Why it’s ridiculously hard. And a guide to getting out of your own way in finding it.
Finding you life's purpose. A lot is being written about it. Part of it portrays it as getting to this blissful state. That once you have it, all your troubles seem to lift. And it will be a glorious and smooth ride afterwards. Or they say that it leads you onto dangerous paths. Where a lot of blood, sweat and tears are involved. But mostly, and maybe the most ominous of all, that it is absolutely the first thing you should do before getting started on something.
So these are the extremes. I agree with some of it and disagree just as fully. So I decided to make my own guide to navigating the grey areas of this big project of 'finding your life's purpose'. It’s based on what I’ve experienced in the last few years. During which I quit my job. Did loads of projects. Read everything about it I could get my hands on. All to find something resembling a purpose. I hope it brings you joy.
Why go down this road?
"You mentioned blood, sweat and tears, why do this again?" Great question! So before we endeavor onwards, let's get into the good stuff.
Working on something you truly want is very fulfilling. It’s not just the end result of it. Which, of course, can be pretty nice too. But every step of the way is part of a bigger path. Every step becomes progress. Even when things don’t move forward in the sense of getting more results. You’re still making progress on your journey. That bump in the road? That was just part of it. When you can see that bigger picture, you welcome those bumps because it means you're moving forward.
Purpose is a great source of energy when things get rough. When what you do is connected to this bigger goal, it’s easy to stay motivated and just get to work. No doubt. Energy. And on the flip-side, it makes it much easier to say no to things you don’t want to do. Because why would you when you want to do something else? It gives focus. Clarity.
When things get complex. You will need to make decisions where there is not one option that's clearly the best. The clearer you are on what’s truly the essence of what you’re trying to accomplish, the more clarity you have in making these decisions.
Lastly, the more aligned your actions are with what you truly believe, the more this resonates with others. The authenticity and enthusiasm of it has a pulling effect. This will drive people towards your goals. It gives you more hands, more help and more energy to accomplish your goals.
Why it is so difficult to find your purpose
So that’s all well and good. But now you’re probably stuck with this feeling that you really really need to find your purpose. Because otherwise why even bother getting to work right? It almost makes you feel guilty and useless for not having one. It did for me... And this is one of the problems. It blows the importance up to these astronomically high levels. And when things are super important, you really want to get them right. That makes it harder to simply get started on finding your purpose. Let alone accepting the purpose you do find as good enough.
And is there just one purpose for you? I like a lot of different things. How to choose? And I surely like different things now than 4 years ago, let alone 8 years ago. For crying out loud, I studied physics! Became a strategy and organizational consultant. And now I’m a curiosity evangelist (best job title ever alert!). So when I change, does my purpose change with me? And how do I commit when I know it will change in a few years again?
Another problem is that a finding your purpose sounds like a goal. But a very ill-defined goal. It’s very unspecific. There's no way of knowing you have achieved it. Not SMART at all. When does one’s idea of a purpose count as a purpose? I surely don’t feel like my life and path is blissful all the time. Or that my goals resonate with everyone around me. Does that mean that my purpose is not right? Or are things just sometimes unclear and hard?
Oh and the complexity of it. There are a lot of separate elements in a purpose. It’s the thing you’re meant to be doing. The thing that is uniquely you. Or that thing you really like doing. The thing that you’re most passionate about creating. So which one is it? It’s all of those! But when you try to get answers to all at the same time it gets very confusing.
Then there is the scary part of it. To truly express what you want to do, exposes your true wants and needs to the world. This makes you vulnerable to saboteurs. To rejection. To not making it. And that can be scary. But there is one thing maybe most scary of all. Expressing what it is you want to do puts you on the hook for actually getting started on it! Because knowing what you want to do, there is no excuse to do anything else.
How to get around all these issues
So before we really get into it, let's make it more manageable. We're going to do that by (1) unbundling, (2) reframing and (3) rephrasing this quest for “finding your purpose in life”.
First, let's unbundle this big purpose monster we have in front of us. So that we have smaller puzzles to work on. So what’s included in “Finding your purpose in life”? Purpose includes three things. (1) There is doing what you love and are passionate about. (2) Doing what is uniquely you and what you are good at. And (3) there is what is meaningful to you and for the world. Haha! Big Purpose Monster cut into three tiny monsters.
Now, let's reframe how we look at this problem. First, the wording of finding your purpose implies that you don’t already have it. That it is disconnected from you and somewhere else. This is the exact opposite of the fact that your purpose is uniquely yours. Your purpose can’t be somewhere else because it is you! It can’t go anywhere. It can’t be lost. You just need to uncover it. To learn it.
So, is there one life’s purpose for you? I don’t believe that. There is no end result to the quest of uncovering your purpose. There is no finish line. The process never ends. It’s about continuously feeling and looking inwards in order to refine what you now think your purpose is. It's a never ending process of iteration. So while it maybe is a bummer that you'll never be finished, this realization also liberates you from the fact that you don't have it yet. Every state is just what you have now. Just continue to move closer.
You're never stuck with it either. You can choose to change it anytime. New information or experiences can always lead you to change it. Plus, you change. So finding it is more like accepting which one is best for you right now. It’s a dance between committing to what you know now and examining to update. You do need to fully commit to what you currently think your purpose is. With what currently rings true. Because that is the only way to get pure new information!
Now that doesn’t mean you should be changing your purpose to whatever direction the wind blows. That, when your plan doesn’t seem to work, you change it to something easier. It’s about being honest with yourself and using new experiences to further get to know yourself.
To make it something a little lighter, let's look at life. All we really know is that we are here. For a certain period of time. We don't really have to do anything. But during that time we get to do things. Some things we consider important. Some not. Doing important things give us joy and happiness. Especially when we’re good at them and when we like the act of doing them. So, now that we have the 3 elements and we reframed our quest, let's rephrase it to:
“Discovering what I can and want to do with my time that is important to me”.
Now doesn’t that seem like an infinitely easier quest?
Einstein famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Questions are a great way to approach complex problems. And you are definitely a complex puzzle! By using questions, we can inquire into that complex being of you. The right question can make you look differently at a situation. It challenges your assumptions. And will put a bit of space between the problem and your judgement. Between the question and your existing notions of the answers. And in the case of your purpose, to give that bit of space to allow your true self to speak.
So here are the questions I’ve gathered over the years that I think help you best!
Make an exercise out of it! If you want to make this into an exercise right now. And why not, you’re not reading this just for the sake of reading it. You’re interested in discovering your purpose. Right? Stop reading now. Get a pen and notebook/paper. Got it? Alright.
Here’s how to do it. Below are 16 questions, in big bold letter. Go through all of them one by one. Spend about 2 minutes minimum per question to answer it. Write down everything that comes to mind. Everything! Also stupid stuff. Write drunk. Edit sober. And at the end of the 2 minutes, finish what’s in your head and move on to the next questions. No need to get stuck.
Don’t read anything in between the questions yet. Only after finishing all the questions, read the rest of the post. Then, go back through each of the questions. Add and edit what comes to mind then. The rest of the post will be the rest of the instructions.
1. What would you do, if money and time were no object?
The practicalities of making money or the amount of time you need to spend on projects, hold you back. So much so, that they even prevent contemplating about them. Or accepting that an activity might be something you really want to do. So, as much as possible, try to turn that practical notion off.
Maybe you want to start writing a blog. But getting that to the point to make a living off it can take a few years. Or you want to get an education in something. That will take a few years.
So think of it this way. In say 3 years time, you can either be 3 years older and run a successful blog/have a degree in something you're passionate about. Ór you can just be 3 years older. First one sounds better right? And yeah sure. You would have to work hard in between. But it gets you to do something you actually want.
Plus, there is ALWAYS spare time! Even if you have 2 jobs that you need in order to make money. There is spare time you can use to do things you love. Less tv, Facebook or getting drunk go a long way.
2. What would you do/create, if it would just be something for yourself?
Social pressure to achieve keeps us from trying. This is why visual artist often have sketchbooks where they allow no one to look into. Or people start a blog without sharing the url with anyone. And why I sometimes really get nervous when playing games with friends. Especially the type of games I think I’m supposed to be good at. I just hate losing at those games so I would rather not even play. But I like the puzzles and the fun of playing the games!
Social pressure keeps us from doing things we love. So let's say you can start privately. And you could share the project with just those people you want it to see. What would you want to do?
3. Doing what, makes you forget all about time?
What is it that you pick up and when you let go you realize it’s already hours later than you thought? You just locked in and zoned out. These things are activities you like for the act of doing them. They are your superpower. There is innate joy in them. And you can go further with these than anyone else. Note when they happen. Find out what it is about these activities that make them so addictive to you.
I recently went on a trip with 3 of my friends. On the last evening, I introduced the Magic Hexagon Puzzle. It’s like a big complicated Sudoku. I thought it would be a quick laugh. But two of my friends just took it, dove into it and didn’t let go. All conversation about anything remotely important vanished and before anyone had a clue they’d been working on it until 4 am. Next day we’re driving back for 6 hours. Same thing. They didn’t solve it. Yet. But having to solve a puzzle is something they just start and can't stop at. Good thing the one is a researcher and the other a consultant.
4. When in a bookstore, what magazines or books do you pick up?
This is a clear indicator of what you curiosity is naturally drawn to. What are the topics? What do these magazines look like? What else are you drawn to? What shops do you go into? What documentaries do you want to watch? What blogs do you read? What peaks your interest? Both the things you do because you’re interested in them and the things you do to relax.
For me it’s tech/innovation, self-help books and basketball. It’s not necessarily about the new innovations themselves. It’s more about the continuous improvements you can make. The edges of what is possible for us as humans and the edges of what we ourselves can do.
5. What activity makes you come alive? Energizes you?
When do you feel happy doing something? Giddy even. Maybe you can’t wait to do it. Or maybe it’s something that often at first makes you nervous. But afterwards it makes you feel very satisfied and happy. What is involved in those activities? What ingredients? Who are you with? What do you do?
For me these are hosting groups in workshops. Even after years of practice I’m often still a wreck beforehand. But during these sessions I’m alert, alive and happy. It’s the energy of the group, the learning and insights that they get, that gives me fulfillment.
6. What did you love doing when you were a child?
Before you develop all these filters of having to stay alive, having to make a living, having to be socially accepted. When you were a kid. What did you like to do? How did you spend your time? What were the things you did purely for the joy of it?
Like playing with lego, enacting cowboy and the indians, or running through the garden and climbing trees. Some elements might translate into you purpose. Like the creation of worlds or puzzle solving of lego. The exploring and pushing yourself higher of the tree climbing.
And even when they don’t. There is importance in the pure joy they have brought you. So there might be things you can do to create a place in your life for these things you love doing. For example by building your own bike or taking classes in handy work. Or doing theater sport or improv classes. Going hiking or rock climbing. This will really get those creative juices flowing.
7. What is you favorite shit activity?
Because everything sucks, some of the time. Even going after the things you want. And knowing what sucky thing you can handle gives you an edge when it is something that you can combine with the thing you’re passionate about.
My ‘favorites'? Working on my website, doing administration or taxes! That doesn't mean I want to be a web developer or an accountant. I definitely don’t love it. It’s solo work. It’s often boring to me. But just zoning out by clicking away. Doing relatively simple and structured things for a change also makes me calm. This gives me an edge because it allows me to spend more time on these activities without driving myself nuts or draining my energy. This results in a better website and better insights in the finances of my business. So what’s yours?
Btw, close second activity is putting together Ikea Billy closets. But I try to stay away from that because it would result in a very full house.
8. What is it that can not not do?
Every time! Can't help it. Things you do to the point where it gets really old. Even annoying sometimes. Like correcting certain grammar mistakes (guilty). Or having to figure out how something really works (guilty again). But under these so called flaws or nuisances are hidden qualities. No really! I don’t say that to make me feel better about the things I do that annoy the hell out of others. But it means that I care about that things are pure. And that I have a genuine curiosity to understand things. These innate dispositions to certain things give you ‘free' hours of practice in developing skills! So what can you not not do? And what has that made you insanely good at?
9. For what help or advice do people come to you?
People form an impression of you based on how they’ve interacted with you. You behave a certain way. Do certain things. You say and share certain things. This translates into ideas they have on how you can help them. When you’ve done that for a longer period of time, people will start recommending you. So what do people look you up for? Recommend you for even? These are great indicators of what you can do better than most people.
I quit my secure and prestigious job as a consultant back in 2013. Afterwards, I kept getting messages from people. I’m talking about 30-40 people in that year alone. People who were in the same situation as I was and that wanted to learn how I did it. Apparently I did something that was rare and that struck a nerve. Without me considering it as something I could do, people had the idea I could help them.
10. How would others describe you?
It’s impossible to read the label from the inside out. It is difficult to see how you relate to others. You take things that you are good at for granted. “Doesn’t everybody know how to do that?”. No they don’t! Others will make you see yourself in new ways.
Just while writing this I got a call from a friend. We met last week to talk about his latest project. He said that my open-mindedness and my ‘simply-go-do-it-approach' really rubbed off on him. It helped him really approach his goal in new ways. And I didn’t necessarily think I did anything special like that in the conversation. So getting the perspective of other people is necessary in order to get a true picture of who you are and what you can do.
So, you can’t think your way out of this one. You simply need to go ask people! Ask them how they would describe you.
You know what? Go do that right now! Call/email 5 people you know. The higher the variety the better! I’ll be waiting right here.
Have you done it? You sure? Great!
11. What have you always been naturally good at?
We often say that doing what you love will make you successful. And sometimes that works out well. But what is also true is that being successful at something will make you love what you do! Cal Newport calls this “Being so good they can’t ignore you”. When you’re really good at something, you get to set the conditions for your work. You can cherry pick the projects based on which you find important or sounds most fun. And like this you’ll move towards more joyful and fulfilling work.
Some developers I know get to do this. They’re so good (and rare) that they get to negotiate incredible rates and working conditions. Because they and the client know that they’re gonna be worth it. And by getting better and better, they get to choose cooler projects and are getting closer to living their purpose.
12. What issue or problem really winds you up? Makes you angry? Or excited?
These can be big global problems. Like global warming or equality. Or smaller social situations. Like two people arguing/fighting on the streets. Or what problem that the movie characters go through really gets you wound up. What news articles make you go yuck?
But a problem can also make you excited. What progress in the world excites you. Maybe you would want to contribute to that? Or solving what situations in daily life excites you? Setting people up on a date for example.
These outside influences on your energy are a great indicator of how you want to contribute to the world. So follow people that work in those industries. Try to meet with as many of them as possible. Volunteer. Create a blog. Start actually doing stuff in that field. Even if it’s only on a very small scale.
13. If you would only have 5 years to live - while in perfect health - what would you want to get done before the end?
This really squeezes your perception of time you have. You better get going! At the same time it is long enough to really get something done. And there is no responsibility for the time after those 5 years. Also, when you have only 5 years. Only the really important things stay relevant. And everyone would forgive you if you choose not to do the now-irrelevant stuff.
Given this freedom, what would you want to get done? And is there any reason not to start on it right now? And what would you really not want to do anymore? Find ways to outsource these things! It will free you up to do the things that you need to do.
14. How do you want to be remembered?
What are things that you would want people to say about you? We can talk about accomplishments all we want. But what characteristics or values do you want to be known for? Which ones are really important to you? Being kind? Being creative? Being helpful? Start living those now! There is nothing else to do than just be kinder. Nothing else to do than to just start creating. Or start helping people every chance you get. For all the things that really matter in life, there is nothing needed to become that person. Just be it.
And then of course you notice that you’re not. Then go back to being it again. Slowly but surely you’ll change the wiring of you brain. Maybe change your surroundings to one that allows your good qualities to come out. Set reminders to give people a compliment. Put your paint always within arms reach so every chance you get you can start painting. Or schedule in time to help people. And talk to friends to help you out. Both to make it easier for you and to hold you accountable.
So really, what are 3-4 things you want people to remember you for? Be uncompromisable in those!
15. Who come to mind when you think of the word successful?
What is success to them? What is that they do that make them successful? What about them inspires you? What can you learn from them? Is it the financial success? Or the impact they have on people’s lives. Or the values they uphold? The way they dealt with adversity? What is it about these people that truly impresses you? In there lies something that you find very important. Then start helping others becoming more like that!
A twist to this question is "How have you succeeded?". What trials have you overcome? What was hard for you that you managed to life through. There is great joy in helping others to succeed through difficulty we fully understand. I’m passionate in building more understanding between people because I know all to well what it means to be misunderstood.
16. Last one. Take a goal you currently have. Ask yourself the question “Why do you want to accomplish that?”. Ask yourself this 5 times.
No joke! Every time you ask why you get an answer. Ask yourself why it is that you want to accomplish that. And why that? It might seem odd to ask yourself this question “Why?” 5 times. But it allows you to really zoom in on your goal. To dig deeper and get under all the concrete elements of your goals. And down there you find out what really drives you and what things you believe.
When you develop a practice in asking yourself why you do what you do, you soon start seeing things reoccurring. That there is an overarching theme in your purpose. Something that connects everything you do. Finding this allows you to always do things with purpose!
In the summer of 2014, the team of De Universiteit got hosted in asking ourselves these questions. What is that your want De Universiteit to accomplish? I wrote down: Empowering people in their personal development! Why? So that people see that they can always learn! Why? So they allow themselves to be more curious! Why? Because when you’re curious you want to learn from things and people you don’t understand! Why? If you understand someone you can’t be mad at him! Why? This makes the world a more considerate place and to interact with people you don't understand is to learn! This allowed me to find out that the commonality in everything I did and want to do. It is curiosity as a driving force to change the world for the better.
Voices when answering
When answering these questions, there can be a lot resistance in writing certain answers down. It might feel impossible. Or silly. Or scary. And that’s both mightily annoying and completely normal. It’s part of our survival instinct. An idea is a possibility for change. To go into the unknown. So, when an idea pops up in your brain, immediately connected ideas and memories come up as well. Like voices in you head. Some are encouraging. But a lot will be discouraging. The latter ones do so to protect you. They are shaped in earlier experiences. Some can even be directed back to certain moments or persons. And always, they are well-intended. So when you get a crazy idea, or a plan where the outcome is still unknown, they want to protect you from getting hurt. The problem is, they want what’s good for you. The safe place. Not what’s great for you! So it’s very good to sometimes take these voices with a grain of salt.
To recognize them when they come up, allow me to talk about Theory U for a second. In Theory U describes three of these voices. First, there is the Voice of Judgement. This one basically says that the idea won’t work. You won’t be able to make money. Or it’s too hard. You won’t be able to do it. Note that criticism is valuable. And that this voice is super useful in discovering challenges with a plan. But in getting to a place of expressing freely what you want, it is a gatekeeper.
The second is the Voice of Cynicism. This one says your idea is silly, stupid or foolish. People won’t like it. You’ll be made fun of. This voices stems from the fact that we are social creatures and need each other to survive. But to only live to please others drives us to only create things that we know will be liked. Therefore things that already exist. It also makes ideas regress to the mean. And thus not very exciting. "If you aim to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one”.
The last one is the Voice of Fear. This one keeps you from going for something even if you think you can do it and it is a cool idea. It’s fear of the unknown. It’s choosing the security of the known present over the insecurity of the future. Even when the present is not that great. What if everything goes wrong and you loose everything? What if it just doesn’t pan out well? What will happen to me? It’s also the fear of potentially having to challenge core beliefs about yourself. Am I just not that good at it? Or what if I do make it and I’m still not happy? Again, this voice would have served us well thousands of years ago. When we were living on the steps and uncertainty was dangerous. And it would tell us not to go into a dark cave or try out all the plants you see. But it works less well now. I mean, when you’re honest, what’s the worst that can happen? That you tried and spend time on something that you liked? Or it turned out that you didn’t like it as much as you thought? Or that it turns out that you're not a natural at it? That’s just new information!
For me, I constantly have all three of these voices and they hold me back at times. But recognizing them for what they are, helps me keep them at bay and get a bit more clarity on my thoughts. So when answering these questions (go through them again), observe your thoughts and the voices that inevitably will come up. Think of what these voices mean. And get to a deeper understanding of what is truly you in these answers. And not the rest of the world talking.
After answering these questions. For each one, ask yourself "Why did I write that down?". What is it that makes that the case? What does it say about me? It’s in the answers behind the answers that we start to see the commonalities. These threads are your identity. They are what makes you you. And these are the puzzle pieces for your purpose.
Hopefully, these questions have given you a better understanding in (1) what you like doing, (2) what you are good at and (3) what you find important. The part where they overlap is what you should be doing! So go things that fit those 3 criteria. You might not see a clear path into making a living from it. But doing it will make you happier. And when you start doing it, you'll start to see more opportunities.
And maybe you haven’t figured it out exactly. That’s perfectly fine. Maybe you’d want your purpose to be more precisely defined. That’s fine too. Just keep looking but don’t wait. Continuously do stuff that’s most aligned with what you do know. Try new things and eliminate stuff you don’t like. Constantly get to know more and constantly move closer.
So to conclude:
You already have your purpose. It is you!
There is no ‘one purpose’. It evolves over time.
Don’t wait till you know it. Go discover and keep moving.
Do stuff that you enjoy for the sake of doing it.
Do stuff that’s important to you.
Create a community of people that are willing to help you around you.
A life unexamined is not a life worth living. But when you are examining you are not living.
Most importantly: Be curious and change into the right direction a little bit every day.
I hope you've enjoyed this guide. If so, it would mean the world to me if you share it! Contact me for feedback and questions you have! And maybe I can help you in discovering what important things you want to do and how to make that happen!
Unmistakable Creative Podcast: Countless podcast that are great. Check out this one with Amber Rae to get started (she also talks about the voices).
Mark Manson: 7 strange questions that help you find your life purpose
Ella Luna: The Crossroads of Should and Must
Paul Graham: How to do what you love
Amber Rae: Read this when you're wondering, "What's my purpose?"
UrbanMonk: The 5 Percent Trick: Finding Passion and Purpose in Life
Alan Watts: What If Money Was No Object?
Peter Diamandis: Finding Your Massively Transformative Purpose
Brainpickings: How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love
Wojtek Skalski: Do not follow your passion