Discovering Your Life’s Purpose

Discovering your life’s purpose can be likened to embarking on a treasure hunt where new paths unfold in mysterious and surprising ways. Are you ready to become curious, to see what you will discover in order to  live a purposeful, well-lived life? All it takes is a willingness to begin.

Knowing why you’re here, and who you want to be, isn’t a part-time job. The challenge is to live out what you stand for, intentionally, in every moment. ~ Tony Schwartz, author

People enjoy being engaged in meaningful work. Humans, by nature, are a passionate species, and most of us seek out stimulating experiences.

Having a purpose provides context for all of one’s efforts, and it’s a chief criterion for “flow”—the energy state that occurs when one’s mind, body and entire being are committed to the task at hand. Flow turns mundane work into completely absorbing experiences, allowing us to push the limits of skills and talents.

On some level, everyone wants to live a purposeful life, yet we are distracted by societal pressures to achieve wealth and prestige. There are indications, however, that this is changing. Just as Gross National Product (GNP) fails to reflect the well-being and satisfaction of a country’s citizens, a person’s net worth has little to do with personal fulfillment.

There are benefits to having a sense of purpose other than the emotional and psychological ones. For example, having a strong sense of purpose can help you live longer.

  • A 2009 study of over 73,000 Japanese men and women found that those who had a strong connection to their sense of purpose tended to live longer than those who didn’t.
  •  Additionally, in his study of “Blue Zones” (communities in the world in which people are more likely to live past 100), Dan Buettner identified the factors that most centenarians share, one of them being a strong sense of purpose.
  • In 2014, researchers used data that tracked adults over 14 years and found that "having a purpose in life appears to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years."

Purpose can also positively affect pain management. A study in The Journal of Pain found that women with a stronger sense of purpose were better able to withstand heat and cold stimuli applied to their skin.

Purpose can also contribute to better relationships. In 2009, Richard Leider teamed up with Met Life to assess the purpose of over 1,000 adults. They found that those with a high sense of meaning in their lives spent more time and attention on their loved ones and communities. On the whole, people with purpose tend to be more engaged with their families, colleagues, and neighbors, enjoying more satisfying relationships as a result.

If the above reasons aren’t enough, purpose can also help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. In studies of thousands of elderly subjects, Dr. Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, found that people with a low sense of life purpose were 2.4 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease than those with a strong purpose. Further, people with purpose were less likely to develop impairments in daily living and mobility disabilities.

Writer Tor Constantino of Entrepreneur reviews The Art of Work, a book by Jeff Goins, who offers some unconventional advice to help one ditch the status quo and begin a life work that’s filled with passion and purpose. Goins explores three actionable tactics that one can use to identify calling:

  1. Listen to your life.

    The best place to begin charting your future is by taking a look at your past. Goins writes, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I need to listen to my life to tell me who I am.”

  2. Accidental apprenticeships.

    No one can achieve success or realize their life purpose by themselves. The process works best with a team of mentors providing guidance. That kind of help is all around us – we just don’t always see it.

  3. Prep for painful practice.

    There’s a myth that once you know what it is that you’re supposed to pursue, achieving that purpose will be easy because it plays to your strengths and passion. That’s not always the case. "The paradox is it’s difficult to achieve the level excellence that your calling should merit, but that struggle for mastery is also invigorating and fulfilling. It’s tough and not everybody realizes that until they’re in it," says Goins.

The author notes that the key is finding where your abilities and personal drive intersect with the needs of others. He believes that you can find that juncture by answering the following three questions:

  • What do I love?
  • What am I good at?
  • What does the world need?

Once that key is identified, you won’t have a job or even a career, but a life purpose.

How does discovering your purpose play out after retirement? Here’s what one university study reports:

  • A study of retired employees of Shell Oil found that men and women who retired early (age 55) were more likely to die early than those who retired at age 65.
  • A similar study of almost 17,000 healthy Greeks showed that the risk of death increased by 51% after retirement.

These studies suggest that there may be some risk in finding meaning only in a career, and stresses the importance of reshaping life’s big questions while finding ways to continue serving purpose even after retirement to improve chances of a longer, healthier life.

Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your calling. ~ Aristotle

Igniting Passion and Performance

Look at today’s top-performing companies, and you’ll inevitably find a high degree of employee engagement. From frontline workers to CEOs, people are passionate about their companies’ purpose, values and mission.

Most workers are motivated to give their best and often go beyond what’s required. Some are lucky enough to work for companies that are consistently designated a “best place to work.”

But for countless other organizations, only 20% of employees say they’re excited about work. They show up to earn a paycheck. At most, they aim to achieve personal success and climb the promotion ladder.

In the first workplace, people are passionate. In the latter, they’re looking out for themselves, with management struggling to realize performance goals. We can attribute the difference to organizational factors like hierarchy, processes, incentives and, often, personalities. But the real culprit may be their leaders’ failure to ignite passion.

I see this in many of the businesses where I consult and coach. Leaders don’t see emotional factors as relevant to performance, except for when things go wrong.

Passion Principles

For years, we’ve been learning how workplace performance depends on emotional factors like engagement, culture, values and a sense of purpose. But many leaders and managers ignore the need to foster employee connection to the corporate mission.

While most leaders are highly experienced in financial planning, capital budgeting, and organizational structure and strategies, most receive no formal training in building, leveraging or measuring employee passion.

Engagement surveys are a reasonable way to gauge passion levels, but they cannot capture what it looks like or how to increase it.

We usually see successful startups filled with hordes of passionate people, yet we view them as anomalies—unique because of their youthful culture or trendy products. We seldom imagine older, more traditional companies as hotbeds of passion and energy.

Stagnant leadership thinking plagues executives who fail to identify a purpose beyond making profits.

“If you look through the right lens, every organization has the potential for world-changing impact. The role of a leader is to foster passion around that impact and to keep that passion alive by reinforcing it every day.” ~ Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, in The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)

When leaders recognize a higher purpose and their companies’ potential to make a difference in the world, they ignite passion in their people and achieve stellar performance. When they ignore purpose, values and passion, they are missing out on one of the most powerful motivators for performance.

What do you think? You can reach me here or on LinkedIn; I’d love to hear what’s happening where you work.