The Power of Purpose

“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”


Is it possible for a man without a purpose or a woman without a passion to live a happy life? Yes. But more often than not, when your purpose is cloudy and your passion is weak, you will fall into a life of unhappiness, drifting from one thing to another, pulled and prodded by conflicting advice, role models, demands, wants, and needs.

Your parents think you should DO such and such; your partner wants you to BE more like blank and blank, and your manager HAS a whole different plan for your career path. With so many pressures, how do you possibly decide what YOU want? Or more importantly, how do you figure out YOUR own unique and deeply fulfilling purpose in life?

Without a clearly defined purpose, you will be dragged into all kinds of false beliefs and ineffective approaches to living your life and doing your work. And, unfortunately, many of those false beliefs and ineffective approaches will be given to you by people who have not found their own purposes.

1. Three Types Of People Without Purpose

In the “Happier” book by Tal Ben-Shahar, the author notes three types of people who try to live their lives and do their work without purpose. It was interesting to read through his descriptions; I saw periods of my life where I conformed strongly to each one of them and I suspect you will too.

First, there is “The Rat Racer.” He’s the perfect model of delayed gratification. He works and works and works … hoping that somehow, someday he will be able to enjoy life. He’s always looking forward to something in the future to make him happy. So he grits his teeth, puts up with unhappiness, thinking, “Once I have this, I will be content. Once I have done that, I will be satisfied. Once this person has done this, I will be happy. You just wait and see.”

“The Rat Racer” reminds me of a bar owner who came up with a brilliant marketing trick. He put up a poster on his wall that read, “Free beer tomorrow!” But no one can ever collect on that offer, because tomorrow never comes. If you are waiting for something in the future to make you happy, then that is all you will get — a life of waiting … from the first grade, to high school, to college, to the job, to the promotion, and on to everything else.

Of course there are times you have to delay gratification. Sometimes you have to sit down and do your taxes instead of spending time with your loved ones. But taken to an extreme, it’s a dangerous way to live. But tomorrow never comes, for when it does, it will be now.

Second, there is “The Hedonist.” She’s always seeking pleasure now, at the expense of everything else. She would prefer to spend her last dollars on a good night out, leaving the overdue electricity bill unpaid. Let the dishes pile up; leave the house dirty. She would rather watch television, smoke now, and worry about the cancer when it comes.

Of course it’s okay to put fun and pleasure first in your life once in a while. In fact, it can be refreshing and revitalizing. But again, taken to the extreme, the problems are obvious.

Third, there is “The Nihilist.” Having thought about, or tried, the previous two ways of life and finding they don’t hold up for long, a Nihilist is one who has given up. He thinks there’s no way to find purpose, happiness, and success, so he falls into helplessness and despair. It’s not a pretty picture.

Basically, if you haven’t figured out your purpose and if you aren’t living your life and working your job on purpose, those are the three unhappy, nonproductive lifestyles you’ll tend to have.

There is good news, however. You can have a purpose-filled life and a purpose-driven career. You can be …

2. The Happy Warrior

In healthy contrast to the first three types of people without a clearly defined purpose, The Happy Warrior focuses on finding something he can do that is both meaningful and enjoyable. It sounds so simple, so basic, that some of my readers may scoff and say, “Who doesn’t know this?”

Originally I felt the same way. I had to learn about purpose the hard way … trying to do what everybody else told me would work. I would try, fail, start over, listen to somebody else, try, fail, and repeat this time-wasting and unfulfilling approach to my life and work.

Until I … that’s me, me, me … took the time to do the thinking and do the work to figure out my purpose, I was nothing but a big wheel. I looked good on the outside but kept going around in circles.

You don’t have to do that. 

3. The Purpose Process

A master martial artist asked Bruce Lee to teach him everything he knew about martial arts. Bruce held up two cups, both filled with liquid. “The first cup, said Bruce, “represents all of your knowledge about martial arts. The second cup represents all of my knowledge about martial arts. If you want to fill your cup with my knowledge, you must first empty your cup of your knowledge.”

In a similar sense, if you want to learn about purpose, clarify your purpose, and live on purpose, you’ve got to empty your cup filled with all of your old misconceptions, past failures, and false starts when it comes to purpose. Be open to a process that is tried and true.

I like the way Steve Pavlina approaches the subject. Step 1: Start by taking out a blank sheet of paper or open up a word processor where you can type. Step 2: Write at the top, “What is my true purpose in life?” Step 3: Write an answer … and every answer … that pops into your head. You don’t have to write complete sentences. Short phrases are fine. Step 4: Repeat step 3 until you write the answer that makes you cry. This is your purpose.

That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you ’re a counselor or an engineer or a bodybuilder. To some people this exercise will make perfect sense. To others it will seem utterly stupid. Usually it takes 15 to 20 minutes to clear your head of all the clutter and the social conditioning about what you think your purpose in life is.

Pavlina says: “For those of you who don’t spend much time on introspection, it will take a lot longer to get all the false answers out, possibly more than an hour. But if you persist, after 100 or 200 or maybe even 500 answers, you’ll be struck by the answer that causes you to surge with emotion … the answer that breaks you.”

If you’ve never done this, it may very well sound silly to you. So let it seem silly, and do it anyway. You may also discover a few answers that seem to give you a mini-surge of emotion, but they don’t quite make you cry — they ’re just a bit off. Highlight those answers as you go along, so you can come back to them. Each one reflects a piece of your purpose, but individually they aren’t complete. When you start getting these kinds of answers, it just means you ’re getting warm. Keep going.

In terms of Pavlina’s experience, he notes, “When I did this exercise, it took me about 25 minutes and I reached my final answer at answer 106. Partial pieces of the answer (mini-surges of emotion) appeared at answers 17, 39, and 53, and then the bulk of it fell into place and was refined through answers 100-106. I felt the feeling of resistance (wanting to get up and do something else, expecting the process to fail, feeling very impatient and even irritated) around answers 55-60. At answer 80 I took a 2-minute break to close my eyes, relax, clear my mind, and I began to have greater clarity. I finally settled on my answer: to live consciously and courageously, to resonate with love and compassion, to awaken the great spirits within others, and to leave this world in peace.”

When you find your own unique answer to the question of why you ’re here, you will feel it resonate with you deeply. The words will seem to have a special energy to you, and you will feel that energy whenever you read them.

The noted success scholar Napoleon Hill makes a brutal assessment in his research. He gives 31 reasons for failure, and the second biggest reason for failure is “the lack of a well-defined purpose in life.” Unfortunately, he found that 98% of the people fell into that category.  That doesn’t have to be you.

ACTION:  What will you do this week to live on purpose?