How to Discover Your Purpose
Three Questions For a Life that Matters
There’s little that’s more resonant than a life that’s rich in purpose. When we live this way, every action feels right, every intention feels true, every moment we love what we do feels as deep as an ocean.
But how do we get there?
Purpose is made of three elements. Who you are, which provides the predisposition. What the world needs, which provides the point. And what you feel, which provides the passion.
Can you be (among) the best in the world at it? You might think that this first question has an instrumental answer: I can be the best at something so I can make a lot of money. You’re wrong. That’s a nice side-effect of purpose. But it’s not a cause of it. You can make lots of money at lots of things (OK, less than yesterday, but still). But not all those will really give you purpose.
Purpose is the cultivation of our natural faculties to their highest degree. We’re all predisposed to different things, right? That’s part of the beauty of life. To be (among) the best means that we have fully mastered a discipline, practice, art, science. What do we get? That sense of mastery. It is its own greatest reward. But the trick is beginning by choosing one that we’re naturally predisposed to. To release our own inner flow, instead of fighting it, damming it up, drying it up.
Let me illustrate. Let’s say I had a natural knack for fashion design. It ran through my veins. But to placate my family, I became a doctor. I probably couldn’t be a great doctor. A good one, sure. But foregoing my natural passion would always cost me perseverance, determination, creativity, love. Yet it’s all those — my natural passion, my inner talent, my aptitude — that, if I cultivated them, might let me be a truly great designer. Because I could be a truly great designer, I’d gain something money couldn’t buy: fulfillment. That’s the point of “bestness”, right? That you have developed and grown to your highest.
So the “what” really doesn’t matter. The economy sucks, that’s true. But the upside of this shitty economy is that being the best at almost anything is both possible, and rewarding. A century ago, being the best fashion designer, runner, hairstylist didn’t mean much. Today, it does. So you can be the best anything. What matters is that best flows out of your natural predispositions, that you don’t run a race you probably can’t win from the start, so that you can become an effortless, natural master of a thing.
Does it (truly) benefit others? This second question is tougher. We might have several natural talents. Design, math, gardening, and so on. The specifics don’t matter. But not all of them can benefit people equally, can they? So the second great question in purpose is narrowing down which ones are going to benefit people most, when you’re the (among) best in the world.
Most is a big word. It’s not: “benefit the most people”. It’s “benefit people most”. You probably shouldn’t just think purpose about it simple utilitarian terms: the greatest good for the greatest number. Why not? Because you’ll probably end up with a middle of the road compromise that doesn’t benefit anyone as much as it could. You know how Hollywood keeps churning out crowd-pleasing blockbusters that everyone forgets by next summer? The key word is “pleasing”. Purpose isn’t what pleases people. It challenges, provokes, defies them. And that is how it truly benefits them, right?
No one really finds a purpose by making crowd-pleasing stuff, do they? The Ramones and Steve Jobs weren’t in it to please the world. They were in it to change it. So trying to be all things to all people is a sure purpose-killer, and the moment you find yourself thinking that way…stop. Remember. You are not a tool. A purpose for a human isn’t just being useful. It is being more alive.
Try the following instead.
When I stand in front of a Picasso, I’m challenged. To see the world in a different way, not an easy way or a pleasing way. But a subtle, complex, truly profound way. It requires my commitment as a viewer, too. That’s the bond of purpose. We’re both a little more alive as a result, creator and viewer, right?
So “does it really benefit people” isn’t just about pandering to or placating or even satisfying them. It’s not about the most people. It’s about expanding people. Maybe even just a few people. But to the very highest degree. Letting them reach heights they couldn’t otherwise. Do they feel more alive as a result of what you do? If the answer is yes, now there is a bond between you and them, right? In that bond is the point: the mighty sense of lifelong meaning that only a purpose can create.
The truth is that if you choose as your life’s great purpose something that doesn’t really benefit anyone, you’re going to be left with an abiding sense of emptiness, futility, pointlessness. “I wasted my life on this?”, you’re likely to ask. Why? Because the psychology of fulfillment is elementary: we gain it only by elevating people, never by diminishing them. In turn, that lack of fulfillment is going to slowly but surely turn your purpose into something that should have been beautiful, true, and meaningful…but is instead a burden that you drag around with you everywhere you go.
Does it move you? The unfortunate truth is that many of us spend our lives working on stuff that doesn’t move us. A lot of us have to, true. But not all of us do, right? And more to the point, lives that don’t move us aren’t what we should aim for, no matter if we succeed or not.
So the third great question in purpose is: does it move you? This is the hardest one. Because you have to ruthlessly honest with yourself. You must let go of what your parents, partner, friends, teachers, counsellors, therapists, and so on, want, believe, know you should do. You’re the only one that can answer this question.
The wrong way to answer it is to think: what moves me the most, right this moment? We’re all prone to fads and trends. Bell-bottoms and mullets and today’s hipster mustaches and yesterday’s pornstaches wouldn’t have happened otherwise, right? But trends and fads come and go. You’re not looking for a fling, are you? You’re looking for a lifelong relationship.
The right way to answer it is to think: what kind of things, actions, ideas have moved me since the day I was born? Violin concertos, disco LPs, antiques, cancer cures, orphaned refugees? What’s the trend, the theme, the message in all that? What is my universe really made of?
Universe. It means “one turn”. We each create our own little universes, don’t we? We get one turn at creating them, one life. And they’re ours. What I see in a sunset isn’t what you see in a sunset, what I see in a person isn’t what you see. And so on. So the question is: what is the overarching theme in your universe? What is it really about? Maybe it’s art, fashion, science, knowledge, poetry, style, divinity. I don’t know. But you do.
What really moves me? When we answer this question well, we’re looking for depth, not breadth. We’re seeking silence and stillness, not movement and motion. We’re after the theme and the point of a life, not the style and the expression in a moment. Above all, we’re looking for emotion.
So be emotionally honest with yourself. Maybe you come from a family of doctors. And yet, the moment that you see cutting edge design, your heart pounds. Your eyes go wide. You feel electric, new, alive. That’s what moves you. That’s the sense that you’re looking for. It’s like a thunderclap. If you have to ask, conceptualize, second-guess, double-check…the answer’s already no, isn’t it?
The truth is that if you ask yourself these questions, or variants thereof, purpose isn’t something that you’ll really have to find. It will find you. Because you will be being honest, open, naked about three of the most important things in each and every life. Who you are. What the world needs. And what you feel.
And when you’re honest about those, then the seeds of truth have already been planted. All you have to do is water the soil.