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Making Moments Count: How to Recognize and Claim Your Life Purpose

February 29, 2016

After I graduated from medical school, I began my training to become a physician. I had always wanted to help others, and I believed this was the way I would do it. Soon after I began the training, I realized that despite my desire to connect with patients, the daily work was not for me. I dreaded emergencies, couldn’t wait to leave after each shift, and developed an ulcer. I quit and entered a professional hibernation. For the next few years, I raised my children. I loved being with them, but always at the back of my mind was the thought, “Is this all there is?”
-Deb, age 45, coach

Here’s what I believe: that you matter, and that you can contribute meaningfully to the people and world around you in a unique way. In other words, you have a purpose. Given that you are living and that you have a purpose, it seems reasonable to claim that you have a “life purpose.”

Interestingly, though, most of the people I talk with don’t initially relate to the term “life purpose.” They believe that life purpose is a specific career or a lofty accomplishment that one aspires to achieve. When I interview people and ask them what life purpose means, they say:

“That’s a loaded question. I think I’m a good person, but I don’t have a life purpose.”

“It’s too big. It’s not relatable.”

“I don’t feel yet like I am living my life purpose. I feel like it is somewhere ‘out there’. I imagine that when I find my life purpose, things will be easy.”

“It makes me think of a big accomplishment that is unattainable, like curing cancer.”

After I ask people about their life purpose, I ask them about the phrase “living on purpose.” People usually quickly respond, saying, “Oh, that is different.” In contrast to life purpose, they see living on purpose as a reason one does certain daily activities. It involves connecting with the meaning in life, whether at a job or volunteer position, with family or friends. When asked to define this phrase, people say:

“Living on purpose means something active, living moment by moment. It is in my grasp.”

“It is being mindful and present, and interacting with people in that way.”

“Living on purpose means being mindful, thoughtful, and conscious of what I am doing each day. It feels good.”

“It’s being intentional and looking back at the end of each day and not feeling wasteful.”

Here’s what you need to know, though: life purpose and living on purpose are absolutely connected. You can’t have one without the other. They are both about you and how you interact with the world each day and during the years of your life. In fact, when I later question people about how life purpose and living on purpose are connected, they come to see a connection. They say:

“If I am living on purpose by being fulfilled in this moment, then I am living my life purpose.”

“Living on purpose adds up to the sum of my life purpose.”

“I can’t do one without the other. If I am not mindful and living on purpose, then I am not living my life purpose.”

“By verbalizing and vocalizing my life purpose, it allows me to live on purpose.”

In this chapter, we will explore life purpose, what it means, how you can connect with your purpose, and how you can find more purpose in your daily life. My wish for you is that, by the end of this chapter, you will be able to answer the question, “How am I living purposefully today?”

You’ll notice that I use the terms life purpose and living on purpose interchangeably in this chapter. That’s a deliberate choice, to remind you that when you live on purpose, you are living your life purpose.

When you live on purpose, you are living your life purpose.

What Does “Life Purpose” Mean, Anyway?

Life purpose is living in a way that feels alive, exciting, and meaningful. It means having a sense of your unique gifts and using them in a way that positively affects the people and world around you.

Life purpose is not a specific achievement or career title; it is also not one single thing. Life purpose is multidimensional and multi-faceted, similar to a diamond that has many sides. All of the sides of the diamond matter, as they all contribute to its brilliance. You can have a purpose professionally and within your family, as purpose is about your way of interacting with the world.

Life purpose can also evolve over time. Although aspects of your life purpose might be constant, the entirety of your life purpose can and will shift over time. As we continue to fine-tune our strengths and add to our knowledge about ourselves, what we enjoy, and what we are good at, our life purpose will deepen and become clearer.

A person’s life purpose is also different than a life goal. Here’s an example. Suppose your friend has been talking about climbing a mountain her whole life. You might wonder, “Wouldn’t that be considered a life purpose?”

Although an impressive accomplishment, climbing that mountain would be a life goal. Life goals are often aligned with a person’s life purpose and stem naturally when people live on purpose. Rather than achieving a goal, however, life purpose is how you live in the world. For instance, this woman’s life purpose might be championing others to take on challenges, being a passionate athlete, or advocating for the environment.

My life purpose right now is to help people feel well and tap into their ability to heal themselves. My clients go out into the world as a beacon of health and happiness and inspire others. There’s a trickle-down effect as their friends and family see that being healthy and happy is an option.
– Ann, age 47, Holistic Health and Wellness Coach

Why Talk About Life Purpose?

Recognizing and connecting with the purpose in your life is critical. Let’s face it, many things in today’s world are scary, overwhelming, and downright depressing. When you feel lost or unsure, your purpose can guide you. Knowing what drives you and what matters most can help you make choices about work, family, and life that are right for you.

You can think of your purpose like a hand-held metal detector you might see people using at a beach or in the woods to scan for objects buried under the ground. Just like a metal detector points you to possible buried treasure, your internal purpose guides you to conversations, activities, and work that are most meaningful to you.

  • When we have a sense of purpose in what we are doing or how we are being with others, we:
  • Feel like our lives have more meaning and direction
  • Are happier
  • Are excited about our work
  • Balance work and family life better
  • Are kinder and more compassionate with ourselves and others

When we don’t have a sense of purpose in what we are doing, and when we feel like what we are doing is pointless or unappreciated, we often:

  • Feel resentful or depressed
  • Are less compassionate with ourselves and others
  • Spend a lot of time thinking about the past or worrying about the future
  • Engage in mind-numbing activities, such as watching TV and surfing the internet
  • Close ourselves off emotionally

When you have purpose in your life, you are more likely to feel happier and kinder to yourself and others.

Tools To Clarify Your Purpose

Now that we have talked about why purpose matters, it’s time to start recognizing and claiming your life purpose. To help my clients get started, I like to use the Detective Approach. You know how detectives are really curious? It’s time for you to get curious about your own life.

First, find a comfortable place where you can sit and write. You can write your answers in this book, in a journal, on your phone, or on your computer. You are going to play the role of detective and get curious about your life and what makes you tick. Most importantly, you are going to do this without judgment. This bears repeating: YOU NOT ALLOWED TO JUDGE YOURSELF DURING THESE EXERCISES!

Ask yourself the following questions one at a time and write down your answers:

  • When was a recent time that I felt excited and passionate about what I was doing?
  • What was I doing?
  • What part of this was most meaningful to me?
  • What was the impact I had on the people or world around me?
  • When I wake up in the morning, what I am excited to do?
  • When does time seem to fly for me?
  • What have I created in my life that I am proud of?

Great job! You are off to a solid start. After you have interviewed yourself, it is time to interview other people. Just like real detectives interview witnesses to get their points of view, you will get some different perspectives about your life.

Choose one or two people who know you well and with whom you would feel comfortable talking about these things. Call them or meet with them and ask the following questions. Be sure to write down the answers. Ask them:

  • When do you see me being most excited and happy?
  • What have I done that you admire?
  • What do you appreciate about me?

I left a job that was not life-giving for me and decided to take some time as a stay-at-home parent after having my first child. I am still on a journey to find out what my life purpose is.
To figure it out, I use logic and facts, and I also listen to what my gut tells me. As I think about decisions I’m making or try new things, I ask myself, “Does this fit you? Is this who you are?”
-Lora, age 37, Stay-At-Home Parent

Claiming Your Purpose

It’s time to review the information you have gathered from your investigating and imagining. Let’s pretend all of this material you’ve gathered is “data.” Just like scientists, let’s review what you wrote down to see what jumps out at you.

  • What patterns do you see in your data?
  • What words came up over and over?
  • What have you learned about what makes you feel purposeful?

Now, summarize your findings and fill in the following statement:
I feel the most present, happy, excited, fulfilled, and purposeful when I ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬______________________.

I started living life on purpose by being intentional…intentional with my words, with the food I was eating, with my relationships, and with exercise. By being intentional, I am present, and am much less likely to over-glorify the past or overanalyze the future. When I feel my thoughts start to spiral out of control, I capture that thought and replace it with one focusing on what I am grateful for right now in this moment.
-Elizabeth, age 25, Graduate Student and Fitness Instructor

Now What?

Hopefully by now you’ve learned something about your purpose…what lights you up and how you find meaning in your everyday life. You might be wondering, “What now?”

First, keep refining your purpose. Remember when I said that your purpose is constantly evolving? Action helps you find new things that you enjoy and are good at. A former client of mine said, “It’s tough to figure out life by thinking. You need to dabble and become active to find out what you are passionate about.” I completely agree! We learn about ourselves by stepping out of our comfort zone and trying new things.

How to put this into action: Give yourself permission to try something completely new. You might sign up for a class that sounds interesting, start a blog and write your first blog post, volunteer in your community, or tag along with a friend to his or her favorite activity.

You can hold yourself accountable by choosing a date to complete this new thing by, and writing it in your calendar. Then, DO IT, have fun, and see what you learn about yourself.

Give yourself permission to try something completely new to learn more about you.

Second, connect with the purpose in your day-to-day life. You can find purpose in your daily life, in the work and activities you do already. All this requires is that you be mindful and intentional. It requires you to pause and take stock during the day, to look at your life from a new perspective.

For example, let’s say that genuine connections with others fill you with purpose. Where are the connections that you can deepen in your everyday life?

How to put this into action: Every day, whether at work, or with family and friends, make an effort to pause a few times during the day. Look up from what you are doing and ask yourself, “How am I living purposefully right now?”

You might want to incorporate a daily practice of connecting with your purpose. Before you go to bed each night, ask yourself, “What’s one way that I lived on purpose today?”

Ask yourself every day, “How did I live on purpose today?”

My Hope for You

It is my hope that you will grow to be more connected to the purpose in your life, and, consequently, to the thought that you matter deeply in this world. I believe that as you live more purposefully every day, you will feel happier, more fulfilled, and more connected to the people around you.

Living on purpose will create new pathways for your life that you haven’t yet imagined. Purposeful living opens up your thinking to new ideas, new things to try, and new ways to be. And even though I don’t know exactly what your future holds, I do know that when you consciously choose to claim the purpose in your life, exciting possibilities will open up. Enjoy the journey, as you see where your purpose takes you.

After I left medicine, I built a career as a freelance writer. The work was fine, but it was not fulfilling. Eventually, I decided it was time to find more meaning in my life. A coach whom I admired encouraged me to sign up for coaching training. After the first weekend of classes, I was transformed. I reconnected with my desire to deeply connect with others. I learned that I am passionate about helping others recognize and harness their strengths. Now, every time I coach a client, I am living my life purpose.
-Deb, age 45, Coach

Deb Elbaum, MD, CPCC, ACC is a certified career and life coach who works with professionals who are navigating career transition or growing their business, women who are reentering the workforce, and individuals who are seeking more purpose in life. Before becoming a coach, Deb was trained as a physician and worked as a medical writer for organizations including UpToDate® and the Massachusetts Medical Society. Having successfully managed her own professional transitions, she brings enthusiasm and focus to her clients as they envision, clarify, and achieve their goals.
In addition to being a coach, writer, speaker, wife, and mother, Deb is a Founding Fellow at the Harvard Medical School-affiliated Institute of Coaching, a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering quality research on coaching. She is also a coach and workshop presenter for the Institute for Career Transitions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an organization supporting long-term unemployed individuals. Her bachelor’s degree in psychology is from Harvard University, her MD degree is from the University of Pennsylvania, and her coaching training and certification is from the Coaches Training Institute. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three children, ages 18, 15, and 9. Learn more about Deb at
www.DebElbaum.com or email: Deb@DebElbaum.com.

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