Purpose 101 Hub
By Brandon Peele, Robin Athey, & Gabriel Keczan
Kris yawned––again. His days were packed. And yet, he felt listless, going through the motions, as if moving through sludge. He remembered a movie he had seen when he was eight years old of a zombie slushing through a swamp, stalking a group of pranking kids. As Kris sat now, in Zoom meeting after meeting, facing endless deadlines, he felt dead inside like that zombie. Hell, at least that particular corpse had the energy to stalk. Yet, no matter how many protein drinks Kris consumed, he couldn’t lift himself up. He had put on 15 pounds and couldn’t even drag himself to the gym.
Just a few years before, Kris had felt so energized. He had been the first one in his family to go to college. In his first year, he had earned more than his parents had saved while raising a family of five. His work brought him around the world. He loved the challenge of client work, working across so many cultures. It didn’t matter why he did what he did. He loved the thrill of problem-solving under pressure and figuring out what made his clients and colleagues tick. And yet, with the headwinds they were facing, and cost constraints, and continuous bad news––he’d just lost any feeling of oomph and that willingness to go the extra mile. He wondered, “Will it always be like this?”
He noticed how his younger brothers’ friends protested against any work that didn’t fill them up. They floated from one job to another, surfing whatever seasonal waves they could find in between gigs. He knew that wasn’t his path. He felt too responsible. And yet, he was dying inside. Days before, he had seen a video called “Know Your Why.” Now it was stalking him. He had no idea why he did what he did. He just knew that he was unhappy.
Know Your Why
What is Purpose?
Purpose has never been more popular and en vogue. Many people feel like Kris: exhausted, or maybe just mildly numb, wanting more in life than to work at a job that deadens them inside. As people awaken and really begin questioning what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, they’re seeking work that fulfills them. Moreover, they insist on new ways of working. Ninety-seven percent of people value having a purpose in life (Rainey, 2014), and 70% expect their careers to be purposeful; however, only 15% feel like they are able to live their purpose at work (McKinsey et al., 2019).
Yet, as popular as the idea of purpose is, there is little consensus on what the word actually means. For some, purpose is simply the thing that you love or what brings you bliss. For others, it’s living your highest potential. For some, purpose means following questions, and for others, it means following truth. For others, purpose means discovering what speaks to you and compels you to go on a journey. So what the heck does purpose mean?
Here is how we understand it. Which of these elements speak to you?
The definition of purpose (pronounced: purr-poss): An identity, goal, or reason for being that is larger than you and your family, that connects you to and roots you in the world, containing some or all of the following elements:
- Niche: Your unique role, place, and function in the more than human world.
- Essence: Your essential, highest, and authentic self.
- Mission: The largest conversation you can have with the world.
- Craft: Your license to develop your unique gifts.
- Legacy: The ability to know and create the great work of your life.
- Alignment: The clarity to know which actions express who you are.
- Courage: The confidence and grit required to take purpose-aligned actions, especially when they are difficult.
- Sovereignty: A psychological development available to every human being without which they are likely to suffer and be exploited by others.
- Flourishing: The foundation of a life well-lived, the key to greater health, fulfillment, resilience, prosperity, creativity, and joy (see Science of Purpose).
- Muse: A relationship that requires consistent attention that provides new insights and guidance over time.
We’ve come to believe that the meaning of “purpose” unfolds differently for each human being. In other words, purpose may mean a particular thing at any given point in time, and that meaning changes over time in different ways for different people. So what matters is what speaks to you.
No matter what purpose means for you, a growing body of research suggests that having a life with purpose produces lasting scientifically validated results in every area of life and at all stages of life.
- Physical health: People with a strong sense of purpose have stronger cellular walls, longer DNA telomeres, lower cortisol levels, and an additional seven years of life expectancy.
- Mental health: People with a strong sense of purpose have greater levels of fulfillment, contentment, memory, executive function, resilience, grit, and emotional regulation.
- Career: People with a strong sense of purpose have greater levels of productivity, innovation, income and wealth, and are more likely to be promoted and love their job.
- Relationships: People with a strong sense of purpose are more likely to be in love, are regarded as more attractive, and have more satisfying sex.
- Society: People with a strong sense of purpose are more compassionate, generous, inclusive, and civically engaged.
Dr. Vic Strecher, author of Life on Purpose and Professor at University of Michigan, says, “If purpose was a pill, it would be a blockbuster drug.” So you might be curious about how purpose would work its magic in your life.
What makes purpose so powerful?
While many modalities help heal us after an illness or trauma, purpose is unique because it both helps with the healing process and prevents future breakdowns. You can think of many modalities, such as psychotherapy or antidepressants, as putting out a fire. But, on the other hand, connecting with purpose is like catching the arsonist who is lighting the fires.
Another way to think about it is that we each have a purpose-sized space within us that must be filled. And when purpose is missing, we try to fill it with whatever we have access to. For some, it’s food. For others, it’s alcohol, drugs, buying things online, doom-scrolling, conspiracy theories, staying busy with work, or binge-watching shows. We can literally put anything in the empty space devoid of purpose. But, unfortunately, when we do this, we often pay a price spiritually, emotionally, physically, and financially.
Without purpose, we are like hungry ghosts who can never get enough of what we don’t need and isn’t good for us. With purpose, we are up to something in the world. It could be as simple as living our values in our key relationships. Or it could be something on a larger scale, like addressing climate change or ending sex trafficking. When we know and live in accordance with our purpose, we move from a taking and consuming orientation to a giving, contributing, learning, and growing orientation.
Purpose is at the heart of what it means to flourish. To cultivate purpose, we must commit to daily practice while also gently letting go of whatever doesn’t serve our intent to live a life of greater meaning. In addition, according to the overwhelming research that supports living with purpose, we should include other practices such as daily exercise, resting our bodies, and eating healthy that also contribute to our flourishing.
In short, purpose does four key things:
- Purpose reveals the themes of your life, the contours of your craft, legacy, vision for the world, mission, and values.
- Once you become aware of your purpose, you have a desire to follow it, so you align your actions, key relationships, health, and career with it.
- Purpose is also a GPS that guides your key life decisions. Think of it like a tool that can help you make difficult decisions, such as who to partner with, work with, train with, and where and how to live.
- Lastly, purpose is also a powerful source of fulfillment, as it is the deepest sense of identity and place, providing you with a renewing sense of self, meaning, and belonging.
Why does Purpose seem even more important in the times we’re in?
Having a purpose is more important now than at any time in human history. Volatility and uncertainty are escalating across the globe. Climate change, authoritarian regimes, pandemics, inequality, racial injustice, and poverty threaten our very existence on this planet. The declining trust in our elected leaders and the loss of faith in our institutions leave us with a hard truth––no one is coming for us. Help isn’t coming. The future of our planet is our responsibility.
But what is uniquely yours to do? Who are you in the face of this difficulty, hardship, chaos, and unrest? Deep down, you know you can’t just sit there and take it. Deep down, you know you have a role in the rebirth of human civilization. In a storm, we need a navigation system to find our way through it. That’s where your purpose comes in. It guides you. It tells you what is uniquely yours to do and lets you leave the rest for others and their purposes.
Why might purpose be important for you today, right now?
People start from two primary places when they begin their purpose journey:
The first is a place where Kris is in his life. He feels that life is going pretty well, but also that something important is missing. Perhaps you, too, have had some success or worked hard for a goal, like a degree or a promotion or a marriage, and are wondering, “Is this it?” From this place, purpose is an activating power, a sense of place, direction, and inspiration that moves you into the next phase of fulfillment, connection, impact, and prosperity.
The second place is one of breakdown, where life has become overwhelming, confusing, and feels out of your control. If you’re in this place, perhaps you feel lost, maybe dealing with a breakup or other loss, or are suffering in a bad relationship, job, or home situation. Or maybe you’re suffering from a health condition, in pain, and wondering whether there might be a deeper meaning in the suffering or if there’s a psychological shift that could accelerate your physical healing.
And guess what? You can be in both of these places at different times of your life. Purpose isn’t a one-and-done affair. As mentioned above, it is evolutionary and in relation to the world. As you grow and evolve and the world changes, so must your purpose.
By developing a daily practice to connect with your purpose, you can receive new purpose insights as they arise and catch yourself before hitting a breakdown.
Regardless of what brings you into the purpose question, you’re here. Welcome to the adventure!
You might be wondering, “If purpose is so great, why doesn’t everybody find it and live it?!”
Purpose can be hard to find
Most of us want to be liked and approved by others. And we need healthcare and income to pay our bills. These two needs often keep us in a place of risk-aversion and stasis. They keep us from doing anything that our key relationships would disapprove of or cause us to lose our job and healthcare.
The purpose journey requires that you deal with these inner voices, the ones that want you to be safe, liked, admired, and employed. Unfortunately, most of us live our lives by the commands of these inner voices, so when the subject of purpose comes up, we look the other way, deny it, or diminish it. Purpose discovery work empowers you to deal with each of these voices or protectors and create permission and space for purpose in your life.
It’s a powerful process, but once these voices develop a relationship with your purpose, they partner together to ensure you continue to get all your social and economic needs met while living a purpose-driven life.
What does hearing all this awaken for you?
Are you ready to keep pulling the thread and follow your purpose path? Or do you want to keep things as they are, taking the same actions and getting the same results? This is the question.
Deciding to go on the journey and discover your purpose doesn’t mean you have to change your whole life right now and all at once. It just means opening to learn what your life is really about. How much you choose to align your life with purpose or not is up to you.
What’s it like to go on a purpose journey?
There are many ways to discover, embody, and activate your purpose. However, powerful and sustainable purpose journeys contain the following elements:
- Purpose Discovery: A series of exercises that provide you with guidance on how to be fulfilled in every area of your life. You’ll discover a vision for your life and the world sourced in your purpose, the values that guide your actions, and clarity about your unique gifts and contribution to others.
- Transformation: A series of exercises to reveal the things standing in the way of your limiting beliefs, personality structure, and the inner voices that want to keep you safe, housed, employed, and liked. You’ll use methods and tools to work with these inner voices and live a life sourced in your purpose. It is important to note that much of your personality was formed in reaction to the circumstances of your upbringing, so you are likely to reveal and encounter past traumas and/or systemic injustices. Many purpose paths result in people being called to transform these traumas and systemic injustices.
- Integration, embodiment, & activation: A series of actions you take to create a cohesive expression of your purpose in every area of your life, such as developing a fulfilling and impactful career.
If a process lacks any of these elements, it is unlikely that your journey will reveal accurate purpose insights or result in a lasting transformation.
How to Choose a Path & Find a Guide.
If you are ready for the adventure, it is time to pick a guide or program. Here are some things to consider:
- How long has this guide practiced?
- Have they been trained or certified as a guide?
- Does their process involve the key elements of purpose work? (i.e., discovery; transformation; integration, embodiment & activation)
- Are you moved by the testimonials from their clients?
- Do you want 1:1 guidance, or do you prefer a group program?
- Do you resonate with their background and journey?
- What does your intuition say?
More resources to guide your purpose journey.
Books about purpose
- Stephen Cope – Great Work of your Life
- Michael Meade – Fate and Destiny
- David Brooks – The Second Mountain
- Thomas Moore – Care of the Soul
Inspiring Stories of People on Purpose
- Joanna Macy, Widening Circles
- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
- Mohandas K. Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth
- Pinky Cole, CEO of Slutty Vegan