Discovering your purpose

Looking for a purposeAsk a roomful of people whether they think networking is important and everyone will knowingly nod. Now, ask them for the purpose of their network.

Crickets.

Most will be thinking “Networks have a purpose?” or, worse, “I don’t know, I’m still searching for my purpose.”

Networking needn’t be an aimless collection of contacts. Instead, you can think of building a network as developing relationships towards some end. It's why one of the 5 elements of working out loud is being purposeful. 

Not sure of your purpose? Here’s how to discover it.

The myth of purpose

For most of us, thinking about the One True Purpose of our career or life is daunting, even dispiriting. A career counselor, interviewed in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, described the pathos of his profession:

”...he remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited - long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms - what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling.’”

Cal Newport said it even more succinctly: ‘Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.” 

When I was 5, I was going to be a paleontologist, digging up dinosaur bones. At 11, I knew I’d be a baseball player. Then, in turn, a psychologist, a reengineering consultant, and a computer scientist modeling how the brain works. None of that happened. Instead, I spent most of my career working on trading floors in big banks. 

The sad part isn’t that I didn’t fulfill my early career aspirations. It’s that I bought into a romantic myth that I had One True Purpose in the first place. 

Learning to explore the possibilities

Fortunately, you don’t need to identify your true calling - astronaut, actor, arctic adventurer - to find fulfillment and meaning at work. You can start with a purpose that's simple and practical. Here, for example, are the most common goals of the people I coach:

  • Find a job in a new company or location
  • Get more recognition at their current job
  • Explore possibilities in a new field
  • Find people with the same interests
  • Get better at what they do

Notice how these goals are more modest, short-term, and practical than you might expect. It’s because in coaching people, I’m not trying to help them find their One True Purpose. Instead, I’m helping them learn how to work in a more open, connected way that helps them build relationships. It’s those skills that will equip them to pursue any goal in the future. And it's those relationships that will shape what their future can be.

A few decades ago, perhaps, we could take a personality test, list our talents, and find a suitable career. Not any more. Today, the world of work has splintered into a infinite set of ever-changing possibilities. So we have to learn to explore and discover our purpose. As Seth Godin wrote (just today, in fact):

“Discovery is what happens when the universe (or an organization, or a friend) helps you encounter something you didn’t even know you were looking for.”

Discovering meaning & fulfillment

Remember the story of Jordi Muñoz, the Mexican kid who grew up to be the CEO of a robotics company specializing in drones? Growing up, he dreamed of being a pilot. But that’s only because he had no idea of all the other possibilities. Jordi’s humble purpose in working out loud was simply to get better at something he loved doing. And that exploration helped him combine several of his interests into a job he could never have imagined otherwise.

For me, even the wisest career counselor couldn’t predict the arc of my career or have foreseen the work I’m doing now. My current job didn’t exist just a few years ago and I’d have never considered coaching and writing a book related to it. It was only through making my work visible and building relationships that I was able to discover possibilities I’d have otherwise missed. 

Do you have a purpose? Start working out loud so you learn how to explore and discover one. Let the universe help you encounter how to make the most of your work and life.