At some point in your life, I hope you’ll ask the question either “what is my purpose?” or “what is the purpose of life?” They are the most important questions you can ask, since it indicates you have some sense that life has meaning other than that we are born, we work from nine-to-five, we acquire some things, we have a little fun, and then we die.
If you should first of all ask me the question “does life have a purpose?”, then my answer will be a resounding “YES!”. It’s irrelevant whether life really does have a purpose or whether we just choose to believe it does, because ultimately we are more satisfied when we are living a purposeful life than when we are not.
So what is your life purpose? It’s quite simple: it is to live a life of purpose.
What is your purpose? Very simply, it is taking what you love and making a difference; to make the world a better place by doing something we love. You may not even be very good at the thing that you’re passionate about, although almost certainly you will become good at it if you love it enough.
Finding your purpose though, and then living it, still seems to elude most of us. Even when we think we have it clear in our heads, it will escape sometimes and even trick us into thinking that wasn’t ‘it’ after all, that something else is ‘it’.
So there’s finding your purpose, and then there’s holding onto it.
In school we’re given the resources we need to pass exams to gain our high school qualifications. We are encouraged to think about what we’re interested in and what we’d like to be when we leave school. If we don’t think we’re cut out for university or we’re not interested in university, then most likely we’re encouraged to get a job. If we do have some sense of a career – one that involves tertiary study – we are rarely if ever shown or told about this in terms of purpose. Job or career are the overarching terms in use. And that’s not surprising since purpose has connotations that are not generally a part of the lexicon of modern education or job and career-seeking.
Purpose goes beyond just what you’re interested in. I’m interested in photography, but I don’t want a career in it since it has no sense of purpose attached to it for me. I enjoy it, I appreciate it, I could even be quite good at it, but it’s not my purpose. It will be someone’s purpose – lots of people – but it’s not mine.
Holding many of us back is that on the way to achieving our purpose we all still have to pay bills, put food on the table, meet our obligations to our children, our communities and so on. This frequently – in fact almost always at some point – necessitates us having to do work that is not our purpose especially, but that supports us while we’re going about working towards other goals. So it’s worthwhile taking the view that if it is getting us to where we want to be in some way, shape or form, it also forms a part of our purpose and there is little point in resenting it or hating it, even if we believe it is menial work that is somehow beneath us.
Actually there is no work that is beneath anyone; at least that is one important perspective to consider. As long as you take a negative attitude towards the work you do, you will find it takes you longer to escape that work. Your purpose will unfold with the positivity you put into your daily world. If you practice happiness, you will move more quickly towards your larger goals. If you understand that the work you do now is helping you along the path towards your greater goals then you will appreciate it, you will be better at it, you will be happier with it, and you will move more speedily in the direction of your dreams.
Unless we’re fortunate enough to have some very unique kind of education or upbringing that teaches us we need to find our purpose, then we will usually come to this concept of purpose from one or both of two particular directions: either we have just always known that we have a purpose; or we experience increasing frustration from the work we are doing, or from the nature of life about us and the stage of life we’re at, and eventually hit on the idea that we lack purpose and we’d like to have some.
Whichever direction we come at it, we usually experience the need for purpose as a spiritual need. And by spiritual I do not mean religious, although for many these two are intertwined. By spiritual, I am referring to a need for self-fulfilment – what Abraham Maslow would refer to as self-actualization – that will often combine with a desire to make a contribution or to be of service in the world. It is a deep-seated need that arises from within and goes beyond intellectual or emotional fulfilment.
Maslow says “what a man can be, he must be” and describes self-actualization in terms of achieving all that one can. I believe the desire for purpose goes beyond mere achievement and requires a connection to a higher self, to God, to the Universe, to destiny, or any similar concept that draws you into a realm that is greater than yourself. When I refer to mere achievement, I don’t mean to say that achievements are not things to attain to; en route to achieving purpose we may complete a university degree, travel overseas, win an art competition, get married, get published in a prestigious journal, have a baby, and much more… all achievements that may bring satisfaction and pride. Such achievements may or may not bring with them a sense of purpose though, or they may bring a greater or lesser sense of purpose.
Possibly, once you have come to this idea of needing a purpose, you may feel this as quite an urgency. You may even feel frustrated or depressed at not having a purpose or not being able to figure out what your purpose is. Definitely do everything you can to keep anxiety or frustration or depression from creeping in; none of these things will help you in uncovering your purpose, and in fact they will act as obstacles.
There is no doubt in my mind that we, each of us as human beings, have purpose. I’ve not always been without doubt, but mostly I can say I’ve courted my doubts with a view to questioning my beliefs and where I’ve got to in my understanding; something I’ve tried to do throughout my life. I don’t hold firmly to my beliefs in the sense that they define me; it is more the case that I have become aware of certain truths, and then only because my limited human senses grasp some small part of something far more complex than my tiny mind can know in full. I think this is the nature of much of what we think of as universal truths; some people with one view see one part of it and some people see some other part, and the groups can argue black and blue for generations because they think their limited minds have grasped the whole truth when actually this is very rare. Those that have a larger view of any particular truth never fight about it. So in this regard I don’t have beliefs so much as I have some things I’ve seen and understood and am sharing. Because my experience of the world and of learning has been reasonably broad and open, I believe I have a reasonably useful view that’s worth sharing and you should feel free to take from it whatever works for you and discard that which doesn’t.
This knowledge and work with Purpose has emerged from several areas of research and points of learning, and in large part from my experience teaching, talking to and coaching others in the pursuit of their purpose over several years. My own pursuit of purpose has been a journey of many years; aided by the instruction I’ve received from coaches and spiritual teachers around the world. I don’t know everything there is to know about purpose, but it’s a worthwhile amount and I’ve structured some of this into my online course “Living a Life of Purpose” at www.suefitzmaurice.com/purpose. Once this makes sense and you have absorbed this into your understanding, there will be more; so much more.
My experience in teaching and coaching on the topic of purpose has almost exclusively been with people who are definitely seeking to make a positive contribution to the world, to bring something of Light and beauty into others’ lives. The term Light bearer has been used to describe these people who are to all intents and purposes entirely ordinary. They are not gurus or great spiritual teachers, although some may become this; they are people with some talent (perhaps as yet unexplored and undeveloped), with a desire to be of service, with a need for meaning and Light in their own lives, albeit that for many that may just be some vague and undefined notion. There are millions of these people; they generally feel things deeply and it seems to me that a lot more than half of them are women. They are the future of humanity, and they are seeking purpose and meaning, sometimes desperately. Many of them are youth and they in particular find much of modern life, with all its cruelty and superficiality, a burden. They are rarely supported in their school system to explore the world in a way that suits their view of it, and sadly they are often not supported by their parents either in a manner conducive to their soulful development; and we know too well some of the downsides of this lack of support, in the alarming statistics of substance abuse, mental illness and suicide.
The need to understand purpose seems recent – a part of some new era that is exploding with information about new ways of living and experiencing the world and connecting with the Divine. While any one Faith or philosophy may be deeply fulfilling for any of its adherents, no religion or body of learning has exclusive rights to the recipe for the good life, and indeed much of new and popular learning has emerged from spiritual teachers wholly unaligned with a particular group. There is much to be gleaned; I hope my contribution assists your journey.
(A note about God: I use the terms God, the Universe, the Divine, Energy, Source, the Light and other such terms more or less interchangeably. If one of these terms doesn’t sit well with you for whatever reason, feel free to replace it with your own, or you could just not fuss about it too much and recognise that they are all just words to describe the one great Essence that animates all of life.
Sue Fitzmaurice was born and raised in New Zealand. She has been a nurse, a CEO, an executive business consultant and coach, and is the mother of a teenage son and daughter, pursuing careers as a comedian and an artist respectively. Sue has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and political science, and a First Class Honours in international law and international relations from the University of Canterbury; and a Masters in Business from Massey University.
She is the author of Angels in the Architecture, a novel, inspired by her severely autistic nephew. The book began with the idea that there is more going on in the heads of autists than we generally think and it grew into an historic tale, a discussion on prejudice and an exploration of our beliefs about what is real and what we can truly know.
Sue has been open about her own clinical depression, which lasted 15 years following the birth of her daughter, and how she has slowly healed this. She has also talked about her own limitations in discovering and living her own purpose, including self-destructive behaviours and a habit of judging others as harshly as she judged herself.