‘The two most important days in your life,’ Mark Twain famously declared, ‘are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’
American author and life coach Richard Leider, widely considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject, defines purpose as ‘being in the right place with the people who matter to you, doing your life’s work’. For some people, he says in his bestselling The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better, finding your purpose in life is a spiritual concept, or has a religious dimension; for others, it’s a more secular notion, a need to be valued as a member of a family or group. ‘Not everyone feels the need for a philosophy of life purpose but we all need to be needed,’ he claims. ‘Purpose is fundamental. Mattering, ultimately, matters.’
Aside from purportedly being one of the great secrets to happiness, finding your purpose can also add years to your life, according to recent research published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Lead researcher, Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada, explains that finding a direction for life and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can actually help you live up to seven years longer than those who never find their purpose in life.
But, while a sense of purpose undeniably promotes physical, mental and spiritual health, precisely how one arrives at one’s true calling is an intricate and highly individual dance of discovery, one that has been meditated upon since the beginning of time. Here, then, are the insights of some of the world’s greatest writers, thinkers and personalities, contemplating the art-science of finding your purpose in life…
‘If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.’
Gain insight into what brings you the most joy, is what bishop TD Jakes of The Potter’s House, a non-denominational American megachurch, is advocating here. For accessing your true passion, your heart is undoubtedly your best tool. Ask yourself what you love most and takes steps to do it. When you lead from your heart, you are naturally more joyful and motivated to explore.
‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.’
Apple founder Steve Jobs understood the importance of questioning where you’ve come from in order to figure out where you’re heading. Examine what the successes and failures over the course of your life tell you about your life choices and their consequences. Doing so will show you when you’ve been in harmony with yourself and when you’ve not and will help you to both let go of a path that isn’t in sync with your true purpose and to take the leap of faith required to follow a new path.
‘I believe a purpose is something for which one is responsible; it’s not just divinely assigned.’
Actor Michael J Fox is here emphasising the fact that, in order to take control of your life, you need to take action. However uncomfortable it may be, you’ll only find your purpose if you weigh up the options and make actual decisions. They say that only dead fish continually swim downstream – it takes effort to face the current and to swim into it instead of simply being carried along by life. You’ve actually got to get your feet wet and your hands dirty.
‘The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.’
Eleanor Roosevelt advocates courage in finding one’s purpose and, indeed, fear can sometimes be the best guide to your choices and actions. Fear is an indicator that something truly matters to you and identifying what it is that scares you most can very quickly help you sort life’s priorities from its trivialities.
‘The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.’
The above statement, made by American psychiatrist and author David Viscott, echoes the sentiments of English author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson, a leading authority on education and creativity. According to Robinson, our ‘element’ is the point at which natural talent and skill meets personal passion. ‘When people are in their element,’ he says, ‘they are not only more productive, but they enjoy more personal and professional fulfillment and, ultimately, add more value to the lives of others.’
‘Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.’
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw knew that finding your purpose in life is the definitive creative opportunity and that the path to the destination is not always a straight one – we go down the wrong road, we get lost, we turn back, we try another. According to Leider, the endeavour becomes about ‘packing’ and ‘repacking’ one’s life – discarding ideas, thoughts, duties and old baggage in favour of packing the things you truly need to be at your best in life. And, in the end, maybe it doesn’t even matter which road you embark on. Maybe what matters is that you embark.