On my website, I make the following declaration:
You have a unique purpose that draws on the best within you and contributes to the world we share. How you fulfill that purpose may evolve throughout your life, and the role you are playing now may no longer fit at this stage of your journey.
One of my brothers, always suspicious of high falutin metaphysical ideas (they both are), asked me a couple of questions about this “purpose”. Was this purpose somehow hard-wired into you? Where did it come from? From God? Was it something we chose? Even if it exists, why do we have to pay attention to it?
Ever the artful coach, I replied: “Good questions!” I’ll elaborate a bit more right here. In case it isn’t obvious, I’ll also start with the disclaimer that this is all just my point of view.
I’ll start with a negative example. I have always had poor physical coordination, slow muscle response time and flat feet. The idea that my purpose might be sprinting (as in 100 meter race) would be just plain silly. But I’m pretty strong; so a stronger case could be made for, say, weight lifting. My first point is that, at the very least, our natural endowment sets bounds on our purpose options.
A lot has happened to you from the moment of conception to the person you are today. It has all contributed to who you are, for better or for worse. You planned or chose some of it (that degree in accounting, that marriage); some of it you don’t quite feel responsible for, but still recognize its formative influence (that car accident, that lottery win); much more you aren’t fully aware of (that odd dynamic with your mother, that frustrating experience when you were six months old). My second point is that the experience of life to date has further refined and complicated who you are.
A big piece of who you are is subconscious. Personally, I believe that the “you” you are aware of is only the tip of the iceberg. The part you aren’t aware of comes from various sources: life experiences, inheritance, deeper collective and spiritual sources. Not everyone buys into that whole list, but that’s not important in order to get to your life purpose. My third point is that we are more than the conscious part of ourselves.
Aristotle described the goal of life as happiness. I claim that true happiness comes from the harmonious functioning of all the conscious and subconscious parts of a person. That might require becoming more aware of the parts we don’t know well, and learning to love some of the parts we don’t want to accept. The choices and conditions that enable us to achieve that kind of happiness define our life purpose. My fourth point is that life purpose is doing it your way (cue the Frank Sinatra song here).
That last point might have been a bit surprising, because it seems to imply that there are a range of possible activities that could support any one person’s life purpose. And that’s exactly what I mean. From an inner perspective (i.e. psychologically), the critical whittling away at self understanding determines our purpose (how we are going to be). From an outer perspective, there are usually multiple optional roles and choices of venues for enabling the fulfillment of that purpose. So the point I really want to emphasize is that it’s an inside to outside question — figuring out the purpose is an inner activity that may often lead to a new perspective on the outer question. Too often we make the mistake of trying to tackle important outside questions (my spouse or my lover; my secure job or my fashion design fantasy; my family or my career) without making enough progress on self understanding, on understanding our purpose. So we end up making our decision based on the wrong criteria, and are surprised when familiar disappointments come up again in the future — all because we failed to tackle the inner purpose question.