The vast majority of professionals cite “purpose” as one of their top priorities at work.* Yet, even among executives and students at Harvard Business School, fewer than 20% report having a strong sense of their own individual purpose.** In sum, purpose is something most of professionals want, badly, but few of them have found -- and sadly, not having found it often leaves them feeling lacking, behind, or lost.
Yes, there are fantasy examples of individuals finding their life’s work in the blink of an eye, like Newton with his apple or Edison with his light bulb. But recent research has shed light on how creativity and insight are generated via exploration, learning and action, rather than waiting for lightning to strike.***
So here are the two simple steps we’ve found that anyone can take -- today -- to find purpose at work:
- Change your definition of it
- Move forward with purpose, not in search of it
Change your definition of it
Defining purpose as a direction -- not an endpoint -- is the first and most critical shift.
Similar to how Michelangelo believed that his role as a sculptor was to let out the expression buried in the stone, we are often made to feel that our individual purpose is just waiting to be uncovered. But we humans are not made of stone. We are complex, constantly developing beings that are influenced not only by our genetics, upbringing and life experiences but also by the evolving external factors that affect our daily lives.
When we view purpose as an innate and unchanging truth, we impose a sort of paralysis upon ourselves. We slip into thinking “Once I find my purpose, then I will [insert goal here],” e.g., really find my stride, make a difference, finally know what my life is about, etc. That input becomes the prerequisite to all meaningful outcomes, and we commence the great waiting game in which we often make no progress on any of these fronts.
But when we begin to view purpose as an approach or mindset more concretely defined as “taking action in accord with one’s values, passions and preferences,” we begin to live the grand adventure of following one’s heart in the right direction.
When we acknowledge that there is no one hidden truth and that all of these defining features of our purpose are apt to change over the course of our lives, we open up to learn, iterate, and make impact authentic to our true selves along the way. And isn’t that what we’re really looking for?
Move forward with purpose, not in search of it
So how do you move in the right direction?
First, you need to define what that “right direction” is for you -- for today. Ask yourself the below questions, take the pressure off of perfection, and you’ll find a world of meaningful insight to help you get moving with purpose:
What are your core values?
Use this exercise to identify and rank your top 7 values, which will help you evaluate which career paths or opportunities are most likely to satisfy your most personally important motivations.
What are your passions?
There is a danger in conflating passion with purpose; it is important to note that passion's Latin root (pati) means "to suffer," hence, passions are those things we are willing to suffer for. Make a full list of the issues, hobbies, organizations, industries, countries, languages, individuals, and anything else that makes your heart race.
What are your work preferences?
- People: Describe the type of people / work culture that inspire you most.
- Process: List the specific types of of work / skills you enjoy doing on a daily or weekly basis. List separately the specific types of work you do not enjoy doing.
- Pay: What are your financial obligations and, based on that, what is a pay range that will be acceptable to you in your next step?
Next, use your responses to these questions as a guiding light: discern specific job opportunities that occur at the intersection of your key motivations and interests listed above. Can’t think of any yourself? Try plugging the keywords into LinkedIn’s Advanced Job Search to get some ideas and see how they feel when you try them on.
And lastly, define one concrete, tangible step you could take to move towards the opportunit(ies) you’re most drawn to -- and then take it.
Whether that means applying for a new position, taking on a volunteer opportunity, investigating your startup idea, or just identifying five people you’re going to interview about their career path or current position, what’s most important is that you take a step.
Because a step towards an intersection of your values, passions and preferences is a step in the right direction. Movement in itself yields new learning, relationships, and inertia -- and movement in the right direction means it will be fulfilling along the way, and can only lead to greater and deeper fulfillment over time.
* PWC, Putting Purpose to Work: A study of purpose in the workplace (2016)
** Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook, From Purpose to Impact, Harvard Business Review (2014)
*** Adam Grant, ORIGINALS: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016)