Demystify Life Purpose: Pay Attention to Cues
In 2012, I watched the movie, Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two mothers who join forces to reform their children’s broken school. (Click the link for the trailer – you’ll love it). Being a teacher at heart, and one who started my career teaching in an inner-city school, I was immediately drawn to the movie. It never became a box office hit, but it moved me to tears, literally. And it moved me closer to discovering my purpose.
There is a line in the movie where Viola Davis (a teacher in the school) says her mother always asked her, “What are you going to do with your one and only life?” When I saw that scene in the movie and heard that line, it stopped me in my tracks. I paid attention. I paused the movie. With tears streaming down my face, I answered that question as though my mother had asked it of me. I said, “I want the world to know I’m here and I care.”
Purpose has always been something I’ve wondered about. My Christian teachings instilled in me that God created everyone on purpose and with a purpose. Thus, life purpose has been something that I saw as my responsibility to figure out. Like many, I’d say I was in search of it for years. It was not until I had an Aha! that purpose is not something out there that I finally started to get attuned to life’s cues and my inner knowing. For me, that movie was one of life’s cues. Purpose resides within. It’s when we come to know ourselves, be curious about the world, and explore our interests, that we discover or realize our purpose – or purposes. I realized we don’t have to manufacture purpose; it’s being formed or matured in us as we live our lives.
Why am I here?
If you wonder, why are you here, you’re not alone. Around mid-life, sometimes earlier, this question surfaces. I say surfaces because it’s been there all along, buried under layers of conditioning, waiting in line behind the other perennial question, Who am I?
When we ask, “Why am I here?” we’re seeking to know our purpose. Whether religious, spiritual, or secular, we want to know that our being here makes a difference. Intuitively, we know we’re not here just to go through the mechanics of living void of meaning. We are here for something bigger than ourselves.
We want to know our purpose because we don’t want to live below our capabilities. We don’t want to live a half-life, as poet Kahlil Gibran describes in his beautiful poem. And we don’t want to die with regret. We want to leave a mark that outlasts us and reminds generations to come that we were here, and we cared.
The first step is taking away the mystery of what life purpose is so that you can envision what it can be for you.
Life Purpose Defined
George Mason University professors Todd B. Kashdan and Patrick E. McKnight, researched life purpose and defined it in way that I believe demystifies the concept. They said:
Life purpose is: “a central, self-organizing life aim.”
“Central in that if present, purpose is a predominant theme of a person’s identity.”
Identity includes the qualities, personality, beliefs, and values that make a person who they are. I surmise that when we describe ourselves to others, not the titles and roles we layer on and occupy, but our true essence, we gain insight into our purpose. The professors wrote, “If we envision a person positioning descriptors of their personality on a dartboard, purpose would be near the innermost, concentric circle.” I opened by saying I’m a teacher at hear. It’s no surprise that my prevailing purpose is to help people believe in themselves, achieve their goals, and live their best lives.
“Purpose is self-organizing in that it provides a framework for systematic behavior patterns in everyday life.”
Purpose is a motivator for the goals we set, the actions we take, and how we spend our time and other resources. Reflect on how, when self-directed, you organize your life. What do you find yourself gravitating toward, paying attention to or thinking about? What are you usually doing when you lose track of time? Could it be a clue to your life purpose?
Kashdan and McKnight wrote, “A purpose motivates a person to dedicate resources in particular directions and toward particular goals and not others. That is, terminal goals and projects are an outgrowth of a purpose.”
Terminal goals are end goals as compared to instrumental (or enabling goals). Money, for example, is an instrumental goal – a means to an end. Using money for the purpose of attaining security, inner peace, or status may be the terminal goal.
“As a life aim, a purpose cannot be achieved. Instead, there are continual targets for efforts to be devoted.”
Purpose is not something you can check off your to-do list, hence life purpose. Purpose is perpetual.
Knowing your purpose leads to many benefits, such as, life integrity, satisfaction and fulfillment, inner peace and joy, longer life and better health.
I hope you found this article helpful to demystify life purpose and bring you closer to defining your life purpose. If it did, I’d love to hear from you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out these blogs: How to Live with More Joy, Purpose, and Fulfillment and Listening to the Voice Within.
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 Kashdan, Todd & Mcknight, Patrick. (2009). Origins of Purpose in Life: Refining our Understanding of a Life Well Lived. Psychological Topics. 18.