Figuring Out Your Purpose

Figuring Out Your Purpose

There are well documented consequences of living a life not ‘on purpose’. The mid life crisis is the most obvious example. “I am not where I thought I would be, how did I end up doing this, it is too late to change, I feel trapped” are all comments I hear from clients and friends.

Illness and burnout and earlier death can be a consequence of living a life not on purpose. A study in the Lancet in 2015 by Professors Steptoe and Deaton, showed that people with the greatest sense of purpose had a 30% reduced risk compared with those with the least sense of purpose.

It is not always possible to live exactly on purpose. Imagine an archery target where your purpose is the bullseye. At times you will be living close to your purpose, in the next ring out from the bullseye. What we want to avoid is living at the edge of the target, or even off the target completely.

When near or on target a sense of effortlessness is felt. Things fall into place, openings arise and are taken. Often people say. “Oh he or she is so lucky, right place right time”. Seneca said in Roman times “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”. Put another way by Gary Player, “the more I practice the luckier I get”. So what others may see as luck, is actually intention on the others part. Work on the whole becomes enjoyable and time passes quickly. Thoughts of “what am I going to do with my life” recede and all that energy is rechanneled into productive, forward motion.

Finding and expressing your purpose is not easy. My experience with clients is that around 10-15% have a clearly documented purpose phrase. The modern world, from home to education to the workplace, is always showering us with ideas and messages of who we should be, what we should be doing, what success looks like. Chopping down all these trees to reach the clearing that is really you is hard.

We need to go back to early childhood when so much of our character and values are formed. Before the world begins to tell us what we should be. We need to look at extreme moments in our lives, the peaks and troughs, and then analyse these, pick over them to find the themes.

How is purpose best expressed? I have found it useful to condense your purpose into a phrase that can be used to check in with on a daily/ weekly basis. It could contain what you offer, to whom and how does that make a difference. If you have time (highly recommended), there are 20 open questions I have put together to help with the thinking and crafting of your phrase. Enjoy these questions and consult with friends or loved ones – their answers maybe illuminating!

If you would like a tester version to whet your appetite then try this exercise; take out a piece of paper and write your own eulogy in three sentences.

Now it is time to write a first draft of your purpose phrase. For me going through these questions, what became clear was that on my deathbed I would still be curious in how people really were. How happy they were? How could I help with that? What made them tick? Why did they behave in the way they behaved? I would still be asking questions! It is the thread that links back through all my life. Whether trying to mend my parents marriage when I was 8 and they were divorcing, to reading books on body language in my teens to understand what people were really saying and thinking. Then it was reading Psychology at university, again, in an attempt to understand what makes people tick and how that could be improved. Then doing work in retail for 10 years where understanding consumer behaviour was at the core, and finally in taking up coaching in 2008.

My first attempts at my phrase did not resonate. It was too bland and not personal enough to me

I help people figure out what they need to do in life to be happy

I needed to use language and experiences that were really meaningful to me- that spoke to me. I heard some great phrases that others used such as;

“Pick my line and launch” from a skier turned business leader who had to make many decisions


“You bring the fuel and I provide the spark” from a coach who loved cars and engines.

I spent many years of my life rowing, and loved the river, the team work and the physical demands. Rowing is the only sport (other than synchronised swimming!) where you all have to do the same thing at the same time. There is a magical moment, particularly when you are rowing in an eight (with seven other rowers and a cox steering), when you are all perfectly in sync and the boat just literally takes off. I wanted to capture this is my purpose phrase;

“Find our rhythm and fly”

This phrase has sat well with me for a number of years now. I like the language (I always wanted to fly and soar, and the key to fast rowing is rhythm). I like the fact it is a joint project (our rhythm) as I cannot achieve my purpose on my own, it is around helping others.

This will take time (mine took a number of weeks to emerge) but start here and revisit over the next few weeks. When it is right, the reaction from friends and family will be pretty clear, “yes that is definitely you”.

Take your pen out and write – My purpose is to…

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