How to define your purpose

My purposePurpose forms the bedrock of productivity and success. It guides us through life and motivates us through tough times. Without purpose our decisions are driven by fear, but with purpose we can be mindful and focused on what we do.

The aim of this guide is to help you understand and define your purpose, so that you can make the tough decisions about where to focus your time and energy to get the best out of work and life.

What does purpose look like?

Some people just naturally have a clear sense of purpose burning away inside them. They may be driven by a religious belief, have a strong desire to improve people’s lives or wish to push the boundaries of human achievement.

Whatever their chosen cause, they are likely to by highly convicted and uncompromising in their quest towards it.

For the majority of us though, purpose is more of fleeting light that we occasionally glimpse, rather than a permanently visible burning torch. We’ll know it when we see it, but it could take some take some time to find it!

For many of us, our careers can be closely linked to our sense of purpose. What we do for work tends to define us in the eyes of other people and the majority of us like to feel we are making a difference, as well as bringing home the bacon.

At the same time there are plenty of other aspects of life that give people purpose; such as being a parent, caring for a relative, doing charity work or understanding different cultures, to name but a few.

Putting purpose succinctly into words is difficult, so I’ve listed a range of outcomes that could each be recognised as somebody’s purpose:

  • I want to help people to become healthier
  • I want to help people get out of debt
  • I want to help people live more fulfilled lives
  • I want to solve difficult problems for people
  • I want to reduce global warming
  • I want to change the way society thinks about xyz
  • I want to ensure people have fair access to justice
  • I want to entertain people
  • I want to make my country more prosperous
  • I want my children to grow up happy and successful
  • I want to break the 100m sprint record

Maybe some of these resonate with you, or maybe your purpose is something completely different – there is no right or wrong answer; but it is good to throw some ideas about as you set about discovering your own.

The three steps to discover your purpose

Knowing that most of us will more likely be chasing a fleeting glimpse of purpose (rather than waking up one day and being struck by a lightning vision of purpose) is hopefully reassuring to those who feel totally purposeless.

Personally it has taken me years to develop my own sense of purpose and my journey only really started when I entered the working world (my school days were a complete loss).

At the same time, it is so important to have something to strive towards, that I would recommend doing some proactive purpose discovery, which consists of three steps:

  • 1 – Mind mapping
  • 2 – Writing a personal mission statement
  • 3 – Mindfully living your mission to test and adapt it

Step 1 – Mind mapping exercises

Grab a pencil and some sheets of paper, find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed and for a couple of hours, use the following exercises to create mind maps that will help you illustrate your purpose.

The key is to let the questions in the exercises spark ideas and to use the mind map to elaborate on your responses with examples.

Don’t worry about creating the perfect mind map, as these will be for your use only, so just let yourself write everything and anything that comes to mind.

Exercise 1 – Occupation

What aspects of your current occupation do you enjoy the most?

For example, do you like:

  • Building things
  • Fixing things
  • Organising things
  • Protecting things
  • Connecting things
  • Assuring things
  • Improving things
  • Solving things

At work, do you prefer:

  • Leading
  • Contributing to a team
  • Working by yourself

What are your key skills and areas of expertise? (These may fall under the following categories):

  • People skills / expertise
  • Technical skills / expertise
  • Teaching, mentoring and coaching skills / expertise
  • Financial skills / expertise
  • Organisational skills / expertise
  • Marketing skills / expertise

Exercise 2 – Politics, beliefs and problems-to-be-solved

  • Do you have any strong views on things that you would like to change in society or across the world?
  • Are these views strong enough that you would take them up as a cause?
  • What sorts of things annoy you the most?
  • What problems would you most like to see solved?

Exercise 3 – Perception

  • Describe how you would like to be perceived by friends and family?
  • What one contribution would you most like to be remembered for?
  • Name one person, either from your social circle, a colleague or a famous person that you would like to be most closely associated with. Explain why you picked this person?

Exercise 4 – Past successes

  • List the times when you have experienced a big success during your life. Try to identify successes from work, home, personal hobbies and your social circles.

Exercise 5 – Reward

Describe the rewards that appeal most to you:

  • Financial
  • Being involved in a community
  • Exciting perks
  • Feeling good about myself
  • Being asked my opinion
  • Making other people feel special
  • Being challenged and learning new things

Exercise 6 – Goals

Do you have any goals that you are trying to achieve? What are they about?

For example your goals could be related to:

  • Work (e.g. completing a big project, getting a promotion)
  • Health (e.g. losing weight, running a marathon, getting ripped)
  • Family (e.g. starting a family, creating amazing experiences for your family, getting your kids into a sport or further education)
  • Wisdom (e.g. learning a new skill or subject, traveling to experience different cultures)

Step 2 – Write a personal mission statement

A personal mission statement is the equivalent of the mission statement that organisations include in their strategy documents and marketing. It should be a concise and easy to remember statement of your purpose that you can keep referring back to when you need to motivate yourself or make difficult decisions.

Putting your purpose onto paper is highly beneficial because it helps you think things through in detail. The very act of writing something is highly committal, so it makes us think twice about what we say we are going to do or how we are going to act.

To write your personal mission statement, analyse the mind maps you created based on the exercises above and draw out the recurring themes that interest you the most.

Then craft your concise statement, using the following template:

The value you create + who you’re creating it for + the expected outcome

An example of this is:

I use my passion and expertise in technology to inspire researchers to create drugs to cure rare diseases.

(Excerpt from FastCompany – see further examples here)

To make your mission statement more meaningful, you can supplement it with some supporting sub-sections covering:

  • Past successes
  • Core values
  • The contributions you will make
  • Short and long-term goals

Take a look at this article for more detail and examples.

Step 3 – Live your mission, test it and adapt it

It may not seem like it, but completing Steps 1 and 2 is a big achievement and something that very few people will ever take the time to do.

Having gone through the exercises and written your personal mission statement, you should have at least caught some positive glimpses of your purpose, and hopefully a lot more than that; so the worse thing you can do now is file your statement away in a drawer somewhere and forget about it.

Step 3 is all about proactively living your mission. Only by living and testing your mission can you be sure about your purpose.

Where you have identified short and long-term goals, start putting plans in place to achieve them. Think about the core values that you want to live by and remember them when you feel challenged.

As you progress, don’t be afraid to adapt your mission and purpose as you learn more about yourself and what you are trying to achieve.

In fact, it makes sense to schedule time every six months or so to review how things are going and re-collect your thoughts.

Over to you

Good luck with your quest to find your purpose. It can be a tough journey to make, but the rewarding feeling of knowing your purpose and being in control of your life makes it more than worthwhile.

How to define your purpose - infographic