By searching for purpose, you're guaranteed to never find it
Updated: Jan 18, 2020
But you can create it--and here's how.
You’re at the bottom of a cliff looking up towards where you want to be—the top. There’s no one on the wall and no marks from previous climbs. What do you do? You might start scoping the wall for easy holds and scratch your head as you decide on the best path to create for yourself. Climbers call this process “setting your line”. Before you even lay a hand on the wall, you draft out a route that plays to your strengths and challenges your weaknesses. When I climb, for example, I look for handholds that allow me to use my much-preferred upper body and for smaller footholds to challenge my hilariously shitty footwork.
Whether you’re a climber or not doesn’t really matter; the point here is that the process of setting your line in climbing is like the process of finding your purpose: you set a vision that leverages your strengths and challenges your weaknesses and you follow it. Before I go any further though, I should unpack what I think about purpose: it doesn’t exist. I sincerely believe that to a tee, but since that's probably not what you expect to read from someone in the wellness industry, I’ll explain.
Credit where credit's due
“We're hardwired for meaning.”
It’s not that I think purpose is useless—quite the opposite, actually. Having a sense of purpose has been shown to help buffer against low positive emotions (Diener et al., 2012) and is the building block of psychological resilience (Duckworth, 2016). Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, even notes the absolute necessity of purpose in creating a meaningful life, especially if that purpose is in service of something greater than the self (Seligman, 2011). We’re hardwired for meaning, it’s an inescapable human need—a sense of purpose is what helps us meet this need (Baumeister et al., 2012; Frankl, 1959).
So there’s no question we operate with way more clarity, resilience, and meaning when we create purpose in our lives, but that says it all right there: create.
A liberating distinction
For me purpose isn’t discovered so much as it’s created. It’s not something floating in space or pulling the strings of the universe—there is no purpose. Before I lose you, I should note I’ve had this conversation many times with many people and the most common response I hear (after “the fuck you talkin’ about, dude?” and “you’re just wrong, so…you catch the game last night?”) is this:
“Then what’s the point? Seriously, what’s the point? If there’s no objective purpose then everything’s meaningless. Why do anything?”
I get it. I shared the same sentiment once. But read again what I actually wrote. I’m saying there’s no objective purpose, nothing to be discovered. Yeah, that probably brings with it some anxiety, resentment, disbelief, all of it. But if you try this on just a bit longer, you might notice what this also means: liberation. If purpose doesn’t exist, you get to create it. You get to be the one who brings it into existence. You get to be the author of your own life.
"the fuck you talkin’ about, dude?"
Still sound like shit? I’m saying that from the day you’re born to the day you die you get to chart the course for a life that brings you meaning. Better yet, you get to chart a course for the life that brings meaning to you and the people important to you. Is that really so bad?
Walking the walk
I’m pretty practised at charting courses. I changed my university major three times before graduating, from engineering to architecture to urban planning to clinical psychology. Even once I graduated, I traveled and worked for a year before deciding to let go of my love for conducting research and leaned into my love for applying it.
To be clear, this was one of the greatest struggles of my life, turning down an acceptance into a Ph.D program, moving across Canada, and living with the constant check-in of "is this the right decision?" for over a year. But with the aid of the formula I'll share shortly for creating purpose, I was able to follow my line.
And voilà, through the world of coaching I created a purpose I had never before aligned with so deeply. I created a life that allows me to connect meaningfully with people and my community and also allows me to travel, play, and create. I get to be funny, even rowdy, at work. I never have to do it just for the money and yet it still allows me financial security.
Keys to the Kingdom
"the whole point of this piece isn’t to shit on your world and leave you in the dark..."
It wouldn’t surprise me if even by this point you’re still not impressed. This guy found his purpose like every other self-help blogger, wow, amazing. What about me? Now he’s even trying to relate by writing from my perspective. Sick life, bro.
I'm all for healthy skepticism--I encourage it--but first, it’s worth repeating that I didn’t find my purpose, I created it.
Second, think back to two paragraphs ago. This wasn’t a short process for me, it took a damn long time. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t come with sleepless nights, endless arguments with myself, and making decisions that made me nauseous. But I got there.
And third, okay…what about you? What would you create? This is a hell of a loaded question and one I work with for hours on with clients and revisit with them weeks and even months later. But hours, weeks, and months aside, the whole point of this piece isn’t to shit on your world and leave you in the dark, it’s to give you the keys to the kingdom. So here are the quick-hack ingredients to creating purpose: values, strengths, and impact.
Values form the cornerstone of who you are and who you’d like to be. They’re personal, so for now don’t worry if they’re right on the money just identify a few that are meaningful to you. For most people, this isn’t easy to do at the drop of a hat, but you can get the ball rolling by thinking about the following questions:
When was the last time I was struck with awe?
When was the last time I cried?
How would I want children to be raised in this world?
When was a time I swore to never be like my parents?
Cut yourself some slack as you answer and just let out whatever comes out. You’ll notice the questions bring out times when values are both present (questions #1 and #3) and when they are trampled on (questions #2 and #4); this helps clarify values from both ends.
Take your answers and pull out as many values as you can, then choose five values from the list that feel most like you. Values can range from honesty and compassion to independence and spontaneity, they can even be your own words. Whatever you decide, all that’s important here is that they’re meaningful for you.
The next step is to identify your strengths. These are the natural qualities you possess that help you achieve goals, connect with people, and give you a sense of general wellbeing, however that looks for you. Like values, these strengths are also fundamental to who you are.
It gets a bit tricky here though; if you’ve ever heard of the negativity bias you’ll know that we’re wired to give more weight to things we perceive as negative than those we perceive as positive. You’ll see this for yourself if you make a list with two columns: “my strengths” on the left and “my weaknesses” on the right. Take two minutes per column to fill out as many words as you can. You’ll probably notice the bulk of the words end up in the right column.
One way to get around this bias is to have friends and family answer the question for you: “What are [your name]’s strengths?”. Take the responses and make another shortlist of about five to ten strengths and there you are.
I recommend taking the VIA Character Strengths survey, which was designed specifically for the purpose of identifying strengths. It draws on research into virtues conducted by Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson in which they uncovered 6 universal virtues (or strengths) and a subset of 24 character strengths therein. After completing the survey, you’ll have a ranked list of all 24 character strengths to show which best mark your character. From your top ten, take the 5 strengths that you feel most represent you—this will become your strengths shortlist.
You can also give the CliftonStrengths 34 assessment (formerly the Strengths Finder 2.0) a shot. It was created in response to a 40-year study of human strengths in which 34 strengths were identified. Again, I recommend taking 5 strengths from your top ten that most represent you. Either way, both measures have been repeatedly validated and widely used around the world (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Rath, 2008).
The final ingredient is impact. What’s the effect you want to have on your friends, your family, your coworkers, your neighbourhood, your country? Stretch this even further—what effect do you want to have on the world?
Your values will help you sketch out the type of impact you want to have on others and your strengths will guide you on how to actually do that. The strengths component is key here too because this is what keeps this purpose grounded in reality. This isn’t about some lofty statement to toss around at dinner parties, this is about creating something you can actually live your life by.
Piecing it all together
"You have the map and the legend, take some time to get digging."
By this point you have the pillars of purpose. At the very least, you have a rough idea of your values, strengths, and desired impact and you can combine these to create a purpose statement. It might look something like this:
“My purpose is to represent [value(s)] by leveraging my [strength(s)] in order to [impact].”
Again, this is a shortcut. The excavation of values, strengths, and impact is a long enough process when someone else is there to listen, probe, and record—it’s even longer when done in solitude. You might find it helpful to have friends answer questions about who they see you as, or maybe it’s easier for you to think about passions, interests, hobbies, and your own life experience if ‘values’ or ‘strengths’ seem too rigid.
However you decide to approach this, having a sentence to sum up your purpose serves well as a shorthand here so you don’t have to go purpose-diving every second. It's all good if you’re not able to summarize everything into one sentence right now. You have the map and the legend, take some time to get digging.
To make things simple here is direct access to the purpose blueprint I use with my own coaching clients. Just click the box below to download and get started ...
I want to make a small adjustment now to the phrase that first got us here. Instead of “finding your line” I’m proposing this: “creating your line”. You’ve seen just how to do that, or to at least begin to do that, and I wish you luck if you decide to take that on, truly.
Once you have, there’s a final addition to the phrase: “Create your line…and lean in”. No climbing is actually executed by just planning the route. You actually have to climb. What's one thing you can do today to deepen a value or play out a strength? It could be something as simple as telling a stranger a joke or as challenging as having a difficult conversation you've been putting off. Have at it. And feel free to let me know what you acted on in the comments below.
I see purpose as the line to guide the climbing—you can drift from it with a couple hand movements (life’s smaller decisions), but it’s ultimately what guides the overall flow of the climb (life’s bigger decisions). There’s a certain trust here, a commitment needed; this is leaning in.
As a climber tosses every ounce of weight into the line, so too can you spend your time both living out the values and harnessing the strengths that give you meaning. That’s really as simple as purposeful living gets. Not easy, it’s hard as hell. But simple.
Create, lean in, and make your ascent.
Cheers to the climb.
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J., & Garbinsky, E. N. (2012). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 505- 516. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2168436
Diener, E., Fujita, F., Tay, L., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2012). Purpose, mood, and pleasure in predicting satisfaction judgments. Social Indicators Research, 105, 333-341. doi: 10.1007/s11205-011-9787-8
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner/Simon & Schuster.
Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Beacon Press.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. Oxford, UK: Oxford/American Psychological Association.
Rath, T. (2008). Strengths Finder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press.