You Don’t Find Your Purpose – You Build It

In the search for purpose, sources of meaning can and do change over time.

John Coleman | Harvard Business Review

We’re all looking for purpose. Most of us feel that we’ve never found it, we’ve lost it or in some way we’re falling short.

What makes things more difficult is that we often carry some fundamental misconceptions about it. Challenging them is essential in developing a more rounded vision of purpose.

Here are the most common:

Purpose is only a thing you find.

It’s the “Hollywood version” of purpose: Like Neo in “The Matrix,” we’re all just moving through life waiting until fate delivers a higher calling.

Make no mistake: That can happen, at least in some form. But for the average 40 year old in an unfulfilling job searching for the silver bullet to give life meaning, frustration is more likely than fulfillment.

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Almost any work can possess remarkable purpose.

In achieving professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it. Put differently, purpose is a thing you build, not a thing you find. Almost any work can possess remarkable purpose.

In many cases, purpose can be derived from focusing on what’s so meaningful and purposeful about the job and on doing it in such a way that such the meaning is enhanced and takes center stage. Sure, some jobs more naturally lend themselves to senses of meaning, but many require at least some deliberate effort to invest them with the purpose we seek.

Purpose is a single thing.

Some people genuinely do seem to have an overwhelming purpose in their lives. Mother Teresa lived her life to serve the poor. Marie Curie devoted her energy to her work.

And yet even these luminaries had other sources of purpose in their lives. Mother Teresa served the poor as part of what she believed was a higher calling. Curie was also a devoted wife and mother.

Most of us will have multiple sources of purpose in our lives. I find purpose in my children, my marriage, my faith, my writing, my work and my community. It’s not purpose but purposes we are looking for – the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives.

Purpose is stable over time.

It’s common now for people to have multiple careers in their lifetimes. Most of us will experience personal phases in which our sources of meaning change.

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We should be looking to endow everything we do with purpose.

This evolution in our sources of purpose isn’t flaky or demonstrative of a lack of commitment but natural and good. Just as we all find meaning in multiple places, the sources of that meaning can and do change over time.

How do you find your purpose? That’s the wrong question to ask. We should be looking to endow everything we do with purpose, to allow for the multiple sources of meaning that will naturally develop in our lives and to be comfortable with those changing over time.

This article first appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

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John Coleman is a co-author of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. His work has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, the Washington Post and Bloomberg Businessweek.

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