I often write about the need for people to live with meaning and purpose to be psychologically well. Because of that people often ask me, “How do you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose is?” I do understand It’s an elusive concept and not very easily captured when asked to tell someone what you think it is. To speak of living with meaning and purpose can sound so abstract when we do talk about it, we feel like we’re attending a philosophy course. Because of this abstract nature Let me see if I can give you some guidance to help you discover what your life’s meaning and purpose might be. You may find you’re already living it in ways you never expected, or you may find it’s time to make some changes in order to live a more flourishing existence.
To get started you need to develop the habit of self-reflection. Frequently we mistake finding meaning and purpose in life as simply discovering what you love to do. That’s not true, although it can be something you love doing more often than not. No one loves to do anything all the time. In fact, when you do something meaningful, you’re often working hard, failing, and learning how to improve what it is you do to be the best at doing it! There have been plenty of times doing what I feel is my life’s purpose is downright miserable. Yet, when I have had to do difficult things and these things are understood in the context of my life’s purpose, they are much more tolerable than just doing something because it must be done. What you need to spend time reflecting on is the themes and trends in your life where you flourished. When were you doing things that not only felt like you were made to do them, but that you had a proclivity toward doing them well?
For example, in my life I have a knack for listening to people and helping them develop solutions and solve their own problems. I am not saying I am good at solving problems, rather I seem to have an ability to listen to people, ask them questions, engage them in dialogue, and then facilitate a type of discovery that leads them to do better at whatever it is they need to do. In my life I seem to bring a calming atmosphere to personal engagements. I’m told I’m easy to talk with, seem to empathize and care about what people have to say, and generally show insight into other people’s problems. When I look back on my life, I can see this theme emerging in a number of ways.
Within my family, I am told I was an easy child to be around. As I got older, the opinion of my family members was that having me at home made the home feel full and comfortable. When I went away to college people would come to my dorm room and share things with me they weren’t comfortable sharing with anyone else. When it came to employment my first job continued to reflect this theme. I became at IT consultant for several different consulting firms. As an IT consultant I was often tasked with being the person who interacted with the customer to clarify their goals and objectives that the project we were working on needed to meet. The team of IT engineers I worked with often said customers seem to “open up” and engage with me better than the others on our team. Lastly, I am both an educator and therapist in my present vocation. In these roles I find that I continue to be someone that helps other people learn, grow, and solve their own problems. Again, I’m not a problem solver, that doesn’t seem to be my purpose in life, rather I’m one who facilitates problem solving in others.
Now, I have the benefit of looking over the past 54 years of living to talk about my life’s meaning and purpose. Some of you reading this may be in your early twenties and don’t have as much experience to reflect upon. That’s okay. Self-reflect, spend time thinking about what you discover, and look for what might be a common theme in your life up to this point. If you can start to see some meaning and purpose emerge, you’re starting to get a sense of what you are meant to do with your life. Try finding any work that allows that purpose to emerge and be tested. Think creatively, it doesn’t have to be directly related to what you’re discovering about yourself, but it should provide you with more experiences to reflect upon. Who would think an IT consultant would reflect a life’s purpose of helping others solve their own problems? People hire consultants to solve those problems for them! Whatever it is, start finding things to do that seem to reflect that purpose and continue to evaluate it over time. Even if you’re a little off base and haven’t nailed it down perfectly, eventually something more will emerge and your life’s meaning and purpose will continue to make itself know.
As a last point, ask people you trust and who know you well what they think about what you’ve discoverer about yourself. People you can trust will be brutally honest and you need that feedback to stay on track. We frequently fool ourselves believing one thing about ourselves when in reality, we’re nothing like what we think. Self-delusion is a problem easily solved by interacting with others and letting them tell you what they think about who you are and the gifts and talents you have.
So much psychological research teaches us that people who live meaningful lives and do what they believe is their purpose in life thrive and are successful. Over the next few posts I will help you do that very thing. For now, practice some self-reflection. If you want, send me a note and let me help you dig a little deeper, I would love to hear from you!