Updated: May 29, 2019
I often ask people what they think is the purpose of their lives, and they often don't know. After having done some soul-searching on this topic, I've come to the conclusion that it's not as complicated as it sounds, and many of us have things in our lives that gives a sense of purpose, a reason to live. Knowing my purpose is to know what I enjoy doing, what makes me happy, what kind of work needs no external factors to motivate me. It’s usually not a fad I’m following that I’m over with by the end of the year. It’s something that constantly haunts me, I dream of it and it never really goes away. I’m never swayed from this dream when I see someone else do other things that are exciting and pay well. I’m quite secure and consistent in what I wish to do with my life. The work is not necessarily easy, it’s just that it doesn’t seem like work. I love it so much that I’d even pay to do it. Success or failure are not of key concern, I just feel happy and privileged to do what I do.
When these conditions are met, one usually finds that this is also the kind of work that I’m naturally good at, or at least I’m not fearful of learning in this area. More often than not, this work benefits others in some way. For example, if I am a teacher and work well with children, I enjoy doing my work and am always seeking ways to improve my skills, then those children will certainly benefit from my passion; perhaps I’ll also inspire other colleagues to adopt my methods too. Furthermore, doing this work will be personally very fulfilling for me, and I will feel happy and content with my life – and have a generally positive demeanor in life.
These are some of the characteristics of people who “know their purpose” in life (The Knowers).
However, not all of us feel like we found our life's purpose and the most meaningful way to live our lives. Sometimes it takes several years to stumble upon purpose, and sometimes it can even take a tragedy or a difficult life situation to find meaning in life. For example a rare disease contracted by someone I love can motivate me to dedicate my life to research and finding a cure for that. An experience of emotional trauma may push one to study psychology or some form of healing. An inspirational figure in the family may nudge you to try that same path for yourself.
If you are not sure of your true purpose, your raison d'être, then let's say you are a Seeker. I've taken a few ideas from the literature on life purpose to design the questions below - these may help you determine what could be your key to living a life of deep contentment!
Questions To Help You Find Your Life's Purpose!
1. Follow your Desire: What is the thing you really look forward to doing? It excites you to even think about it! Is it food, wine, friends, outdoor activity, leading a workshop, working in technology, creating a work of art? Or do you get fired up about people using plastic straws and ziplock bag and want to create a plastic-free world? Desire acts like fuel for the rocket of your purpose filled life. We need to recognize them and also discern between them. Not all desires are healthy or pointing to purpose. We could crave chocolate everyday but that does not always point to a career as a chocolatier.
If you are not sure about what you desire, then it may be helpful to follow your natural curiosity. On which topic do you find you can do endless research on Google and watch how others do it on Youtube. It could be how to grow your own organic vegetable garden, start an animal care shelter, learn about nutrition, physical fitness or solve the mysteries of the universe by diving into spiritual literature? Do you like learning new skills on the computer or in the kitchen? What kind of people do you follow on Instagram? (Now just because you follow the Kardashians does not mean you have a calling as a fashion icon, once again it is important to discern between things that are filling in boredom, or things that genuinely light you up).
Several years ago I was a professor of business but found I was reading books on spirituality every spare moment I had, or going for yoga and meditation retreats, or signing up for courses in philosophy, religion or psychology. I just couldn't get enough of this material, and anything else I did felt like an opportunity cost where I could've been doing what I really loved to do. It was a natural and organic way for me to figure out that my "business" teaching days were over, and I could now seek some way to spend more time being with the work I'd come to love. Sometimes we can make a living off our passion, but at times we have to put up with the drudgery of boring jobs in order to help finance our true calling.
2. Mix Desire with Skill: Another way to approach the question of purpose is to ask - what is that I'm really good at? Do you find people rely on you to give speeches at parties, or to write beautiful cards, or help them out with home decor ideas? Are you a natural when it comes to doing quiet, deep, research, or do you find yourself taking leadership in organizing people events. Do your friends marvel at your soap carving skills, do folks sign up for your underwater basket-weaving classes? This is the second clue to finding your purpose - look for places where you excel. Build on those skills to design your purpose-filled life.
3. Service to Others: The third way to solve the mystery of purpose is to ask - where do I add value to other people's lives? One of my friends, Nandini, spent many years researching the real estate market in Manhattan in order to search for her perfect home. After twenty years of doing this for herself, she realized she had amassed an impressive amount of knowledge and expertise, and decided to become a realtor. Her greatest joy comes from finding people the perfect homes that fit their budget and lifestyle. While the money is good, she often talks of the sense of fulfillment when she sees the happiness on a customer's face when they find their dream home through her.
Similarly my son Rohan is a natural teacher when it comes to many things. Many people will ask him to teach them how to work out in a gym, or how to use technology or social media, or even which books to read. He pursues some things passionately enough to become an expert on them - and is able to articulate this knowledge in a comprehensible way. This is a natural way to evaluate where your passions lie and what helps you give back your special talent in a way that enriches others' lives. You may not have the opportunity to give back until much later in life, but a life of purpose is one that aligns us with the universe, that allows us partake in the joint undertaking that is life itself. If you are aligned with your own unique soul purpose, it is quite conceivable that you will find avenues to demonstrate and share your gifts with the world. The resulting feeling of connection and fulfillment is like no other, and psychology experts consider this to be the highest form of happiness, which unfortunately is often misunderstood as self-gratifying behavior for increasing one's own pleasure.
4. When Money is Not an Issue: What kind of activity do you enjoy doing so much that you would even pay to do it for the rest of your life? You cannot bear to be separated from the tribe of people who do this work, and you would happily be a fly on the wall when they convene. If you can identify an activity that meets this criterion, it is great way of knowing that it is your purpose and not ego that calls you to this activity.
5. Who has Your Dream Job? : Think of a person who has the job that you really really want. What do they do? When asked this question, one of my girlfriends who has a passion for mentoring young girls, said that Oprah had her dream job. Despite Oprah's considerable fame and success, not everyone is inspired to be an Oprah. I might think of a successful author such as Dale Carnegie as my "dream job" person - who gets to spend time writing and exploring the world. Or a YoYo Ma. Or LeBron James. This gives us clues to our personality traits - are we comfortable in crowds or alone; are we comfortable working with large numbers of people or just a chosen few. Do we primarily put forth our bodies (sports, modeling careers), our minds (doctors, lawyers, teachers) or our hearts (non profit mission oriented work).
6. What if You Cannot Fail: If you were guaranteed success and money was no object for you, what would you do? Often what holds us back from our dreams is a fear of failure. For example, Peter doesn't try for the swim team because he fears the pain he will feel when the coach calls out the selected names and his is not one of them. If Peter didn't have this fear of failure, he could put all his efforts into mastering his swimming skills, and be comfortable knowing that he did his best, and that's all that he could have done. The outcome ceases to matter as much, the journey becomes as meaningful as the goal itself.
7. The Fairy Godmother Factor: If I waved a magic wand at you and you could have anything you wanted, what would you ask for? This is a great way to bring forth images from our sub-conscious mind about what we consider desirable. We don't HAVE to believe the thoughts right away - it may be coming up from something we saw in a movie or read in a magazine. But it's a clue. For example, the first thought that may come to me is to ask the fairy godmother for a million dollars. However, when I think about it carefully, I may arrive at a different conclusion. Perhaps it's not the money that will make me feel good, but to have something worthwhile to live for. The money may even create more problems for me as I may have to defend myself from predators, and I may end up feeling alienated from friends and family.
8. Start thinking Ahead. Way Ahead: What would you like people to say about you at your 75th birthday party? Fast forward your life and visualize a party where people are celebrating YOU. Which version of you do you want them to celebrate? Focus your energies on that version. Do you see them talking about the books you've written, about the wonderful children you've raised, or the way you had an impact on the environment?
These are some of the ways to solve the "purpose puzzle" and live a life filled with meaning and happiness.