When we stop listening to the inner voice that tells us who we are and what we value — that’s when we get stuck. When we allow the world to make our decisions for us, our to-do list transforms from planning tool to unwelcome tyrant. We feel busy, but we wonder, “Is this it? Where’s the excitement?”
Sure, we could ditch the day job to write the Great American Novel, or pack our bags for a Peace Corps adventure, but the truth is, we don’t have to go further than our own heart to find what fulfills us. Purpose is, after all, a process of decision-making, of matching your core values with what you do in your daily life.
When you define your purpose and commit to it, wonderful things become possible:
• A sense of integrity and consistency.
• A sense of being in the zone. Life becomes more navigable. Decisions become more intuitive. You wake up knowing what you want to do and why.
• A sense of value that what you do and who you are makes a difference in the world.
But what if you’re having trouble hearing that voice? Consider Kathy Miner, who had to step away from the din of the fashion industry to listen to hers. Then find a quiet spot (no need to leave your job) to work through our printable Purpose Practice Sheet to start listening to yours.
Tuning in to purpose
Kathy Miner was a serial entrepreneur. Twenty years ago, she found herself at a crossroads. Her career had given her money and success, but left her unhappy and emotionally bankrupt.
“When you’re finally in enough pain that you know you have to do something else, I think that’s really what moves you,” Kathy says. “I decided that whatever I did, I would give to the planet, to make some kind of contribution.” Yet, she says: “It wasn’t a drumroll or a light bulb. Just a voice that said, Choose.”
She had no clear idea of what she would do. But she knew that her core values were no longer in line with the “bumpy, unhealthy road” she’d found herself on. So she decided to move to a smaller apartment and began to pack up, intending to pare down and figure out her next move.
Then her inner voice pointed her toward an opportunity. Though she’d originally intended to hand off much of her business clothing to Goodwill, she instead decided to call the Salvation Army Gateway Program, a transitional housing facility for the homeless, to ask if they’d let her provide professional clothes and image counseling to women seeking employment.
This was a pivotal moment for Kathy. Without realizing it, what she chose was a way to combine her passion and professional expertise with her core desire to give. Once the program said yes, things happened fast. Kathy had neither money nor a plan, but she was driven by purpose — and, with that mindset, she found that she could make miracles happen. Friends generously opened their closets. Contacts in the apparel industry sent shipments of career clothing. Hairdressers donated salon services, and a local cosmetic company donated makeup.
“Figuring out how to help the poor without any money was the biggest challenge,” Kathy says, “but I was creative about getting what I wanted. Nothing was going to stop me.”
Kathy, then in her early 40s, would spend all week collecting clothes, writing grants, finding new clients, dressing and counseling them. On weekends, she’d put on her jeans and collect quarters from the 10 gumball machines she’d installed around town as a passive source of income. “It was the most wonderful time of my life,” she says. “I had nothing. I could not wait to get up in the morning.”
Kathy’s “maniac-with-a-mission” project eventually became the nonprofit, A Miner Miracle. Over 20 years, it would grow to include services for men, young adults, and homeless vets as well as a successful retail shop that functions as a fundraising vehicle to assist more than 15,000 low-income Bay Area individuals in their quest to reenter the workforce.
“It’s a conscious choice,” Kathy says. “My personal purpose to be a caring, giving person has to be expressed outside of me.” So when Kathy feels off-purpose? Her solution is to “go give to someone in need.”
Your purpose practice sheet
To help you define your purpose without leaving your job or home, we created a four-part worksheet. The reason for each section is explained below. All you’ll need is a pencil and a quiet space to think, feel, and listen to yourself.
1. Reflect on what you really value.
Reflection “helps you say no to the less important things that simply clutter up a life and yes to the more important things that define the purpose in life,” say Richard Leider and Alan Webber, authors of the new book Life Reimagined: Discovering Your New Life Possibilities. The questions in part one of the Practice Sheet ask you to consider your life from different perspectives to surface what is meaningful to you. Notice the patterns and motifs that emerge in your responses — that’s your inner voice speaking. It may be telling you that you value knowledge, or the spirit of adventure, or connection with others, or helping people be their best. Answer honestly to tune into what’s really true.
2. Match yourself to an opportunity.
An aha moment is just a term for when your core values meet a good opportunity to express them. When considering your options, let them run the whole range: Big and small, some that you’d need to stretch for, and others already in your own backyard. Then look for cross-connections with your values. When you let your values guide you toward an opportunity, you’ll be able to define your purpose.
3. Maximize/minimize what you need.
Any change in direction requires a change in resources. With a purpose in mind, you’ll need to add or increase some things, and remove or decrease others. Of course, there’s a lot of stuff in the daily grind that we don’t love doing (who really enjoys filling out a timesheet?) but are still necessary pieces of the larger puzzle. On the other hand, what else could you do with all those hours spent online reading blogs? Or the money spent keeping up with fashion trends? How can time and money become tools to express purpose? Is there a class you could take? (Coursera or Khan Academy offer hundreds of free online classes, ranging from coding to psychology.) Or an opportunity to travel, to indulge in a creative passion, or to volunteer? And, consider all the times you automatically say yes to others’ requests — what gets displaced on your personal to-do list as a result?
Tip: Your answers to part 1 will be helpful for making these lists.
4. Use your purpose to filter your future.
Knowing what your purpose is serves as a kind of divining rod for your life. It lets you zoom out and test choices against the bigger questions of what you want in life. It’s especially helpful when you find yourself distracted, overly busy, or uninspired, so we suggest you keep the “Filter by Purpose” questions on hand.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Purpose Practice Sheet
When your motivation is missing
Find out what’s blocking you and what will get you going again with our Spark Your Motivation Life Course — a deep dive into knowing yourself better.