In junior high school, I decided that I would go into the ministry. The problem was, I wasn’t sure it was my dream . . . or ever had been.
I went on to get my master’s and doctoral degrees, taught several undergraduate classes and something strange happened. I discovered I loved teaching and I was good at it — very good. But I also felt guilty for tossing aside my “supposed” purpose or calling to the ministry.
Fortunately, I attended a workshop on “intensive journaling” about how to relax, think, reflect, visualize and keep a journal, so the deeper things inside me might be revealed. I then wrote in my journal: “I can serve God and others as a teacher, speaker, and author.” Almost instantly, my guilt disappeared, and a sense of peace, direction, and wellbeing settled over me. I knew I was living my life and working my career on purpose.
For years, I had confused a job with a purpose. Now, decades later, I am loving the work I do and feeling thankful that I’ve been able to touch the lives of thousands of people because my life and work have lined up with my purpose.
The payoffs start to roll in when you know that your life and your work are lined up with your purpose — at least some of the time. So that raises a critical question: How can you discover your purpose?
It all comes down to the three critical, but deceptively simple, questions:
What are you good at?
What excites you?
What difference do you want to make?
Here’s how to answer them to find your purpose:
Question No. 1: What Are You Good At?
No matter who you are or what has happened in your life or career, you have a lot of talents and abilities. But it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to use your strengths if you don’t know what they are. So ask yourself some talent-clarifying questions. Write down answers to questions such as:
What are you already good at?
What are your dominant gifts?
What are you best at?
What natural abilities do you possess?
What do you do that gets a positive response from people you respect?
What do you do that does not seem like work, regardless of the difficulty?
What do you do that causes doors to open with ease for you?
Find out what others see as your talents, too. Ask 10 people to list 10 talents they see in you. With your list of one hundred items, determine which ones are repeated the most. Once you complete this exercise, you will be on your way to a clear picture of exactly what it is you’re good at.
Question No. 2: What Excites You?
Take a look at how you’re wired. What turns on your energy and what turns it off?
For some people, the “What excites you?” question will be easy to answer. For others, it may be challenging. So let me break it into a series of smaller questions that could unlock a series of insights.
The first one is: What are your dreams? Think about what you dreamed of doing when you were a child or graduated from high school or college. And think about what your dreams are today — What would you do if you knew you could not fail? What would you do if no one would say ‘no’?
The second one is: What stirs your passion? Think about what you believe in, what makes life worth living for you and what you’d die for. Take time to think about the following and write out your answers:
What activities do you enjoy the most at work, at home or in social situations?
What are you passionate about?
What do you love spending time on?
What desires keep tugging at your heart?
What motivates you when you are most productive?
What do you do that makes you feel good emotionally and spiritually?
Once you’ve answered those questions, it’s time for another: What troubles your spirit? The things that upset you are a good clue to your purpose in life. So ask yourself: What grieves your heart and infuriates you the most?
Your answers to these questions may point out one or more problems you want to solve, which will point to your purpose, or a part of your purpose.
There’s one more aspect to the question of what excites you: What work do you love to do and what would you really like to do?
Having something to live on is the GOOD life, but having something to live for is the BETTER life. So ask yourself, “What would you choose to do — even if no one was paying you to do it?”
Question No. 3: What Difference Do You Want to Make?
The first two questions are focused on you — your talents and your feelings. The third question focuses on people or situations outside of you.
When executive coach and author Richard Leider interviewed scores of people over 65, he asked them to share the most important lessons they had learned and the advice they’d give younger people to have more fulfilling, successful lives. Without hesitation, they said: you’ve got to live a life that matters to others, and you’ve got to make a contribution to others.
And when physician Raymond Moody interviewed scores of people who lived through near-death experiences, he discovered the overwhelming necessity of making a difference.
Even though his subjects had supposedly died, they said their minds or spirits were very much alive at that time and that they’d kept thinking about the difference they’d made in this world and with other people and whether they had made any difference at all. When they were brought back to life by some medical miracle, they all had the same, but new, bottom line — making a contribution serving others to some extent, instead of being totally self-serving.
You don’t have to wait until you die before you learn how to live. You can get a purpose right now and start living your life on purpose from today forward. What difference do you want to make? Think about it. It’s worth a few minutes of your time.
The difference you want to make may not be as big as rescuing the poor of Calcutta like Mother Teresa or gather worldwide headlines like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That’s okay. The difference you want to make may be in your immediate family, your extended family, your religious organization or charity, your community, your company or even some part of the world at large.
But you must focus some part of your life on making a difference. Otherwise, you may have a good life, but you will never have a great life.