Your Purpose is Not a What

We are a people obsessed with purpose.

We want to arrive at a place of meaning in our lives and with our work, and feel it’s all connected to something greater. We want to believe that we’re here for something bigger than a paycheck and phone bills.

In our quest for this feeling of deeper meaning, of purpose, we hyper-focus on what we do.

This is normal enough. I mean, the first thing somebody asks us at a cocktail party is (usually), “So what do you do?”.

But what you do - your actions - is fickle.

Tell me what you believed your purpose was based on your actions at 19, and I bet it’s not the same set of beliefs or actions today.

Maybe at 19 you loved manatees and wanted to preserve their welfare. So you marched on Washington, became vegetarian and badgered every person within a stone’s throw about signing your Save the Manatee’s petition. You went on to get a degree in Marine Biology and studied Manatees and their habitat. And today, you sit in a lab and analyze microbic squiggles under a microscope to monitor the toxicity levels in the Manatee’s environment.

Very different actions – very different doing. Same purpose.

Your what is just the end point. It’s the thing you do as a result of other, more deeply personal, choices. The what is just the final expression of your soul’s desire. (tw)

So, the what of your purpose is not what we’re after here.

I’m interested in the behind the scenes elements – oft ignored and forgotten - that culminate in the what.

Let me use a real-life example to illustrate:

A couple years ago I was guiding a small group of high school students on a work-volunteer trip in Peru. As we dug holes and poured cement for a playground, the conversation was often focused on the many possibilities for their future and what they wanted to do. 

At first, I just listened.

I heard about all the what’s of their plans - mainly what colleges they wanted to go to and what majors they were considering. Plus, what activities they’d sign up for to land in the careers they’d someday have.

All this planning and they were just 17.

Then one day one of the young women asked me what I thought she should do.

She thought she should be pediatrician – she loved children and was good at math and science. Everybody was encouraging her to make her choices about college based on this future what. And so, she expected an answer from me like all the others she’d heard.

Instead of giving her the prescribed adult answer, I asked, “When you think of your future, what kind of life do you want to live?"

Blink. Blink. 

Then I asked, "Ok, so what does your ideal future life look like? How do you want to feel?”

Blink. Blink.


You see, she had been asked so often what her what’s were (I think it starts in pre-school these days) that she hadn’t stopped to consider the underpinnings of her decisions.

So I took her through more questions, many that she couldn’t answer. I never expected her to. They’re big questions that even us seasoned adults who’ve had time to try on a few hats have a tough time answering. 

Questions like, 

* What are your core values? 

How do you want to spend your time – at work, at home, socially, and in leisure?

* What do you enjoy doing so much that you lose track of time? (and how can that be monetized?)

What I wanted was to give her the opportunity to align with her vision, values, preferences, strengths, unique talents at an early age – much earlier than I did. Or most of us, for that matter.

As I see it, your purpose in life is to peel away all the layers of what-ness to keep moving closer to your why. (tw)

As the poet David Whyte said: 

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.