Creating a Purpose Statement: Your Compass To a Meaningful Life

Last fall, I was fortunate enough to teach a seminar to incoming first-year students titled, “Finding Meaning: An Introspective Examination of Life’s Purpose and Beyond.” Early in the semester, I invited students to create an initial purpose statement they could reflect on by journaling throughout the course of a week. This is an exercise I adapted from Richard Leider, author of the excellent book, Repacking Your Bags. As you can imagine, this was no easy task for eighteen-year olds, most only days removed from leaving the comfort of their childhood homes. Some gave the standard, but elusive “be happy”, a natural response among late teens as well as individuals who are well into their professional careers. Other students listed a goal that they wanted to accomplish as their purpose, not knowing the difference between the two. However, there was one response unlike any other from a student from Seoul, South Korea that I will not forget any time soon.

His purpose? “Eat breakfast every day.” Once he said this, I paused and said nothing creating this awkward moment for all of us in class. Some giggled while others had a similar reaction to mine. Like me, they stared waiting for more. Did he simply not like the activity? The course? The professor? Was he simply testing me to see how I would react early in the semester? Actually, if this was an exam, the answer would be “E – none of the above”.

Later that day he came to see me during my office hours to explain his rationale. I could tell he just needed to respond to the bewilderment I displayed in class earlier that day. He said, “If I eat breakfast every day, this will help me start my day right.” After hearing this, I knew we still had some work to do, but I could tell he was onto something.

The motivation for this seminar was based on the journey that I described in my earlier post, An Unhealthy Pursuit of HappinessI’m so very appreciative to all who took the time to read and reflect on the article. Many even commented and reached out to say how this article spoke about their own lives, their own struggles. A question asked repeatedly was, “How did you discover your purpose?” Well I’d love to tell you it was easy or it came to me after reading a book or an article. No, it was a process. A process that includes three “What’s” and one “How” which will serve as the foundation for this article:

The Three What’s to Finding Purpose

  • What #1: What are your talents? – Whether you are reading this as a college student or are currently in the mid-career phase, this shouldn’t be difficult. Maybe it’s public speaking, a knack for social media, or you are a “numbers person”. If you find this to be difficult, ask those who you trust to provide you with feedback. As a consultant, I remember a manager telling me after a workshop I facilitated that I was “a natural” in that role. Whether or not that was the case, that was said to me nearly twenty years ago and stays with me today. If you haven’t already, establish your “inner circle”, a group of trusted individuals who will give you direct, sincere feedback on your overall strengths as well as any limitations.
  • What #2: What is your passion? – Maybe you have already discovered your talents, but they don’t align with your career goals. That’s both understandable and quite common, yet challenging. What are you passionate about? If this question is somewhat uncomfortable, walk over to your bookshelf and browse the titles to find a theme. Where do you spend much of your time outside of work and family? I have a friend who has a passion for fitness where he spent much of his time outside his job either working out or learning about the profession. The owner of the gym he belonged to saw this, offered him a job as manager, and purchased the gym in less than a year.
  • What #3: What need is not being met? – After you discover your talents and passion, find out how they can contribute to the greater good. Here is where we move from an internal to an external focus. One of the biggest mistakes we make is to be consumed is trying to find meaning without looking beyond ourselves. When we move from a selfish place to a selfless place, amazing things begin to occur. When you contribute to a broader need within your local or global community, you are making meaning in your life. This is a “game changer” for most people.

The How – The Missing Link to Finding Meaning

I have shared the three “What’s” with friends, colleagues, and students during the past couple of years. They are amazed that it isn’t some magic formula that I stumbled upon like an early morning infomercial. It truly isn’t. In fact, these are questions I asked myself long before I discovered my true purpose, but I still struggled. Even after I answered my own “What’s”. Why was this?

What I came to realize was that I didn’t give myself the time and space needed to make the discovery. It wasn’t a priority. My priority was to only find happiness. As Stephen Covey reminded us, seldom do we make the Important, Not Urgent things in our lives a priority. It wasn’t until I made “discovering my purpose” my highest priority above all else that this overwhelming sense of clarity began to occur.

The “How?” refers to “How do I create my purpose statement?” Similar to a personal mission statement, I needed a statement that was going to ground me and provide direction for all the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Without this, I would continue to be in goal-seeking mode as I was for years. My purpose statement would focus my priorities saying “yes” to projects that would provide meaning and “no” to those that didn’t.

Creating a statement seems rather simple and straightforward, but it isn’t. Keep in mind this is a statement that will serve as your internal compass directing you toward a life of meaning. Something so powerful requires both time and space.

Forty Miles to Purpose

If you commit both time and space to finding your purpose, I promise you will remember the physical location where you make your discovery. Personally, by making this my highest priority, I committed to hiking around a beautiful lake near my home every day until I “found” a purpose statement that would guide my existence. Besides the beautiful terrain, I knew I was going to be free from any distractions that often prevent us from making meaningful discoveries.

Over the course of that time, I used my smartphone only to record notes that came to mind as I made my journey. No email, no Internet, no text messaging. My discovery didn’t happen on Day 1, Day 2, or even Day 7. However, on the tenth day, approximately forty miles into my search, there it was. So clear. So real. Like any prized possession, I grabbed hold of it and haven’t let it go ever since. Here it is:

“Serving God by transforming lives through teaching, coaching, and community service.”

 

At first glance, the statement above might appear overly simple (it took you forty miles to come up with this), and I would agree with you. It’s simple, yet powerful. It shouldn’t be complex. We find reasons to make too many things in life too cumbersome, which creates stress and a lack of follow through. You don’t have to go any further than our workout routines and diets to realize this.

Find a purpose that speaks to you. Make it your own. Place it somewhere where you will see it multiple times each day. Memorize it, share it with others, and let them know how it has transformed your life. Then watch how others react.

Now I’m not saying that you need to find a lake and begin hiking in order to find your purpose. However, you need to commit blocks of time to truly immerse yourself in the experience. This could be an hour in the morning before the kids get up or any time in the day at a location that you will be distraction free (this means leaving your smartphone behind if it will be a distraction). If you are thinking you don’t have the time or the space, you are not ready to make this a priority in your life. Most likely, it just doesn’t hurt as much right now to make a change.

This process also might stir up the “I can’ts” in your life (e.g. “I can’t do this. I’m too busy.”). Yet we find plenty of time to attend meetings every day that add little to no value or routinely check our email dozens of times each day. This is called resistance and it can completely control our lives to a point of constant stagnation. To learn more about resistance and the methods to overcome its power, I would encourage you to read Steven Pressfield’s, The War of Art as well as Resisting Happiness by Matthew Kelly.

Beyond Breakfast

Back to the student who proposed “Eat breakfast every day” as his purpose statement. At the end of the fall semester, each student submitted final papers reflecting on the semester while sharing the final version of their purpose statement. His statement lifted off his paper when I read it:

“Contribute to make the world a better place through creativity and imagination.”

 

How did he make this transformation? By knowing his talents, passion, and a societal need to fulfill. He spoke of his experience volunteering in Seoul when he was younger at a center that offers rehabilitation services for children diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He said through this exercise of discovering his purpose, he decided to major in Computer Science that will position him to provide exceptional services to children who will experience similar physical challenges.

Final Reflection

Stop and reflect for a moment. Imagine a world if everyone answered the “Three What’s” to discover their talents, their passion, and a societal need that is not being met while providing themselves the time and space (“The How”) to discover their purpose statement. It’s our obligation to ourselves and one another to make this discovery.