Some of us go through our entire adult lives feeling that we’re living without purpose. We read stories about people like the Nobel prize-winning scientists harnessing the body’s immune system to fight cancer or the seventh-generation farmer from Illinois who started a sustainable food movement or the enterprising mother of three, Jodie Harris who started local charity Mums Supporting Families in Need and we feel like our own lives are small and inadequate.
Living a purposeful life doesn’t need to be big.
The problem is that we often frame ‘purpose’ as something that needs to be significant. We want it to be visible to others and we usually feel that it’s only truly valid if it’s connected to some external measure of success. We fail to recognise that a purposeful life that is humble and ‘small’ is no less significant than one that is lived out in the public eye.
For most of my introverted clients, the latter is actually more appealing and because it’s also authentic, it’s generally more meaningful too. We still need to remind ourselves that it’s equally valuable.
I was personally reminded of this yesterday after spending four hours with a lovely client (we’ll call her Olivia) who is currently not engaged in paid work, but who is still living a very purposeful life. Olivia has had a successful career but now that she’s not employed (and despite her earlier success) she feels that her life is lacking meaning.
In her early 50s, Olivia is keen to do something that will inspire and energise her and also contribute in some way. When we looked at her strengths and her values, we discovered that she’s engaging these on a daily basis. And to her surprise, we also discovered that she’s already making a difference in other people’s lives in ways that really matter to her, even if she’s not making a living from those efforts.
We spend so much time focusing on what we’re not doing, that we often overlook what is right in front of our eyes.
Like many of us, Olivia was so busy searching that she had failed to see how much purpose she already has in her life.
If you have the same concern, try the following tips to connect with the purposeful moments you already have in your life.
1. Stop looking outwardly
One of the biggest mistakes we make is to only look to others for inspiration. Being focused outwardly is wonderful if it’s genuinely inspiring, but it can also mean you forget to tune in and listen to your intuition about what ‘purposeful’ might feel like to you.
One way to gain clarity about this is to think about how you’d love to be remembered when you’re no longer here. While it might sound morbid to write your own eulogy, it’s an excellent way to get clear about what really matters.
2. Stop comparing yourself to others
In the same way that we look to others for inspiration, we often compare ourselves once we do find ways of being purposeful. The key is to find your own way of living with purpose and then to get out in the world and do that, regardless of whether someone else is doing it already or doing it in a way that looks more significant or more successful than you imagine you can be.
3. Stop measuring your success in quantifiable terms
Living with purpose is not about numbers. It doesn’t matter if you only make a difference in one person’s life on a single day in a given year – that’s enough.
It’s the intention that counts, not the number of people you help or the dollar figure attached to your efforts.
4. Stop being so hard on yourself
After listening to Olivia’s story, my experience of her was that she is generous and kind and I can see that she’s already making a difference every day. What she sees is all that she’s not doing (because, like all of us, her brain has a strong negative bias).
Remind yourself at the end of every day of the things you have done that were purposeful and if it feels helpful, at the beginning of each new day, think about one small action that will give the day purpose.
5. Get really clear on what matters
One of the main reasons most of us feel that our lives lack purpose is that we haven’t spent the time getting really clear about what our life purpose is. Here’s my simple methodology for doing this.
Get to know your unique strengths and your values; evaluate your life journey and think about the experiences that have shaped you most (both positive and negative). Then consider how you can use your life experience and engage your strengths and values to contribute to others in a way (or ways) that feel meaningful to you. An extra tip here is that often we seek to give what we would love to receive ourselves.
Finally, write out a clear statement of your life purpose (see my example below) and do your best to bring this to life in your every day.
(If you still feel stuck, try working your way through the Discover Your Purpose eBook).