I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that reading this post isn’t the first time you’ve ever thought about finding your purpose in life.
You’ve probably read books like Man’s Search for Meaning, watched TED Talks like Start With Why, and skimmed through other cheesy blog posts on the topic. Maybe you’ve even gone on some sort of retreat or done a heavy dose of psychedelics hoping for an epiphany.
But you’re still looking, eh?
Well, it’s unlikely your pursuit of purpose in life will end here. But maybe you’ll find some clues that’ll get you closer. Based on my own search (and research), here are some practical criteria to help you:
The right purpose to pursue…
- can’t only be about you.
- is a source of endless energy and adventure.
- takes a stand for and against something.
- lets you score a ton of points in the game of life.
- has nothing to do with time or money.
- won’t be something completely new to you.
- is something you can’t stop thinking about.
- isn’t corny nonsense.
Let’s look at these criteria, along with a related thought-provoking question for each.
Your purpose can’t only be about you.
“The happiest person is the person doing good stuff for good reasons.”Kennon Sheldon
This purpose-finding criterion relates to the hedonic paradox:
If you pursue the thing that makes you happy, you’ll never get it. But if you pursue something that helps other people get happier, you will be happier.
This paradox gives you two clues:
- Your purpose can’t be your own happiness.
- Your purpose has to do some greater good.
And it leads us to the question: What’s someone else’s problem you’re willing to help them with?
You can probably come up with a long list of such problems (especially if you watch a lot of Netflix documentaries). Filter it for problems that:
- you feel more strongly about than most people.
- you’ve acted on in the past (even something as small as a social media post).
- you feel would be an adventure to take on.
↳ Ask yourself: What’s an injustice or unfairness in the world that pisses you off and you’re eager to help take on?
Your purpose should be a source of endless energy and adventure.
Endless means you can’t achieve it. So your purpose shouldn’t be “to get rich,” “be happy,” or “raise a family.”
And adventure means something challenging but rewarding. Easy lives are boring. Your purpose gives you the conflict you need for your life’s story.
So try looking at it this way:
Your life purpose is a headwind.
It’s something that bothers you but that you can harness as a constant source of energy to make meaningful progress in your self-actualizing journey through life. You don’t know where exactly chasing into the headwind of your purpose will take you, but you know you’ll have a wild ride.
↳ Ask yourself: What problem would be a wild ride to take on?
Your purpose needs to take a stand for and against something.
“By describing what they can’t stand,” writes author Tony Schwartz, “people unintentionally divulge what they stand for.” And when you realize what you stand for, you’ll have an easier time seeing what’s standing against you. That’s your headwind. Your purpose is in that direction.
↳ Ask yourself: What qualities do you find most off-putting when you see them in others?
Your purpose should let you score a ton of points in the game of life.
The good news is this criterion may be your biggest hint for finding your purpose.
The bad news is you first have to figure out something else:
Look at the chart above with time in the x-axis and your “Max Potential” in the upper right corner. Then ask yourself, what’s your y-axis? In other words, what measure are you using to keep score in your game of life?
It’s not money, respect, or TikTok followers, right? But what is it?
If you can figure it out, you can then deduce what’s keeping you from getting it. That’s your headwind of a purpose.
To give you an example, the y-axis I’m using to keep score in my game of life is “growth.” I believe I’m winning at life when I’m helping myself and others grow our abilities and knowledge as much as possible.
So what’s the opposite of growth?
Shrinking? Complacency? Something along those lines is the headwind I can take on.
↳ Ask yourself: What’s your y-axis in the game of life, and what’s keeping you from climbing it?
Your purpose should have nothing to do with time or money.
Time is the most bogus excuse for not pursuing a worthy purpose.
Your future self won’t care that you’re “too old/young/busy/broke” to find time to pursue something meaningful. So even if you are old/young/busy/broke, try to find ways to reframe and redirect what you’re doing toward your purpose. Even a daily habit of doing something purposeful for just a few minutes a day can grow into something substantial.
And money is the worst distraction of all.
It’s easy to say, “I’ll make my money early, then focus on purposeful pursuits later on.” But it’s more likely you’ll get trapped on a treadmill and too exhausted and overwhelmed to get off of it.
Yes, you need both time and money. But figure out how to cater to those needs within your purpose rather than cater your purpose to them.
↳ Ask yourself: If you could work on anything, but you had to do it for 40 hours a week for the rest of your life at a fixed salary of $100,000 a year, what would you do?
Your purpose shouldn’t be something completely new to you.
“My mission has been with me all along.”A participant in the first-ever 30-Day Redirect, upon honing in on her purpose.
We all gravitate toward our life purposes even when we’re too preoccupied to consciously go after them. So you know you’re on the right track in pursuit of your purpose when you realize it’s consistent with your proudest accomplishments and what you’ve always enjoyed doing.
↳ Ask yourself: What have been my proudest achievements so far in life? What problems did you overcome to do so? Can you spot a common theme among them?
Your purpose should be something you can’t stop thinking about.
When you find the right purpose, you become like an obsessed detective on the hunt for a criminal. You go to sleep thinking about it, your subconscious tackles it in your dreams, and all through your day, you’re on high alert for clues.
For example, the case I’m trying to crack is, “How do I help people (and myself) have a wonderful time figuring out for themselves how to perform slightly better in the game of life?” And, like detectives do on TV with their webs of evidence on a board, I have a digital “Web of Truth” where I organize my ever-growing network of notes that serve as clues.
If you find the right purpose to pursue, you won’t think so anymore.
↳ Ask yourself: If your life were a detective story, what would be the case you would most want to try to solve?
Your purpose shouldn’t be corny nonsense.
There are two parts to this criterion:
- No corniness: If you’d be embarrassed to tell your purpose to someone you’re on a first date with, your boss, or your ball-busting friends, your purpose needs work. The same goes if people roll their eyes when you tell it to them.
- No nonsense: Don’t make it so long and complicated that people can’t understand it when you tell it to them. At the same time, avoid short, trite, general, or cliché meaninglessness.
A good purpose is one that’s energizing and fun, and that you can start by saying, “Here’s to….”
↳ Ask yourself: What’s a life purpose that would make a good toast?
Lastly, to pursue your purpose, you’ve actually got to move.
“You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose and strategy for your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with your strategy.”Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life
Your purpose isn’t going to come to you on a platter. You have to hone in on it and keep it in your sights while avoiding being sidetracked by distraction.
Then you’ve got to do something about it.
On this point, here’s one last question:
↳ Ask yourself: What are you going to do this week to get closer to your purpose?
Whatever purpose you choose to pursue, don’t get stuck in ruts.
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