Mar 112013

the1bigthing - discover your purpose

How do you discover your purpose? What are you meant to do in life?

Do you battle with these questions? I have, and so do my clients. It’s a question worth answering. Doing work that feels meaningful can significantly increase levels of happiness.  This post will show you an effective way to discover your purpose. I hope you find it as useful as I did on my own personal quest to discover what I was meant to do in this life.

First let’s look at some assumptions that are getting in the way.

Assumption 1 – We will go from confusion to clarity in one quick step

When we start this search we generally expect that an answer will suddenly appear before us. That in one flash of inspiration all will be clear. I know I expected it, even though I should know better. Re-connecting with our purpose can take time. It’s more like peeling the layers of an onion than pulling back the curtains to see what on the other side. 

Assumption 2: There is one single thing that we are meant to do in this life

This assumption is often created by the question we get asked as children. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It continues to be reinforced by our schools that expect us to choose at a young age between science and art, language and I.T. I remember in my school the clever girls got to do sciences and the rest did art. How misguided is that?

The final seal is made at University where we spend between four to six years specialising in one subject.

What if I had to ask you to choose a single meal you would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day from now until the end of life? You’d be aghast.

So why should we expect ourselves to pick one job that is going to satisfy us for the duration of our lives?

Assumption 3: Our purpose is something to be found

As soon as I wrote this assumption I realised that the original title for this post was “How to find your purpose”.  Oops

The language we use when we talk about our purpose does not help us. It creates the idea that our purpose is something that can be found outside of us. One day we will bump into someone doing that perfect thing we would love to do, or we will read about it in a book, or see it on T.V. and all our questions will be answered.

Our purpose is not something we find. It’s something we discover within our selves. It’s something we re-connect with.

Deep down we all know what we want. The problem is that over time we just stop listening to ourselves. We are so busy trying to do the right thing, fit in, be liked or look good that instead of doing what we want, we do what we think we should and in the process we lose touch with ourselves.

So how do we re-connect with our purpose?

Step 1: Pay attention

Notice the things that completely absorb you, that make you lose track of time.

Notice what makes your heart sing, what lifts you or give you an extra spring in your step.

Notice what excites you.

Notice what makes you happy.

Notice what gives you a sense of meaning or satisfaction.

Notice what makes you sad.

Notice what riles you or makes you angry.

Notice what sucks the energy out of you.

In short, if your emotional life looked like a heart monitor notice what creates the peaks and troughs.

Notice and write these down.

If we spend a few weeks capturing what we notice we will end up with a list of ‘clues’ about what creates positive and negative emotions in our lives.  We can then start putting the picture together in order to arrive at our purpose.

Step 2 – Discover your values

One of the most significant ideas I learnt in psychology is the idea of values. Values are the essence of who we are. They drive us, give us a sense of meaning when they are being honoured and make us feel like crap when they’re not.

When we look at our clues we’re likely to notice themes about what makes us happy or sad, elated or frustrated. These themes relate to our core values.

Having gone through your clues, have a look at the list of values below and pick between one and three values that represent the themes in your clues. Feel free to add your own values to the list – remember you know best.

If you’re finding it hard to choose three or less, pick more and then compare them against each other.

Justice Freedom Contribution Love Connection An exciting life
Self-Respect Happiness A beautiful world Peace Learning Family Security
Accomplishment Wisdom A comfortable life Pleasure Social Recognition


Step 3 – Discover your strengths

The second thing that’s going to help comes from the world of Positive Psychology: Your Strengths.

These are things you are naturally good at. The operative word here is ‘naturally’. Our strengths aren’t things that we’ve learnt to be good at over time. They are things we were born good at. It’s an important distinction.

Research shows that we are more likely to thrive and succeed if we focus on what we’re naturally good at and use those strengths as often as we can. So an important part of discovering what you want to do with your life is discovering your strengths.


If you know what you’re NATURALLY good at, (i.e. your core strengths) then you know what you want.

Two key contributors to the field of positive psychology have written seminal books on this subject. Martin Seligman wrote Authentic Happiness and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-sent-me-high) wrote Flow.

You can do a few things to discover what your strengths are.

  1. Go back to your clues and look at the things that make you lose track of time, or give you a sense of meaning. What themes emerge around the skills or abilities you were using?
  2. Ask a variety of people who know you well these two questions: What do you think I’m particularly good at? What kind of advice would you come to me for?
  3. Use a questionnaire. You can find a free one called The Via Survey here. My favourite questionnaire comes from Gallup. You will need to buy their book Strengthsfinder 2.0. It has a free code you enter on their website to gain access to a strengths questionnaire. I love this resource I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Step 4 – Discover your interests

Finally make a list of all the things that interest you. Use these questions as a guide:

What do you read about in your spare time?

What types of blogs do you subscribe to?

When you’re online what website do you go to?

What hobbies do you have?

What kind of people do you enjoy being around?

What inspires you?

Who inspires you?

What environments do you enjoy being in?

If you find it hard to answer some of the questions start by thinking about what you don’t want, or don’t like. Then find an alternative to this.

Step 5 – Put it all together

I talk about Values, Strengths and Interests because they make up my definition of our purpose, which is:

Our purpose is the expression of our values through our strengths, in an area that interests us.

This is a little bit vague and abstract so let’s look at an example.

Jack and Sue both have a similar strength – Creativity. They also have a similar interest – design. However while Jack’s key values are Social-Recognition and Family Security, Sue’s values are Freedom and Contribution.

As a result Jack set up his own design consultancy and manages a team of 100 people. Sue is a location-independent designer who travels the world, designing websites for charities.

So now turn back to your information, look at your core values, strengths and interests. Brainstorm ideas that will help you express your values, through your strengths in an area that interests you.

The best thing you will discover is that there is more than one way in which you can live your purpose.

An important lesson I learnt from my personal journey is this: This process of discovery is a work in progress. This exercise will point you in the right direction but you need to walk in that direction to gain more clarity along the way. Stop waiting for the perfect answer. Start creating a life that honours your purpose by taking a small step in the right direction today.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy the journey.

With love



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