“Every being is intended to be on earth for a certain purpose.”
— Sa’di, 12th Century Persian poet
I’m often asked, “Why can’t I find the purpose of my life?” Over the decades I’ve heard many men and women — whether they’re psychotherapy patients working to build healthier lives or business executive trying to create healthier leadership — say at some point that they don’t know what they’re really here, for, on this planet. They’re not necessarily religious or spiritually inclined, but they feel a longing for that “certain something” that defines and integrates their lives.
Many turn to the various books and programs purport to identify their life’s purpose, but most come away dissatisfied. No closer than they were before, they identify with Bono’s plaintive cry in the U2’s song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
And yet, many do find and live in harmony with their life’s purpose. Here are some of my observations about why many don’t, and how they differ from those who do.
First, I think everyone feels a pull towards some defining purpose to his or her life, no matter how much it may have become shrouded over along the way. In fact, you can say that all forms of life, all natural phenomena, have some purpose. There’s always movement or evolution towards some kind of outcome or fulfillment — whether it’s a tree that produces fruit or clouds that form to produce rain. But we humans become so enraptured by our daily activity, engagements, goals and so forth, that our awareness of our own unique life purpose is easily dimmed.
And there are consequences to not knowing or finding your purpose. I often see men
and women who’ve become successful in their work or relationships — their outer lives — and yet they feel hollow, empty, unfulfilled. They describe feeling “off-track” in some way, or incomplete, despite a conventionally successful life. Sometimes they wonder if they’ve been on the “wrong” path all along — chosen the wrong career, or the wrong life partner. Or that perhaps they haven’t realized that their chosen path could be more meaningful or purposeful to them, if they let it. Moreover, they wonder how you can tell the difference?
One thing is clear: The consequences of not finding your purpose include chronic, lingering dissatisfaction; an absence of inner peace and a sense of not being fully in sync with your inner self. That’s because your true inner self knows that your life purpose is out of sync with your outer life. The latter is often a false self, but you’ve identified with it because it’s been so rewarding to your ego.
I think most people retain at least a glimmer of awareness of their life’s purpose within their inner being. It often feels like a leaning, an inclination, that continues to pull at you. Sometimes is right in front of your eyes but you don’t allow yourself to see it, like when you’re hunting for your missing keys and then discover that they’ve been right in front of you the whole time. For example, an investment advisor found himself doing more and more work with charity organizations. He finally realized that what he felt most in sync with was hands-on work helping people. That was the part he enjoyed about his work, not the money managing per se. Helping people was his true calling, and it was staring him in the face the whole time.
Those who experience a clear inclination but don’t pursue or fulfill it remain incomplete and dissatisfied. But it’s important not to confuse seeking happiness with finding your purpose. Happiness is what you experience in the daily flow of life — the highs and lows that are situational. They will fluctuate. But purpose is deeper. It’s more of an underlying sense of peace and fulfillment overall, a sense of integration and continuous unfoldment of your being. It transcends everyday ups and downs, the disappointments or successes, even. When you’re living in accordance with your life’s purpose, you view all of the above as part of what you encounter along the road. They don’t distract you from that larger vision, your ideal, which is like a magnet steadily pulling you towards it.
Themes Of People Who Find Their Purpose
There are commonalities among those who find their true purpose for being. One major theme is that they aren’t very preoccupied with self-interest, in their ego-investments in what they do. That can sound contradictory. How can you find your life purpose if you’re not focused on yourself? The fact is, when you’re highly focused on yourself, with getting your goals or needs met — whether in your work or relationships — your purpose becomes obscured. Your ego covers it, like clouds blocking the sun. Self-interest, or ego in this sense, is part of being human, of course. It’s something that requires effort and consciousness to move through and let go of, so you don’t become transfixed by it, as the Sirens sought to do to Ulysses.
Letting go of self-interest opens the door to recognizing your true self, more clearly, so you can see whether it’s joined with your outer life and creates a sense of purpose — or clashes with it. Knowing who you are inside — your true values, secret desires, imagination; your capacity for love, empathy, generosity — all relate to and inform your life purpose.
A second theme of those who discover their life purpose is that they use their mental and creative energies to serve something larger than themselves. That is, they’re like the lover who simply gives love for its own sake, without regard for getting something in return, without asking to be loved back or viewing his actions as a transaction or investment. That can be hard to imagine in our mercantile society, but giving your mental, emotional and creative energy from the heart comes naturally when you serve something larger than your self-interest. It beckons you; it calls forth your spirit.
This theme of service to something larger than your ego, larger than “winning” the fruits of what you’re aiming for, takes many forms in people. For some, their service and sense of purpose is embodied in the work that they do every day. That is, what they do reflects the paradox of not directly aiming to achieve something, because doing so only fuels the ego. This theme is described by John Kay, former Director of Oxford’s Business School, in “Obliquity.” There, he shows examples of achieving business or career goals by pursuing them indirectly; by deliberately not pursuing them. That is, too much self-interest tends to undermine success. It’s the difference between passion in the service of creating a new product, rather than trying to capture a big market share from the product.
Service towards something beyond ego is always visible in those who’ve found their purpose, whether younger and older. Sometimes it’s by conscious intent. For example, letting go of a previous path when they awaken to it’s not being in sync with their inner self. Sometimes it’s triggered by unanticipated events that answers an inner yearning
One example is a 20-something woman who, disenchanted with college, returned home and happen to join up with some other musician and artist friends. That led, in turn, to creating a nonprofit organization, the GoodMakers Street Team, a group of passionate young adults who are bringing positive change to communities. Older people are also discovering a newly-found life purpose. For example, the rise of “encore careers” and projects or engagements that they discover are more in sync with their inner selves; and perhaps have lingered in the background of their lives for years.
Sometimes one’s purpose is awakened by a tragedy one learns about, such as person who become moved by victims of torture and discovered his life’s purpose in helping them. Or, a tragedy one experiences, like John Walsh, whose nationally-known work in criminal justice was spurred by the murder of his young son.
If you work towards weakening the stranglehold of self-interest, you can take an important step towards discovering your life’s purpose: Learning from your choices and way of life. That is, they can give you important feedback about the path you’ve been on, in relation to your deeper life purpose.
- Begin by examining what you’re currently doing in your choices, way of life, and commitments, looking from “outside” yourself. Try to discern what the outcomes — whether successes or failures — reveal to you about your inner self. Look for where there seems to be resonance or not. That is, don’t try to “find” your purpose by tweaking or fine-tuning what you’ve been doing in your work, relationships or anything else. Instead, let all of that teach you what it can. That is, look at what it tells you about your longings, your inner vision and predilections that you might be trying to express through your outer life, even if the latter may be an incorrect vehicle.
- When you do feel a pull towards some purpose, activity or goal that you feel reflects your inner self, then pursue it fully and vigorously, and with great intent. Keep looking for the feedback your actions give you along the way. It doesn’t matter if your purpose is something more concrete or more spiritual. If you pursue it with minimal self-interest, with “obliquity,” you will learn from what happens if it’s the true path for you or not.
- Infuse all of your actions with a spirit of giving, of service; in effect, with love for what you’re engaging with. That includes all the people you interact with, as well. The more you consciously infuse your thoughts, emotions and behavior with positive, life-affirming energy – kindness, compassion, generosity, justice – you’re keeping your ego at bay and you’re able to see your true purpose with greater clarity.
Of course, this is hard, and you might encounter opposition from cultural pressures or others who have their own interests at stake. Keep in mind, here, something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.
The Sufi spiritual leader Hazrat Inayat Khan, who brought his teachings to the U.S. and Western Europe in the early 1900s, described the pull of your purpose in an interesting way. He wrote that one
…may suddenly think during the night, “I must go to the north,” and in the morning, he sets out on his journey. He does not know why, he does not know what he is to accomplish there, he only knows that he must go. By going there, he finds something that he has to do and sees that it was the hand of destiny pushing him towards the accomplishment of that purpose which inspired him to go to the north.
I find that men and women who set out to “go north” and awaken to their life purpose radiate a calm inner strength, inspiration, power and success in whatever they do with their lives. It radiates to all around them.
* * * * *Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may email him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org