Understanding purpose is critical to exceptional performance. Psychologists describe it as the pathway to greater wellbeing. It helps with decision-making and is one of the keys to dealing with our complex, volatile and ambiguous world. I love this quote from Mark Twain:

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Purpose is, in some ways, the holy grail that gives life meaning and can inspire us to achieve great things. Bill Gates said that, as humans, we over-estimate what we can do in 12 months but under-estimate what we can do in a decade. In my view, a clear, well-crafted purpose can go a long way to giving us drive and direction for the decade by expressing our uniqueness and impact – our ‘why’.

Discovering your purpose

Think about the recurring passions, pursuits and activities you have enjoyed and that have energised you over the years. As a child, before the world began dictating what you should do, what did you enjoy doing? What are you good at? What do you find easy that others may find difficult? What is your signature strength?

Then, consider whether there have been any particularly challenging experiences during your life that had a big impact on you. An executive I know had been through a particularly difficult financial struggle from a long-term illness and an unexpected divorce left her caring for her two children alone. She slowly rebuilt her life and career, rising to a leadership role in a large organisation. She went through a process of defining her personal purpose recently and drew on her learnings after such a challenging season to help clarify her why – ‘through obstacles, build strength’. Although a difficult part of her life, she realised how that season had shaped the purpose that inspired her today.

Your purpose is partly dictated by your ‘why’. Simon Sinek talks about finding our why and fulfilment in this video clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4IaR6t6AQw. Great watching. In discovering your purpose, you may need those close to you to help you work through the above questions to give you greater perspective.

Crafting your purpose

Your purpose does not need to be flashy, filled with jargon, aspirational or cause-related. It is simply who you can’t help being and what drives you. One business leader I know has a purpose of being ‘the questioning guy – seeking understanding and hence ways to improve’. He asks a similar question three different ways to ensure he not only understands, but has context around, any issue.

Here’s another example I worked through recently with a colleague, Doug (not his real name!). As a child, he loved to go exploring – into gullies, along streams beds, into old houses. As a young adult, he studied mechanical engineering. When he graduated and took a role in the maintenance department of a large manufacturing enterprise, he loved problem-solving…understanding the problem, by exploring issues, and fixing the problem or creating an improvement. His purpose evolved as ‘seeking insight to repair, fix and create improvement’. In going through that exercise, Doug felt he gained a stronger sense of who he is and why he does things.

Giving your purpose a plan

Don’t let your purpose sit there. You will gain far more by developing goals aligned to your purpose. That doesn’t mean expecting to live your purpose 24-hours-a-day, but it should dramatically increase your ability to achieve.

The best way to put action behind your purpose is to set a goal that’s three to five years out and work back from there. This timeframe is far enough away to seem possible, but close enough to hold you accountable to bringing alignment in your life and changing where needed. Next, set your two-year goal. Again, it’s far enough away to accommodate change, but still a milestone closer to what you want to achieve. Then, think about what has to be done in the next 12 months to get to your two-year goal. Finally, look at what you have to achieve in the next three months and 30 days.

With Doug, once he developed his purpose, he was able to set what he wanted to achieve. In five years, he aspired to be consulting to leading manufacturing companies on process improvement, teaching them to understand the issues causing breakdowns and how to create needed change. His goals included:

  • Five years – working for a manufacturing process improvement business, consulting to large manufacturing operations
  • Two years – receiving a promotion to manager of the maintenance department with his current employer or another company of a similar size
  • One year – studying an additional qualification in process improvement
  • Three months – exploring opportunities for taking on greater responsibilities in his current workplace and establishing a network of people within the same industry for discussion and to gain further knowledge in process improvement
  • 30 days – enrolling in additional training around process improvement and reaching out to his current network to extend it.

While a simple example, this shows how you can bring alignment between goals and purpose. Doug is actually at the two-year mark and has recently gained a position as Manager – Maintenance and Improvement with a competitor. Having completed further study, his new company is making him the champion of process improvement in manufacturing. Doug is thrilled with what he has achieved and is confident in reaching his five-year goal. Going through the rigour of defining his purpose and putting a plan to it has moved him forward.

I recommend you look through the additional reference materials listed below if you want to delve further into your purpose. If you have gone through the exercise, I would love to hear how it has benefited you – Ian Hamilton, Managing Director.




RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us