“I don’t know what my purpose is,” my friend, Rachel, confesses. She’s uncomfortable admitting this to the person who regularly gives impassioned presentations on workplace purpose. She shouldn’t be.
I, a certifiable purpose zealot, don’t know what my life’s purpose is either.
And you know what? I’m happy lacking a life purpose. You see, I consider “What’s my life’s purpose?” the wrong question. It implies we should identify one life purpose. Yet, pursuing “the” purpose of one’s life is most often a painful odyssey that ends in failure.
Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy, has helped thousands of professionals navigate their way towards purpose. What does he consider the greatest barrier to his clients finding a sense of purpose? Precisely this widely held belief that we each have one true calling. “The idea of having a destiny is part of American mythology…Destiny makes for a powerful story, but it is not only misleading… it sets unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.”
Viruses might do fine with a singular purpose. Evolutionary biology finds that humans, however, are hard wired to support each other in countless ways, what’s called “prosocial” behavior. Prehistoric humans could not afford to be fussy in their helpfulness. If they aided each other in cases of illness but not in near drownings, famine or predator attacks, for example, they would likely die young and go extinct. Evolutionary forces have hard wired us to care about, and contribute towards, the panoply of human vulnerabilities.
If you have many hopes and desires, why try to cram them into one statement? For most of us, a singular life purpose makes as much sense as having a lone friend or sole leisure activity. It will likely only diminish our life.
“What’s my life’s purpose?” is simply too narrow a question for Rachel and many others. If this question is frustrating and failing you, I suggest you answer a different question instead: What’s in my purpose portfolio? This will give you the flexibility to honor the full richness of your aspirations in your expressed purposes.
As an example, my purpose portfolio includes:
- Ensuring my mom’s final years are wonderful
- Helping every corporate manager offer their team members jobs that make a positive societal impact (what’s called “job purposing”)
- Helping the corporate sector solve societal issues
- Expanding the opportunities and wellbeing of the youth in my extended family
- Bringing playfulness into the lives of those I interact with
Clearly, I don’t have a life purpose. I have a mess of purposes. Yet, that mess drives my productivity. Usually. Sure, I can be found reading a novel when I should be returning a call, getting discouraged into a mid-day nap over a petty set back and otherwise being wildly directionless. The above portfolio, however, eventually beckons me away from my flightiness and back to working for what I yearn to achieve. It drives me forward, even if it’s in fits and starts.
Of course, some people in some circumstances have a genuine single-item answer to “What’s my life’s purpose?” I’ve known wonderful people who at one point in their lives would say that their purpose was “parenting,” or “caring for a terminally ill spouse” or “ridding the planet of tuberculosis.” If this is not the case for you, however, do not panic.
Most people, most of the time, cannot devise one life aim that doesn’t neglect areas they deem vital. There is nothing wrong with you. You can still come up with a true expression of purpose. It will, however, likely be an untidy portfolio of aspirations that might contradict and undermine each other and, therefore, add up to a murky vision. So what? Enjoy the richness your of multitude of purposes.
In summary, I encourage Rachel and everyone else who does not have “a life purpose” to stop trying to craft one. Instead, I suggest you build a purpose portfolio. And, Rachel, while you’re at it, may I suggest including “go skiing with Bea every winter” in your purpose portfolio?
This post was originally published on LinkedIn on the post date and reposted here in January 2018 when this site launched.