Defining Purpose + How to Find a Personal Purpose through Crisis
Over the last several weeks, I’ve had many conversations — with friends, family, colleagues, and clients — that have quickly reminded me of the importance of feeling a sense of purpose in our lives.
Staying at home (safely and responsibly of course), disconnected from typical routines and contexts, and feeling more and more detached from “normal” day-to-day life has left many of us grasping for ways to feel useful, helpful, and at the end of the day, purposeful in our lives.
Of course, at the other end of the spectrum is the reality that we’re all simply trying to survive. Food, shelter, (hell, toilet paper), connection, and a sense of stability are truly top-of-mind and highest priority. People are losing jobs, facing immense financial uncertainty, shuttering businesses, caring for ill family, and at its worse, dying. We can’t deny this reality.
Yet, purpose still shines through. Having some sense of purpose, along with having our basic needs met, seems to keep us engaged and striving toward something. It’s a motivator that gets us up each morning, even when turning back over and going to sleep is appealing as hell.
I, too, have experienced this — I’ve struggled with understanding and identifying my purpose many times in my life — and certainly will in years to come. And, recently, it’s bubbled to the surface more times than I can count.
Many questions have swirled in my head, and I’ve heard them reflected back in conversations:
How can I help?
What can I do?
What’s my role in all of this?
If we don’t attend to ourselves and our needs, we can quickly spiral into a sense of helplessness during this crisis. The reality is that there is much more that we can’t control versus what we can in our present world (this is always the case, but a global pandemic amplifies it ten-fold) — and staying at home, though immensely valuable, necessary and important, doesn’t feel like we’re doing much.
I’ve combatted this feeling by getting engaged in several ways: joining SCP’s Task Force on COVID-19, taking the lead on gathering resources for leading through COVID-19 in my firm, journaling and sharing my thoughts and learnings, and connecting, more than ever, with family, friends, colleagues, and clients. Talking it through, using my IO psychology background to help, and advising others gives me a personal sense of purpose and meaning.
But, finding a sense of purpose is unique for everyone. My purpose isn’t yours and vice versa. If you resonate with this, and you're struggling with your purpose as well, read on.
What is purpose?
The concept of purpose in life or at work is still not well-understood. To some, it can feel fluffy, “soft,” or elusive — perhaps the best way to define it is by connecting it with the concept of meaningful, personally important goals.
In this regard, I’d define purpose as connecting daily actions, behaviors, and work to a higher sense of meaning in one’s life in a way that drives engagement and motivation.
For example, as a leadership coach, I derive a sense of purpose from bringing out the best in people. I feel most energized and engaged when I’m doing work that connects to this purpose. And, in general, I feel purpose when I’m helping and supporting others – in whatever way that may be.
Compared to day-to-day tasks, purpose is more stable and far-reaching, has an external component that reaches beyond one’s self, and involves some sense of goal attainment or achievement.
Purpose is also derived at a community or organizational level. For example, research from Harvard Business Review defines purpose as: “an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.”
Why is purpose important?
A lack of purpose can lead people to spin their wheels, procrastinate, and struggle to take the action needed to move forward. In light of recent events, some have felt helpless, disoriented, and unsure of what to do. I have personally felt all of these things — and, I do feel I have a sense of purpose. So, to be clear, purpose is not the end-all-be-all. But a sense of purpose can lend to resilience during crisis and uncertainty.
Those who have identified and aligned with their purpose, in my estimation, have been able to more quickly mobilize, and take action during the COVID-19 crisis.
Let me tell you a story to bring this to life.
I recently connected with a coaching client whom I worked with for nearly a year. We’ll call him Nick.
Faced with COVID-19, Nick has had to make a series of tough, and honestly devastating decisions. He’s had to lay off and furlough employees, shut down his business, and grapple with the uncertainty of the future. Despite the undeniable difficulty of the situation, he has felt a sense of calm through this storm.
Why? In large part, it is because he sees his purpose as taking care of his people while doing what’s best for the business. Many decisions, while difficult, were made easier when aligning with this purpose. Continuing to run his business would put his employees in harm’s way, and the business was suffering financially, so closing down was ultimately best for all.
He communicated his decisions with care, thoughtfulness, and candor — he was honest and open regarding why he chose this path, what he expected in the future, and what he didn’t know but would work to find out.
As he described this to me, he shared that he was surprised by the amount of support and understanding he received in return.
Was it easy? Absolutely not.
Would he choose the path again? Yes.
How can you discover your sense of purpose?
First and foremost, discovering your purpose is lifelong journey. If it’s feels hard, overwhelming, or like a crock of BS, that’s because it's a challenge which likely requires getting uncomfortable.
You're unlikely to find your purpose in your comfort zone.
Finding something that is personally meaningful across time and situations takes work and intention.
You likely won’t find it today, or even tomorrow, and it may shift and change over time.
Here’s where to start:
First, take the time to understand your values.
What gets you up in the morning?
What keeps you going during the day?
What drives you to do better?
I’m forever using myself as an example, so I’ll share my most central values based on the Hogan Motives, Values, and Preferences Inventory —
Science: the desire to think rationally and objectively, to understand how things work, make data-based decisions, and find answers to problems
Altruism: the desire to meet people needs versus increasing profits, improve well-being for self and others, and engage in work that fulfills a sense of social responsibility
Hedonism: the desire to enjoy life and work, spend time with interesting people, and work hard while playing hard
Interested in learning about your values? Check out this resource.
Once you have sense of values, let’s reframe purpose in a way that feels more accessible —perhaps you should explore: “what can I do with my time that feels important in some way?” Or, "what things do I like to do that don’t suck?"
“Everything sucks, some of the time...
Now, that probably sounds incredibly pessimistic. And you may be thinking, “Hey Mr. Manson, turn that frown upside down.”
But I actually think this is a liberating idea.
Everything involves sacrifice. Everything includes some sort of cost. Nothing is pleasurable or uplifting all of the time. So, the question becomes: what struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate? Ultimately, what determines our ability to stick with something we care about is our ability to handle the rough patches and ride out the inevitable rotten days.
So, maybe finding your purpose is not about find what lights your fire or ignites your passion (because “passion” isn’t an emotion we all experience) but rather identifying the things you do that feel the least sucky, or the most tolerable.”
Let’s bring this back to our current world — in the face of COVID-19.
If you’ve been at home for days on end like me, what do you miss most?
When you have days that feel “normal,” why? What are doing?
When you feel a spark of inspiration, what’s happening? What are you doing?
At the end of the day, your purpose might involve finding the 1-2 things that keep you going.
It can be that simple, and importantly, it will help get you through this crisis and other challenging times in the future.
What’s your purpose?
How might you get more connected to your sense of purpose?
Together we rise,