Finding Your Life Purpose:
10 Deep Questions to Help You Create a Wildly Fulfilling and Meaningful Life
BY NICK SENECA JANKEL
finding your life purpose, as the phrase implies, is usually accomplished by looking deep within to discover your essence. photo: greg rakozy
Connected, curious, and courageous, we can channel our energy into things that are meaningful and find meaning in things that trigger pain. We can focus our creativity on building a flourishing futureinstead of frittering it away maintaining patterns from the past. Our guiding light is our life purpose. We cannot thrive until we discover it; and we cannot fail to thrive as long as we align ourselves with it every day. Everyone has one, and each person’s is different. Lasting happiness can never come from achieving goals, no matter how audacious, because the glow from every success—whether it is winning Olympic gold or a golden Oscar—fades eventually. However, every problem we have is an opportunity to discover more about our purpose, providing us with a joy that shines brighter with every passing day.
You may think a lot, even worry a lot, about what you “should” do with your life. Should you keep your safe job or leave it to follow your bliss? Should you have a baby now or party hard? Should you make lots of money while you can or travel the world? Should you start a non-profit organization or change the system from inside it? It’s easy to trip out on questions like these, but they are the wrong questions to be asking if you want to thrive.
“Our guiding light is our purpose. We cannot thrive until we discover it.”
Your purpose has nothing to do with what you should do (or not). It is not about being right or wrong. It has nothing to do with what your parents think. It has nothing to do with being rich, respected, or famous. It’s not even about what you want or desire. Instead, your life purpose emanates clearly from your body/mind once it is free from patterns. It is your truth once you have reached peace within. Every time you hear yourself or others say “I should” or “I must,” you are hearing a story that pain has locked in place. Heal the pain and you are free to co-create a new story with the IS-ness of life, which can guide you to thrive for the rest of your days.
Purpose is not a big, hairy, or audacious goal. Instead, it is the way you can be each and every moment of each and every day that brings the most of your potential into the world. It is the glue that connects your brilliance with what your community needs most. Purpose is a conversation between your heart and the heartaches of the world. It is a bridge between your unique gifts and what the world wants most from you. You can’t second guess it with your head or force it to be something it isn’t with your hands. It may not be convenient, moneymaking, or safe. Many of your loved ones may not understand it. Some may resist it. Yet, it does not matter who thinks what about it. It is your truth.
No More “Shoulds”
Are you exhausted from running toward or away from the hopes and desires of your parents? Tired of benchmarking your success with that of your friends? Undecided whether to focus on fame and fortune or making a difference to society? Confused by competing myths spun by the media about what the good life is? Overwhelmed by just how much you could do with your talents? Unsure what following your bliss would even look like? Help is at hand. Or, rather, in your heart.
often times finding your life purpose requires a major leap of faith.
To find your life purpose, first you have to let go of all the patterns that have gotten in its way for years. Every time we ask ourselves, “What should I be doing right now?” we are letting the Protector dominate our lives. This is a question it (the Protector) likes to ask because the answer might reassure it that it is “right” and so we are safe. Being right, and righteous, is a trap our Tiny Me falls into when it desperately attempts to create certainty in a constantly changing world. It (the Tiny Me) reasons that if it finds the “right” thing, then everyone will love us, respect us, and appreciate us as we deserve. It reckons that if it works out what is “right,” then we won’t experience disappointment and disapproval again.
Our expectations around the kind of life we “should” lead are always driven by lack. The “shoulds” start early in life. Parents naturally want a better life for their kids than they believe they had. Education, money, power, fun, love . . . whatever they thought they lacked, they will urge their offspring to go out and seek. Teachers, friends, and the media then pile on the pressure for us to perform, even if they do it with the best of intentions. Most of their suggestions come from patterns created to defend against their own lack. Being young and impressionable, we pick up a load of these “shoulds” and start to live our life according to their rules. The “shoulds”—designed to defend against the pain of having no job, no money, no worth—become more bricks in the wall we put up as a front. We then use our career choices, relationship choices, life choices as evidence we are a “good” person or have done the “right” thing.
News flash: The world is in constant flux. There are never any absolutely right choices. This is a judgment based on some arbitrary belief system. There are just fitted ones, appropriate ones, which can be discerned by constantly paying attention to what is. “What “should” I be doing with my life?” is a worry of the Protector rather than a creative inquiry from the Connector. This way lies suffering. Instead, sense what fits the effervescent changes that are going on within you and outside of you. Over time, your life purpose will emerge. It is a conversation. If the old stories about what is “right” and “wrong” get in the way, you won’t be able to stay in tune with the chat. We have to stay in a biodynamic, responsive relationship with what is, not what our Tiny Me thinks “should” be.From the cauldron of love that resides in every healed heart, purpose pours forth like molten metal ready to transform the world. In the place of all those tiring “shoulds,” you unleash fresh insights and ideas that allow you to live fully—right now—in appropriate, fitted ways.
Free from “shoulds,” you are liberated to express yourself most creatively in the moment.
This doesn’t mean that, once you discover your life purpose, you will have life all neatly sorted out on an Excel spreadsheet. Far from it. Purpose is alive. You can’t control it. You can’t plan in detail how it’s going to work out. You just have to feel it and allow it to emerge from you, free from patterns. The trust you build each time you switch on allows you to live purposefully like this: Half in control, half out—at the edge of chaos.
“Free from ‘shoulds,’ you are liberated to express yourself most creatively in the moment.”
Purpose is who you are when you are free from being protective, fearful, or aggressive. It is the future pulling you into it, uniquely shaped by the experiences in your past. Your life purpose is something you cannot fail to be as long as you align yourself continuously with it, letting go of any bullshit that gets in its way. The patterns—the stories of should and must—will distort your clarity and deflect your purpose and leave you unable to thrive.
Finding My Place
For the first three decades of my life, I had no purpose. Or rather, I had one (because we all have one); I just had no idea what it was. So, making big decisions—about whether to stay or leave medical school or keep or shut down my (unethical) business—were tortuous. I had nothing solid to gauge anything against. It was like being a ball in a pinball machine, and everyone else’s ideals were the flippers. All the competing ideas of what I “should” do with my life created so much noise that I couldn’t hear the faint whispers of my life purpose calling me. I knew I must have one, yet I struggled to find it. This was frustrating, annoying, and often bewildering. It also meant I wasted my creative energies on things that just weren’t a good fit for me or for the world.
I had to give it all up to find it. I gave up a medical career (which offered instant kudos, social standing, and family respect). I gave up being a multi-millionaire (albeit on paper)—and the trappings of both fortune and entrepreneurial fame—when I exited the successful agency I had co-founded. I gave up being respected by my atheist friends and father when I became totally convinced of our oneness (and began to live my life from that realization). I gave up being admired by the global social change “scene” when I decided that rather than commit my life to treating the symptoms of a messed-up world, I would focus on dissolving the underlying drivers, the suffering that comes from separation, lack, and pain.
Once I had given it all up, I was ready to grok my purpose. Now, whenever my heart breaks with the suffering of those around me, my purpose shoots forth like a bolt of lightning. I know in these moments my place in this universe and what I was born to do. Every day I learn how to express it in new and ever-more relevant ways. It even gives me an empowering story that allows me to join the dots between my experiences as a bullied, fat, depressed kid; my family history of anti-Semitic suffering and Holocaust survival; the talents and creative, intellectual, and practical skills I have honed; and the rich experiences I’ve had in my life, both painful and pleasant. This empowering narrative allows me to metabolize problems consistently into opportunities and so unfold more of my life purpose.
Weaving a New Story
If all our old patterns are enshrined in stories that limit us, hooking us into blame, shame, and complain, our life purpose is a new story that opens up a world of possibility to us. The more of the old story we give up, the more of the new story we reveal. We have no idea how the story will play out, just that we are enacting it in the moment in constant, biodynamic interplay. By getting into the conversation that is purpose, we start to weave a tale that makes sense of the things that have happened to us; and how they can be meaningful for the problems we (and usually other people too) are having today. Here are two examples of people finding purpose in big problems. I have met both personally:
A brain tumor and its devastating physical impact…SWITCH ON…became the stimulus to give up a successful business and commit to being a wisdom teacher bringing more love and truth into the world (which then led to writing a book and more).
A terrorist bomb and the loss of both legs…SWITCH ON…became the stimulus to leave a job in marketing and be a proponent of peace in the world (which then led to the start of a social enterprise focused on peace-building).
No one can tell you that the new story you are weaving is “right” or “wrong,” least of all your parents or friends. That doesn’t mean to say that they can’t challenge you or give you useful feedback when you are off track, off purpose. But it does mean that it is always your choice how to make sense out of all your experiences, both painful and pleasant, so you can focus your attention meaningfully on the here and now. Only you can weave the story in which you are playing the lead role.
“We are all on a Hero’s Journey. Every problem we face is a call to adventure.”
In many myths and movies, the hero or heroine embarks on a journey to find a special object, such as the Golden Fleece or Holy Grail. It symbolizes the search for your life purpose. Joseph Campbell, in his magisterial study of myths called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, calls the object the “boon.” In epic tales, the world is in trouble. The hero/heroine must find a boon, which can save their people. What the world lacks the hero/heroine is called to discover inside before they get the reward. On the way, dragons and monsters must be overcome—symbols of our patterns, representations of our dark side. While we think we are watching the hero/heroine find the Ark or Excalibur, they are really learning about their purpose, which then helps them change the world.We are all on a Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey like this. Every problem we face is a call to adventure. Each problem we switch on to reveals another facet of our life purpose. As we chomp down on problems, metabolizing them within, we come back with many boons. Each is a plot line in the emerging story of our life’s purpose. It is up to us to join all the seemingly random dots in an empowering, nourishing, and energizing way that galvanizes us into action and adventure.
If you can’t tell an inspiring story about where you’ve come from and where you’re going to, nobody else will do it for you. Ask yourself:
+ Are you living out your life as a cameo role in the story of your parents?
+ Are you playing a bit part in the story of your teachers by agreeing that you are “bad” at mathematics or only “good” at sport?
+ Are you choosing a walk-on part in the capitalist story that you may not fully believe in?
+ Are you prepared to cast off any of these hackneyed tales to forge your own story, even if you can’t predict or control exactly how it will unfold?
If you have the courage to set off on one Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey after another, you will bring to life more of your purpose. From a haze of past experiences a powerful narrative will emerge. We thrive in the world to the extent that we can metabolize the things that happen to us into fresh threads for our emerging story.
The story is alive because you are alive. Treat it as a done deal and it quickly ossifies. While the gist of your story will stay consistent, the details will unfold in surprising ways, as you co-create your life with the Big U. This is like Picasso spending decades exploring, in painting after painting, what it means to be a Modernist or Cubist.
The more problems you metabolize, the more inspired your new story becomes. The world is always presenting us with problems, inviting us to switch on and let go of the assumptions that underpin the old world order. Perhaps the most famous story of this surrender is J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Unlike most epics, where the hero/heroine has to get something cool, Frodo has to find a way of getting rid of the ring of power, control, and domination. He has to relinquish the controlling nature of the Tiny Me to defeat evil and allow the world to be restored to a state of thriving.
Who Cares Wins
Purpose is the connection between the gifts of the Tiny Me (the part of us that has tangible skills and talents in the “real” world) and the ask of the Great We (what we as a community and planet are missing in some way). Our life purpose is always as much about the world—the people we love and the communities we live in—as it is about us.
Whereas, the Protector asks, “What do I need to stay safe?” the Connector (taking things much less personally) asks, “What can I do to share my gifts with the world?” The job description of the Connector is to collaborate, care, and contribute. It is always looking to help or heal others. However, this is not only about others; it is also about finding our sweet spot, our special sauce, where we blossom. If we are on purpose, then both we and the people around us start to thrive.
Rather beautifully, nature has conspired to make service as enjoyable and beneficial to the giver as it is to the receiver. When we contribute, oxytocin is released, which deepens our relationships and inhibits stress. Giving can stimulate our immune system and give us the kind of dopamine-fuelled buzz we get from eating chocolate.
“Our happiness is massively dependent on how we connect with, and contribute, to others.”
Our happiness is massively dependent on how we connect with, and contribute, to others. In a survey of 200,000 adults across 136 nations, people who gave to others were the happiest. That was true whether they lived in rich countries or impoverished ones. When we care, we get a boost to our happiness levels equivalent to someone doubling our income overnight. Being of service to others can even extend life expectancy and boost health! Caring for others can be more important than having self-esteem when it comes to our own success. Being self-centered also costs us a lot of energy, as we have to keep fighting our natural desire to contribute, which kicks us out of flow.
However, we must find a balance between giving to others and nourishing ourselves. Purpose needs to be grounded in our wellbeing as well as that of others. We have to keep rooted and resourced. The Connector wants to give but if we become sick, we are no use to anyone. If you find yourself becoming addicted to giving in some way, it’s probably a pattern (for example, one that tries to have people like you because you are “nice”). Drop it and come back to your life purpose. The last thing you want to do is be so committed to others that you neglect your own health and happiness, and that of your loved ones. The world wants us vibrant and vital. Giving must flow from the power and energy of the Great We, as opposed to the limited Tiny Me, which soon runs out of puff.
Compassion, service, and generosity are only authentically of service to the world when they come from the heart and not the head. Don’t be of service because you think it is “right.” Don’t do it to make people like you. Don’t do it because someone has told you that you “should.” The moment you flip back into doing it to get something out of it, you blow it. The Tiny Me, driven by the Protector, will always try and hijack our good works to make up for what it thinks it lacks. Only the Connector can give freely without needing something back, because it already has everything it needs within.Be of service because it comes gushing out of you, because it is inevitable. Do it because it is who you truly are. Do it because, if you aren’t of service, you can’t be your truth. Then it will be serving you as much as others, even if it is not done with that intent. This resonates with the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which means “I am what I am because of who we all are.” I was struck powerfully by this life philosophy when I worked as a science teacher in rural Zimbabwe, aged 18. All of us live in a complex network of people and places, whether we can see it or not. We are all interdependent. Ubuntu says that our joy is inescapably dependent on the joy of others. When we serve others and collaborate authentically, from love not strategy, we thrive collectively. Purpose is how we connect with the world most effortlessly in love, truth, and creativity; with heart, head, and hands all opened up to what is possible.
Purpose isn’t a career choice, brand vision, or goal. It is how you care and share at any time, with anyone. It may involve winning a Pulitzer Prize, yet it’s just as likely to involve looking out for the people we love, expressing ourselves freely when we feel stuck, or discovering how to be better friends and parents. Yes, you may have big dreams. You might have a vision for a business empire or want to make a great movie. You might be desperate to start a family or fired up to end world poverty. Yet none of these are your life purpose. These are big, hairy, audacious goals and we’ll be looking at how to find and bring them to life next. Purpose may inspire them, help define and refine them . . . yet it is not them.
Purpose can fuel an enterprise or a project, but it is just as much at home in the line for the restroom at a nightclub; in the middle of a dull meeting; getting the kids ready for school; or on a first date. The more practiced you are at allowing purpose to flow, when the shit hits the fan, you will be ready to serve others as opposed to play out strategies and patterns.
When you let go of all the “shoulds,” you will almost certainly discover that your purpose amplifies one of: playing, experimenting, creating, learning, sharing, loving, caring, teaching, transforming, adventuring, or healing. These are all ways to contribute to the flourishing of others while blossoming yourself.
Free from doubts and fears, cynicism and self-criticism, your life purpose is the sum total of every bit of love and wisdom you have gleaned from your life experiences, mixed with the skills and talents that you have honed through engaging with them wholeheartedly. All of it is then distilled down to a tiny drop of pure essence, which you express as the moment sees fit. Your most intense life experiences leave an imprint in your body/mind, like a garment stained and stretched from being worn. Rather than attempting to scrub out the marks, you can harness them. Your scars become beauty spots, your greatest assets. This essence percolates through your entire body/mind, bubbling up into every experience.
Your life purpose is who you are when you feel most alive, most of use, most awake. This is not necessarily the same as when you feel most approved of. If you think your life purpose is to make lots of cash, be famous or win something, it just means the Protector is doing the talking. Thank it for its contribution and help secure it by appreciating it for trying to protect you. Then ask your Connector for the real answers. It knows your purpose inside out. In fact, it has always known. Purpose, love-in-action, is the energy that animates it. It’s the part of you that has led you to heal, gain insight, and take risks to get you to where you are.
Your life purpose is unique to you. It cannot be right or wrong and it certainly cannot be better or worse than anyone else’s. Purpose is your creative spirit, free from blockages and limitations, as it engages with life and helps you and others thrive. It is exultant, powerful, and inexhaustible. The only person who can stop you from letting it out is you.
“Your scars become beauty spots, your greatest assets.”
Don’t worry if you can’t define your life purpose in words. Having the exact words to describe your purpose is not nearly as important as feeling it burn like a flame within. As long as you feel your purpose inside, you’ll know whether you’re “on purpose” or “off purpose.” When you feel on purpose, it radiates out through your feelings (heart), thoughts (head), and actions (hands). Just as when a baseball connects with a ball, every time you make a choice how to be or behave, either you feel a “meh”—this is off purpose—or you feel a “schweet!” If you can feel that sweet spot, you are on purpose. You can find your sweet spot no matter what curve balls come at you.
What Will You Do With Your Purpose?
Think about your day today. What did you do when were you on purpose? What about when you were off purpose? No matter what your actual career or trade, whether you are unemployed or a hotshot executive, stay-at-home parent or a traveler, your life purpose will help you create meaning out of every moment.
You don’t get to choose your life purpose. It is the result of the unfathomably complex interplay between genes, experiences, upbringing, and environment. But you do get to choose what you do with it.
If your purpose is to do with play, you could start to introduce a cheeky “get to know you” game at the office and bring things to life a little. If your life purpose is to do with family, you could work to create more trust and community within your team. If your purpose is about healing the world, you could help your roommates understand why recycling is important (without judgment of course). Anything at all can become fundamentally meaningful and purposeful if you choose it to be.
If you (or rather your Tiny Me) ever think that your circumstances are just too awful for your life purpose to engage with them, then the Oscar-winning movie Life is Beautiful is an awesome inspiration. The hero, played by Roberto Benigni, is a man whose imagination and playfulness radiates from him. His purpose is to make people laugh, smile, and see beauty in life. Facing imminent death, he focuses on making his son laugh, even as their Nazi captors are preparing to kill them both. Now that’s living purposefully.
Living purposefully doesn’t mean that life will suddenly be “easy” though. Your purpose may compel you to change how you act inside your home or in your workplace. It may influence the projects you invest in; even how you like to spend your vacations. Our life purpose is rarely convenient. Often it is not even socially acceptable.
You don’t have to share your purpose with anyone. But, if you do, it’s not unusual to share it with passion and conviction, only to find the people around you responding to your beaming face with looks of disbelief or downright fear. Our loved ones may not get it at first. In reality, they may never get it. People who haven’t found their life purpose, and who don’t feel deeply connected to themselves, are often challenged by those who live purposefully. It can freak them out. Change can be extremely threatening, so it’s important to empathize with your loved ones and allow them time to adjust to your higher frequency lifestyle. It may take a while.
Whether people around you get it or not, they are not you, and you cannot live your life for them (and they can’t live theirs through you). This doesn’t mean being selfish or ignoring your duties. It means finding how to join up all the competing needs in your life within a purpose story that comes from your truth, from your connection to the Big U, and nothing else.
Whatever you do, don’t bend to others’ opinions when it comes to your life’s purpose. Of course, feedback from other people is always useful and coaching can help you to find your blind spots, pesky assumptions, or resistance. But ignoring your life purpose brings with it the most excruciating suffering a human being can know. To choose not to express your unique essence, your role in service of the Great We, guarantees that you will suffer. A searing definition of hell is coming to the end of your life and meeting the person you could have been, if you’d followed your purpose.
“To choose not to express your unique essence, your role in service of the Great We, guarantees that you will suffer.”
Please don’t sell yourself out because other people aren’t able to get or appreciate your vibrancy. Trust yourself. Trust the Connector. As long as you live your purpose each day, you’ll stay fitted, awake and thriving.
Now, with all this mojo rising, what do you want to create?
Switched Off: Purpose is a myth because life is inherently meaningless. The right thing to do is to be rich/famous/professional/educated/ethical/hedonistic/world-changing (delete as appropriate).
Switched On: Purpose is revealed when we release our patterns and express our essence. Purpose allows us to make meaning out of even the harshest experiences. By contributing to the wellbeing of others, we enact an empowering narrative of growth, learning, and thriving.
Switch On Now: 10 Deep Questions to Help You Find Your Life Purpose
So, right now, get your Connector into the mix. Breathe. Relax. Maybe close your eyes. Choose to switch on. Trust and surrender as much as you can.
Heart: Feel into your emotions, all the way through your body/mind. Breathe away any fears or upsets, shoulds or musts.
1. Over the last seven days, what moments have given you feelings of great love, deep satisfaction, or purpose?
2. Over the last month, when have you felt most switched on? What were you doing? Who were you being?
3. Over the last six months, when have you felt most alive and electrified? What were you doing? Who were you being?
4. Head: What are the greatest problems you have encountered in your life? In overcoming them, what talents, gifts, and ideas have you developed?
5. What do you want your epitaph to be?
6. What do you want your grandkids to say about you?
7. Hands: Letting go of any shoulds or musts, thinking across an average day, what activities most inspire you?
8. What about when you were a kid, before any seriousness or ambition snuck in? Which memories most electrify your body/mind when you think of them?
9. If I have been put on this planet by aliens to use all my insights, experiences, and gifts to bring more love to the world, what would I do each day?
10. If I never had to work again and everybody adored me as I am, what would I spend my days doing to feel most fulfilled and most alive?
This article on finding your life purpose is excerpted with permission from Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity and Thrive with the New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough by Nick Seneca Jankel.
About The Author
Nick Seneca Jankel, the author of Switch On, is a 21st Century shaman who has helped over 50,000 individuals, hundreds of world-class organizations, a number of national governments and millions of TV viewers across the globe to “switch on” so they can breakthrough real challenges and thrive. Nick is a Cambridge-educated scientist, wisdom teacher and practical philosopher and world-renowned innovation and leadership expert. Visit his website: ripeandready.com