Purpose is elusive to many of us! Even though it’s termed a “calling”, my hearing must be a bit off because it took me nearly 48 years to hear it! There’s also the notion of ‘seeking’ your purpose - but I can tell you, I’ve travelled the world and I still couldn’t find what I was looking for (U2 knows it too!).
So what is this magnetic call that keeps beckoning us to fulfil our destiny?
A definition of purpose that I quite like, is one by Todd Kashdan and Patrick McKnight, (2009). They define purpose as “a central, self-organizing life aim”.
Central, meaning it’s a central theme to a person’s life and is part of their identity.
Self-organizing means that it provides a framework for our behaviours, decisions, goals.
Aim is something that can never be fully achieved but acts as a guiding North Star. It provides direction and a strong sense of purpose and meaning.
Overall, a central life aim sounds pretty big! And if it’s part of our identity, how come we struggle to see it? I believe it’s easier for others to see it in you, than you seeing it in yourself. That’s why it’s a popular area for life coaching.
A useful way to reflect on your life purpose, is to consider people like David Attenborough or Oprah Winfrey (or any biography you’ve read). Their life’s path, including their career, reflects what we see as their ‘identity’ and their calling.
The work that Oprah does is Oprah – at least how we perceive her to be. It reflects her values, her passions and interests and it reflects her expertise and skill. Oprah’s work is for a higher cause, using her platform to teach and share life learnings and spiritual wisdom, from herself and many others, around the world; and so much more.
“There is no greater gift you can give or receive than to honour your calling. It is why you were born. And how you become most truly alive!” – Oprah Winfrey, 2010
Similarly, David Attenborough has dedicated his life to the study and promotion of wildlife, environmental and ecological issues, as a crusader for the planet. We see his work as part of who he is as a human being. His life aim is astounding in terms of the global and planetary impact and it will never be fully achieved. He will leave an unforgettable legacy on the world and his work will continue after he’s gone.
I realise those are lofty examples, but I think they reflect the concept of purpose or a central life aim, really well.
So how is purpose different to long-term goals?
Goals can be achieved. As a comparison, your life aim may be to contribute towards the preservation of endangered species and be a passionate advocate for animal rights. Your long-term goals might be to establish an animal sanctuary or run a successful breeding program. These goals contribute towards your life’s aim, but it doesn’t fulfil and complete your life’s aim.
So what does purpose look like for ‘everyday’ people?
Firstly, bear in mind that Oprah and David were everyday people. They followed their ‘calling’ and passions from an early age, not knowing exactly where it would lead them and how influential they would become.
We all start off as ‘Jo & Joanne Bloggs’ who had a dream.
For some of us though, we can get overwhelmed or anxious about feeling we must achieve something amazing. Especially if we believe we don’t have any obvious passions or special talents. There’s already societal pressure to achieve ‘success’ (sometimes confused with fame), instead of an emphasis on doing what we love.
Coaching can be a useful way to explore those fears and limiting beliefs; and a motivator to try out different activities to find your passions. Sometimes it’s about picking up those things you loved a long time ago and incorporating them back into your life.
Purpose doesn’t need to equate with ‘success’ or lots of money or notoriety. Instead, it will bring you more happiness, a sense of accomplishment, an outlet for creativity and energy and an area for growth.
Ultimately, finding your purpose is journey of self-discovery. It requires self-reflection, self-awareness what Maslow terms, self-actualisation.
Maslow (1968) defines self-actualization as the “ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities, and talents, as fulfilment of mission (or call, fate, destiny, or vocation) as a fuller knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person’s own intrinsic nature, as an unceasing trend toward unity, integration, or synergy within the person” (p.29).
Phew! I would summarise this to mean: to realise your full potential and unique talents, to know who you truly are and to realise the contribution you want to make in the world (community, workplace, your family, wider society).
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reflects that not everyone is able or conscious of wanting to find their purpose. For example, people who are still struggling to find housing, employment and security (lower down on the hierarchy of needs), probably won’t be prioritising their need to find their central life aim. I do believe there are exceptions though and history has shown us this.
That’s not to say a connection to a higher purpose through religious or spiritual means isn’t occurring, which for many is enough and deeply meaningful and purposeful.
Lastly, there are those who are capable of finding their purpose, but choose not to (for a variety of reasons). And that’s completely Ok. I just hope it’s not because they don’t know how – cause there’s good life coaches for that!
Overall, it takes courage and determination to find, follow and bring to fruition your life’s purpose. Everyone has unique qualities and gifts that can significantly increase their own happiness and wellbeing, as well as others.
For a final and ancient definition of purpose that I personally like, by Aristotle (Greek Philosopher, 384BC – 322BC) is the term “eudaimonia”. ‘Eu’ means good and ‘daimon’ means spirit, or true self (there are several translations).
In total Eudaimonia means ‘striving towards excellence based on one’s unique talents and potential and involves continually taking on new challenges and fulfilling one’s sense of purpose in life’.
Whatever the translation, to discover your good spirit and your true self sounds perfect to me!
 Patrick E. McKnight and Todd B. Kashdan (2009). ‘Purpose in Life as a System That Creates and Sustains Health and Well-Being’: An Integrative, Testable Theory’, George Mason University.
 Wiedemann, Crystal S. (2019), ‘PURPOSE-DRIVEN: EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT FROM A HUMAN FLOURISHING PERSPECTIVE. A Dissertation presented to the Graduate School of Clemson University.
 Verena von Pfetten (4 September 2008). "5 Things Happy People Do"