It's very much in vogue these days to talk about having purpose in our work. I hear a lot about the need to "find my purpose" when I talk to clients about their careers, but the phrase seems to mean something different to everyone. Some clients are just looking for work that will make them feel happy and fulfilled. Some are looking for work that they won't get bored with. Others are looking for work that will change the world.
We all long to know that our work is a worthwhile endeavor - that we are living out the very reason for our existence. Most of us can quickly recognize when we don't have any sense of purpose in our work. We feel listless and bored, and there is a gnawing sense that we were meant for something more, but we just don't know what. It's much harder to know when we do have purpose in our work. We can be pretty certain that just because we are rewarded handsomely for our work is not enough to say that we have work with purpose. But is our work purpose-full just because we enjoy it? Is our work purpose-full because others appreciate it? Or is something more required before we can describe our work as having "purpose"?
I've thought about this topic for many years now, and I don't have a book to share, a 5-step model to follow, or a self-exploration work-sheet for you to fill out, but - in the "for what it's worth" category - here are some thoughts to consider:
(1) There are short-term purposes and there are long-term purposes in our work. A short-term purpose might be working extra hours to finish an important project that will help your company or taking on overtime hours in order to save to take your kids to Disneyworld. Both circumstances are motivators that can help keep your energy up for a short-term period when work gets tough. A long-term purpose might be working hard to advance to management because you have a real heart for people and want to have the opportunity to develop as a great boss who can influence the careers of others in a positive way. We need to have both types of purpose spurring us onward in order to have a fulfilling, rewarding life.
(2) Purpose has to do with what we are "made for" - therefore, if we define something as our "purpose in life" it will likely be something that we have the innate talent and drive to accomplish. If you find yourself constantly working against your natural skill set, or working on things that you hate, very likely you are off purpose.
(3) Our purpose begins in the here and now. Very often I see people so unhappy in their work, and they are looking for a radical, drastic change to get them "on track" with their purpose. As much as it is a common human reaction to want to run when things aren't going our way, it is rarely a useful approach. Throughout history, people who have made effective strides forward for humanity have been people who started with their present moment, and acted effectively within it. Mother Theresa didn't set out to win a Nobel Prize - she was a nun, and that's not what nuns do. She set out to take care of the poor - that's what nuns do.
(4) Our purpose is typically not something we define, but it's a calling we accept. Most great heroes did not declare what they would accomplish in their life - rather they accepted what came their way, and used everything they had to be successful in it. Moses did not set out to free the Children of Israel. He was taking care of sheep in the wilderness and he responded to a call. Corrie ten Boom did not grow up intending to be a member of the Resistance movement against the Nazi's who would write a book and give speeches that would comfort and influence the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. She was simply the daughter of a watchmaker who lived a life of faith, and responded to the families who needed help when the call came.
(5) Similarly, our "purpose" or "calling" typically comes to us over time. It is rarely a blinding lighting flash in the middle of a self-development seminar or the output of a self-assessment worksheet. Joseph in the Bible had inklings that he was meant for great things, but the events of his life - kidnapped by his own brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape, and left to rot in an Egyptian prison - hardly pointed towards greatness. Yet after rising to status in the Egyptian royal ranks, he told his repentant brothers as they begged for forgiveness not to worry because, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Genesis 15:20). As Mary Chapin Carpenter croons in "The Long Way Home," what if your job is to "see your life as a gift from the great unknown, and your task is to receive it?"