Having a sense of purpose, calling or mission is a powerful motivator. It is also key to having a longer, more fulfilling life.
At times, however, that sense of calling or purpose may feel elusive. You may not be able to see it as you look forward, towards your future. But you may be able to follow its trail as you look at your past.
I offer you five questions designed to help you think, as specifically as possible, about moments in your life. I’m using a technique that I’ve found to be useful and revealing when asking people to share their stories with me, leading to powerful insights.
If I had just asked you to list your values, you might give me your sanitized and pre-approved list of values – interesting but not terribly helpful for our inquiry.
Instead, I would like you to tell me about a time when your values guided you. That way you’d offer me a much richer recounting than a mere report. Through your actions, I’d be able to help you see what your values meant to you. You can answer these questions by yourself.
But, better yet, why not invite a close friend to listen to your stories and ask you to go deeper, with probing questions like: “Tell me more,” or “What else did you notice?” Just remind your listener that their job is to support you to find your own answers, rather than telling you how they see your life.
A lot of us may stumble around feeling like we don’t have a sense of purpose because nothing we do or hope to do feels significant enough. But when we reflect on our lives, we often find a stream of events running together in a way that suggests that we have always been drawn, or guided, by something.
Our purpose may not have come to us in a thunderbolt, or flashed before our eyes on a marquee, but we can observe it in our actions. Embracing our purpose as it has played in our life is very satisfying.
Sure, we may have had a lot of setbacks, even endured what we may call ‘failures’, but we’ve also had a stream of small victories, ones that may have gone unnoticed by others but were always important to us. We are drawn to appreciate what we have been standing for and the contributions we have made.
One of my peak experiences occurred when I was a university department chair and was reviewing candidates for a faculty position. One candidate seemed ideal for the job – I could sense a good fit reading about his life choices, his values and the aspirations that seemed to be guiding him.
Yet as I listened to his interview, I knew he wasn’t adequately conveying who he was. Perhaps he wasn’t well-schooled in how to respond in an interview, perhaps he wanted and needed the job too much – and I happened to know that his life was at a critical juncture.
As I listened to him, I felt something powerful coming through me, something that needed to be said on behalf of his future. I offered him a gentle piece of guidance, though I don’t know if one could still do this with more standardized interviews today.
He responded immediately, shifted his delivery, and ended up with a faculty position in my program and a 25-year-long career in the university.
The world didn’t know what I did. There was no applause. My colleague may not even remember what I said. But I had such a bodily sense of purpose as I spoke that I will always remember the incident.
In addressing my colleague, I was in touch with part of my calling: seeing the possibility in others and gently helping them to find their way. It is only in reviewing peak moments like this one that I see how deeply that purpose has been present throughout my life.
Without my actions, an expression like “seeing possibility in others” might sound trite. But I know it is still guiding me forward.
You’ve had moments like that, moments when you felt alive, on track, even guided. By reviewing these moments, and seeing the values or drive that was underneath them, you can find irrefutable evidence of your calling.
The answer to the question of purpose doesn’t just live in your words; it lives in your life. Use it to claim your legacy. Or, having discovered the threads of purpose in your past, go forth and weave them into your future.
Have you discovered how to shape your future purpose based on past events and lessons? What purpose has emerged from peak moments you experienced in the past? Please share your insights below.