Discovering Your Purpose Starts With Asking the Right Question
“Become yourself. It happens once in a lifetime.” –Switchfoot
Last week, I was speaking at a conference for young accountants. I know, when you think of Jeff Goins, the first thing that comes to mind is accounting. But there I was, talking to a group of a few hundred people, terrified they were going to ask me a math question.
Anyway, I was sharing with this group about why finding your purpose is essential to the journey of success, and someone asked:
“Is it better to focus on your strengths or pay attention to your weaknesses?”
This is an important question. A question graduates are asking themselves now. A question we all ask at some point in life. It is the constant question: “What should I do with my life?” Or in the words of Mary Oliver: “What do you plan to do with your one wild and crazy life?”
But I think it’s not the right question to ask.
The way we answer this question is everything. And I hear so many people offering all kinds of conflicting and often unhelpful advice.
Getting great at something won’t give it meaning.
Sometimes we hear well-meaning people say things like, “Get really good at something, and the world will reward.”
But what happens when you get so good at something and it ends up not being the thing you want to do? Or you get great at a skill only to realize it conflicts with your values? I meet people with stories like this all the time.
Yes, it can be dangerous to focus only on skill. Greatness, in and of itself, does not give your life meaning.
“Don’t chase the money, just follow your passion,” some say. But we all have to worry about money in some respect. We all have bills to pay and responsibilities. So this isn’t particularly helpful because one way or another money is a reality for all of us. And if we don’t think about it at all, the lack of it becomes an even greater burden.
You can’t plan your purpose, but you can’t drift through life, either.
Sometimes, we hear people say, “Don’t worry about it. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen.” Of course, it’s true that you don’t have to have everything figured out. Nobody does. But so often I see this used as an excuse to drift through life, to waste the precious days and months and years we have to make a difference.
So I say again, what do you plan to do with this life of yours? This is a big question, and it deserves a big answer. So here it is:
Don’t ask yourself, “What should I do with my life?” Instead, ask yourself, “Who am I, really, and how am I becoming more of that person?”
Don’t fear failure, fear this instead
So many of us worry about failure, when in fact what we should fear more than failure is succeeding at the wrong thing. This is a theme I’ve been hammering on lately and something we are covering in this summer’s book study I’m doing.
Focusing on what you’re good at or trying to improve your weaknesses will never answer the question, “What am I here for?” The world is full of answers to the question, “What should I do?” But only you can answer the question, “Who am I?”
So the best thing you can do, if you don’t want to waste your life, is to pay attention. Listen to your life. “See it for the fathomless mystery it is,” author and theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote. Why? Because every moment is a key moment.
And the thing we should fear most of all is wasting so many of those moments that it adds up to a life of little consequence.
Your life is a mystery, and your job is to study it. Through prayer, meditation, or simple reflection, we all must become more self-aware. This is the only way we can stop letting life happen to us and become more active participants in it.
Living into a larger story
You and I are characters in a story that we do not understand. We were born into a narrative that is bigger than us. I believe this. It’s the only way I can make sense of the inexplicable joys and unbelievable tragedies in this life. It’s a mystery.
But when you start listening to your life, simply watching for important and recurring themes throughout those key moments, you start to not feel so lost. Things will begin to make sense — slowly at first and more quickly as momentum builds and clarity comes.
Things do not become perfectly clear. That’s a myth. But you see enough of the path to take the next step. We all want to wait for clarity before we act, but as I share again and again in The Art of Work:
Clarity comes with action.
The one habit you must cultivate if you don’t want to waste your life is self-awareness. Listen to your life. Look for the things that resonate with who you are and avoid the things that do not represent the person you are and are becoming.
Be yourself is a cliche. I never had a completely clear picture of who I was. But deep down inside, I had some idea of who I was supposed to be, a sense of destiny. I think we all have this, buried deep in our souls. Maybe that sounds a little esoteric to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
We all have moments when we do things that feel like we are in the flow and things that feel very unfamiliar and uncomfortable to us. Sometimes, we even do things that feel downright wrong– for us. And it’s very important we learn how to listen to these urges and inklings if we don’t want to waste our lives.
Don’t just be yourself. Become yourself, your true self, the self you were meant to be. The one you won’t regret dedicating a lifetime of attention and sacrifice to. We all want to know that we ran our race well and that it was, in fact, our race — not someone else’s.
If this resonates with you, I encourage you to join me and others for a summer book study on my book The Art of Work. It’s completely free. You don’t even need to pick up a book if you don’t want to.
We’ll be talking about purpose, creativity, and how to live the life you were meant to live. We kicked things off, talking about this very topic of listening to your life (watch the videos here).