments that were difficult and caused pain and hurt. Additionally, this perspective can help us recognize that our perceived limitations on our future come from our ego and self-doubt. This process empowers us to challenge what we have come to believe as true and solidify our path toward purpose.
So why is purpose so hard to find? Because in most cases, when we feel a sense of unhappiness or lack of fulfillment in life, we add something to our life. A goal, an activity, a commitment, something that is outside of ourselves and that we think will help us avoid feelings of unhappiness. While helpful in preventing pain, this tactic often redirects us from experiencing a sense of fulfillment and meaning. Purpose will rarely exist amid an activity alone.
Remember the formula? The formula doesn’t mention being busy or overwhelming yourself with goals. The formula relies on making space to find opportunities that align your inner self with your external world. For example, reflection allows you to see how certain events or milestones have influenced your approach to family, friendship, spirituality, or finances and how they contribute to your wellness and lifestyle. By processing this, you are allowed the freedom to break apart your beliefs and make sure they are still true for you. Breaking down your purpose this way grants you the opportunity to live life with intention so that you can find a sense of peace in your integrity and live a life of meaning.
If you would like to learn more about finding your purpose, click here to listen to Kim McGuiness’ recently featured podcast episode, “Finding Purpose.”
Additionally, if you need help learning more identifying your sense of purpose, a counselor can help you walk through this process mentioned above. Click here to schedule a free 15-minute consultation with one of our licensed therapists.