Struggling to Find Your Purpose? Answer This Question
It was 7pm on the eve of a holiday weekend. My boss had decided it was time to complete a project she’d been putting off for years. And it was my job to do it.
She stood behind my chair and barked orders, reaching over me to jab at the computer screen.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that she was eating pretzels. By “eating,” I mean savagely cramming them into her mouth as a vengeful giant would eat tiny villagers. And by “pretzels,” I mean those colossal, powdery dutch pretzels that shatter on contact, discharging shards of rock salt in every direction.
She would pause periodically to brush the salty detritus off my shoulders because she cared.
Blinking to keep the salt from my eyes as damp pretzel fragments rained down, I had two thoughts:
This is my rock bottom.
At least there’s no dipping sauce.
I also got a lightning bolt of clarity about purpose and how I was defining it all wrong.
To Find Your Purpose Ask, “Who Do I Want to Be?”
You see, I had been defining my purpose by asking, “What Do I Want to Do?”
What I wanted to do was coach full-time. Yet pretzels aside, I wasn’t ready to leave my corporate job. I felt increasingly detached from my purpose because I was defining it based on my job description.
I decided in that moment to ask a different question: Who Do I Want to Be?
Here’s why it’s the only question you need to ask when you’re struggling to find your purpose.
Purpose Is Internal, Not External
At some point, we shift away from believing that the perfect job, more money, or higher status is the answer. We rightly recognize the value of purpose and meaning in our day-to-day.
The challenge arises when we search for purpose outside of ourselves. We look for a role or external indicator. We treat purpose as a destination to be discovered.
I hear the following refrain so often, “I want to change the world, but how do I do it if I’m [in audit, an attorney, working at a bank]?"
The answer is simple: focus on who you want to be.
Purpose comes from within. It’s the meaning you bring to your actions. Don’t let your job define your purpose. Instead, infuse your purpose into everything you do.
Purpose Is Available 24/7
I’m 100% about helping people design careers with purpose, so I’m not suggesting that what you do isn’t important for your happiness.
I’m simply saying that while you’re creating your dream career, you can still live a meaningful life and fill your job—whatever it is—with purpose. Take it from someone who found purpose under a pile of pretzel dust.
As high-achievers, we put so much pressure on ourselves to figure it all out—often by the time we're 30, 35, 40, or some other arbitrary milestone. This technique gives you permission to take the pressure off. By asking who you want to be, you can always find ways to learn, stay engaged, and bring meaning. The results are immediate. You can start anytime, anywhere.
Making Purpose a Habit
Since the Pretzel Incident, I’ve asked myself this fundamental question many times. I still take 5 minutes most mornings to write down the energy I want to bring to important interactions, how I want others to feel, and how I want to connect. I focus on being a coach regardless of what I'm doing or who I'm working with. This is not to say that I always succeed, which is why the habit is important.
By asking who you want to be, you can bring purpose to whatever you’re doing. What’s more, it pushes you to live in line with the best version of yourself—how you can be even better tomorrow than you are today.
Finding your purpose doesn’t need to be hard. You only need to look within. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever you go, there you are.” It’s the same with purpose.
What Business Are You In?
One of my favorite illustrations of remembering your purpose is this brilliant story about Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines.
Post 9/11, as airlines were struggling, Kelleher kept asking himself, "Why am I in the airline business?"
He soon realized asking the question this way would lead him to act exactly like his competitors. So he asked himself, "What business am I really in?" until he realized he was in the business of love.
I know, I know, it’s a bit cheesy. But this reframe led him to an incredibly uncommon, heart-centric, and courageous leadership decision. Instead of laying off his employees, as all the other airlines were doing, he pulled them together, shared the company's financial challenges and asked for their opinion. The employees collectively voted to take a pay cut to keep their jobs; no one was laid off.
I love this story because it shows how our thinking expands when we remove the constraints of What We Do and shift to Who We Want To Be.
It also reminds us that even when we find our dream vocation, connecting with our purpose is a daily practice.
I see the What We Do constraint a lot as people try to figure out their careers. They get locked into thinking about job titles or industries or career paths which can be extremely limiting, especially if they have a diverse set of skills and interests. This jumps them straight to the end of the process before they’ve done the work of understanding what they’re trying to get out of it.
Let’s take the role of a Project Manager. There are all kinds of ways to be a successful project manager. Some excel because they are great consensus-builders. Some do well because they cut through the BS. Some are great at solutioning.
When you start with the role, while you may be able to evaluate whether you have the technical capabilities to perform, you’re not really considering whether that aligns with the impact you want to make and whether the day-to-day will actually make you happy.
Conversely, if you first understand that you want to lead transformation, work closely with a diverse set of people, and spend your day organizing and planning, you may very well decide that project management is one way to do that. You can further use this understanding to rule out types of organizations and projects that aren’t transformational enough or don’t focus on project management positions that matter to you. Finally, you’ll likely open yourself up to a ton of other potential career paths besides project management.
All because you started with YOU.
Start first with the individual elements you want to create. Then explore the various ways to apply them.
Start With Why
Recently, I decided to take a page from old Herb's book and revisit my WHY. Why am I a coach? What brought me here in the first place? What motivates me to continue to do this every day?
I really challenged myself to answer these not from the perspective of being a coach/writer/business owner but from the impact I want to make in the world.
What emerged for me was a set of 4 principles around holistic living, leadership, empowerment, and feminism that underpin everything I do as a coach/writer/business owner/human.
It gave me a ton of clarity about what drives me in my business today and even some ideas about what I'd like to tackle tomorrow.
And here's what's really cool: I could live out my 4 principles in so MANY different careers if I chose.
So if you're at the point in your career where you're thinking about where to go next, instead of jumping to the end point of job title/role description, try channeling Herb and step wayyy back.
Even if you're in a career you enjoy, these questions can help you suss out your calling within that career, how you want to lead, and the impact you want to make.
And maybe they can even help you prioritize how you're spending time outside of your career.
Give It a Try
If you’re not in the _____ business, what business are you in?
What are you willing to take a stand for? What is the transformation you would love to bring to the world?
What are the conversations you want to lead? Problems you want to solve? Questions you want to answer?
What is truly worth trying whether you fail or succeed?
If you love your career already, what motivates you to do it day after day?
Share what you come up with in the comments below.