Last week I attended a Christmas party with a number of entrepreneurs and senior folk in the Financial Services world. During the round table discussion, we got on to the subject of purpose. Whilst the conversation was about organisational purpose and its link to morale in organisations, the conversation got around to personal purpose. All of us acknowledged that increasingly, we were hearing colleagues and friends talk about feeling a lack of purpose. Many of us also admitted that we too struggled with the same and we wondered how commonplace this was.
Do you feel slightly, or even very disconnected from yourself? Unsatisfied in some way but can’t quite put a finger on it? Particularly over the pandemic, people have had more time to reflect on their fulfilment levels and in many cases are drawing a blank.
One of the founding explanations of human motivations was put forward by Abraham Maslow in 1943 in his hierarchy of needs, and he proposed that humans have 5 categories of needs that sit in a hierarchy from basic physiological needs – food and water, through safety needs – having a safe environment, love – feeling loved and having social connections, through self-esteem – feeling good about ourselves and ultimately self-actualisation – feeling fulfilled or living up to our potential.
In a world where many of us in western societies do not have cause to fear lack of food and water or lack of safety (generally speaking), we tend to experience more a lack in social connection, a lack of feeling good about ourselves and feeling like we are unfulfilled, and it is these aspects of our needs that can be met by finding some meaning and purpose in our lives.
Finding some meaning and purpose in our lives requires us to claim our own needs. We must self-reflect and we must prioritise ourselves. However, we are often taught that claiming our own needs, considering the needs of our own self is bad, that we should serve others’ needs at the expense of our own. Often we martyr ourselves and then look for validation and approval from others to show that they value what we have done for them. This can make seeking our purpose feel a bit like self-indulgent nonsense.
Even when it comes to taking time and resources to invest in ourselves, we often feel like we can’t because we have a whole list of other things that we must or should do before we give ourselves permission to invest time and resources in ourselves.
If we are living in a place where we are not quite sure that we have meaning and purpose in our life, a prerequisite for developing that meaning and purpose is having the mental and emotional skills that enable us to consciously make decisions that are going to enable us to thrive, rather than just survive and react.
In her book, The Little Book of Big Lies, the American actress and author Tina Lifford talks about something she calls inner fitness. That being in contrast to our physical fitness, which we all today know and accept is something that we would incorporate into our lives if we wanted to feel physically well and healthy. Inner fitness is having the emotional and mental skills to be proactive in managing our own self and our inner journey through life, which is so fundamentally connected to finding our meaning and purpose.
What does it feel like to lack a sense of purpose?
In her award-winning podcast ‘The Thrivership Coach’ Episode 1: ‘When you are looking for a sense of purpose’, Caroline Smith would describe it in her experience as ‘a yearning for something more, a sense of unfulfillment that doesn’t go away or only goes away for short periods when we are distracted, and it is persistent, lasting for months or even years. Not talking about having a bad day here or there, we are talking about a little voice inside us that refuses to be quiet, even if we can’t quite tune in to what it is saying’.
Quite often it is a general feeling of overwhelm in our lives that keeps us from connecting with that voice and keeps us from feeling like we don’t know what our purpose is but we are just going through the motions of daily life. We can beat ourselves up for procrastinating, telling ourselves that we should be doing more or better, but at the same time feeling like it’s impossible for us to add another thing to our to-do lists (like find meaning and purpose this week – tick!) because we are already so overwhelmed – and so we don’t even start.
We also live in a world that is so completely overwhelming: social media, 24/7 careers, families, social pressures, pressures to look a certain way, have certain things, be seen to be certain things that every time we prioritise these things over our intuition, we step further and further away from being able to hear that voice that’s asking us to consider what would really help us feel more fulfilled.
How do I find my purpose?
You may already know what your meaning and purpose is, but you may have lost it because of overwhelm or because you are living with other people’s ‘shoulds’ – that is a whole list of other people’s expectations that you put before your own needs.
Or you may be thinking – this is all great but I don’t even know what my meaning and purpose is, so what happens now?
If you don’t know what your meaning and purpose is, or even if you do know I would invite you to consider the following:
- What makes you feel alive?
- When at times in your life you feel or have felt the most joy, or the most vitality, what are you or were you doing?
- What activities that you do, don’t feel like work to you?
- And the word activity is important here. We all enjoy and need rest and recuperation, holidays, couch time, time with our loved ones etc. But we are talking about being active – what experiences in your life have given you life?
- Failing that, what things in your life have you done that you feel good or great about having done?
- What people do you admire for what they do?
- What things are you happy to do for others even when you are tired and exhausted?
These are all clues to the things that give you motivation – your meaning and your purpose.
When we are living on purpose we are living in ways that we feel connected to who we really are.
This can be quite heavy stuff, so wherever you are in your journey I would really encourage you to consider journaling your thoughts on meaning and purpose and if you’re a bit stuck, journaling can really help you make sense of your thoughts and figure out where to go next. Go out and buy yourself a journal just for you, or just grab yourself a piece of paper and a pen! Good luck.
Adapted from Episode 1: When you’re looking for a sense of purpose – The Thrivership Coach broadcast on 18th August 2020 and published on Level up Lounge on 28th Octo 2021 When you’re looking for a sense of purpose (leveluplounge.co.uk)