Discovering Your Life Purpose

Discovering Your Life Purpose

Life Purpose is, undoubtedly, the most imposing of subjects. Whilst the French refer to it as raison d’être، the Japanese call it Ikigai and in Arabian and Islamic culture, it can arguably be rendered as Lima Khuliq. Indeed, people the world over, of every generation, are often searching to discover their life purpose, and it’s not an easy task.

Wisdom, from the ancients to the memes of social media today, can help. The first century Greek Stoic Philosopher, Epictetus, counselled powerfully in his book, ‘The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness’, by asking, “How long can you afford to evade being who you really want to be?” A quote apocryphally attributed to the nineteenth century American writer Mark Twain states, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” An unknown author on social media is also responsible for the following maxim, “One Day or Day One. You Decide.”

Discovering your life purpose is and should be, by its nature, an empowering, uplifting and positive pursuit of learning truth about one’s own self, mind, body and soul. As part of the journey, quality of life, its length and its end, are all worthy of reflection. Three sources of wisdom will suffice here: from Japan, there are lessons on discovering life purpose and increasing its length from the concept of Ikigai; lessons from the late American entrepreneur Steve Jobs, who led Apple Inc. to become the world’s largest publicly-listed company in under four decades; and insights from Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives.

One of the most valuable methods to discover purpose, specifically career purpose, is the concept of Ikigai, as originally detailed by Japanese psychiatrist author, Kobayashi Tsukasa, in his 1990 article, Ikigai and more recently by Spanish authors Héctor García and Francesc Miralles in their book, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.’ Ikigai is an introspective process in Japan to look for a deep and often lengthy search of self, so as to discover purpose, a reason for being. In Japan, it is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning”, a motivational method which Japanese academics have said contributes to the long lives — in some cases, 100-years plus — in areas of Japan like Okinawa.

A widely-shared Venn diagram depicts the Ikigai, as a valuable tool for discovering purpose, but mainly for one’s career. The four circles in this Ikigai diagram are ‘What You Can be Paid for’, ‘What You Are Good At’, ‘What You Love’ and ‘What the World Needs’, which, when overlapping, can help to generate Profession, Passion, Vocation and Mission, and which holistically lead to Ikigai. Newer versions of the Ikigai focus less on the career, but more on the mind, body and soul, with circles such as ‘Purpose’, ‘Life Satisfaction’ and ‘Positive Affect’.


Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Inc., died from pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011, but before his death, he had made Apple the world’s largest public company on Earth and changed the lifestyles of billions of people. Six years prior to his death, Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford University on 12 June 2005, where he related three stories; the first, connecting the dots; the second, about love and loss; and the third, about death. But it is not the stories he told which had the most impact, but the life lessons he imparted, which have universal appeal, and for which his own words suffice.

The life lesson Jobs imparted about connecting the dots was as follows: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Then, he spoke about love and loss: “It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. 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. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

Finally, Jobs spoke about death: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 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.”

Australian nurse Bronnie Ware spent several years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, and she wrote a book about her observations titled ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’. These included the first, and most common regret of all, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”; second, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”; third, “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”; fourth, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends” and fifth, “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Therefore, discovering one’s life purpose requires you to first reflect on the end of your life. When you go, what will you leave behind? Whom will you leave behind? How will you be remembered? This is design thinking whereby you envisage your legacy and then spend a lifetime living it.

It is fitting to end, once again, with the words of a person who is no longer in this earthly realm, Steve Jobs, but whose legacy lives on: “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but some day not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. 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.”