No matter the advances in medicine, I’ve long passed the halfway mark of my life. Even if I die of natural causes, I have fewer years left to live than the number of years I’ve been here. But I’m still yearning to have a definitive answer to the question, “What is my life’s purpose?” and the question takes on more significance with each passing decade.
I want to make a difference that will be remembered.
I realized how hotly this question burns for women as they enter “mid-life” while doing my doctoral research on the challenges that face smart, strong women.1 Though most of the women restlessly pursued new challenges, there was a shift over time from trying to define a career, to wanting to be known for the value of their daily contribution, to realizing their potential by fulfilling a lifelong dream or serving humanity in a substantial way.
Today, this quest is not so gender-specific: More men are recognizing their desire to feel significant, whether as a part of their family role or their life’s work.
I wrote about these phases in the post, "What a Female Mid-Life Crisis Looks Like." I had discovered that, for many women, a midlife crisis "isn’t about recovering lost youth. It’s about discovering the application of their greatness.” The pursuit is noble, but the problem is that "no one has defined what greatness looks like, so the quest has no specific destination.”
Many books, workshops, and blog posts claim to lead people to their life’s purpose. The best ones give more questions than answers because as you seek the answers, your purpose unfolds. But what gives you a sense of purpose may take time to emerge.
One popular personal growth exercise asks, “What would you want people to say about you at your funeral?” At the least, you would want them to acknowledge your best traits — your courage, compassion, or curiosity. This is where the journey starts, with being clear on “who” you are, no matter what you choose to do.
I often ask my clients to identify their personal powers by remembering a time when they felt most proud of what they were doing or what they accomplished. What personal traits did they call on to create that moment? It is important to name and claim your greatest traits — who you are at your best — even before you determine what you will do to discover your sense of purpose.
In her book Who Do We Choose To Be?2 Margaret Wheatley writes that we should know what values we live by before we decide what to do next. These values often come from family members you have known in life or through stories. Who were your role models in your family? Who stood up against injustice, triumphed over the odds, or stepped forward to protect your family or others? Their spirit is ingrained in your psyche. You will draw on their values to live your legacy. You might choose to do something amazing, or maybe you will become the strong shoulders that those you raise, mentor, and believe in can stand on when they are called to their life’s work.
You can choose to realize a dream you once set aside, help others accomplish theirs, or do something to ease suffering and fear. Whatever step you decide to take, know that there will be another step after that. It could be in the same direction, or you can choose something else if you feel called to do it.
These questions can help clarify your direction:
Wheatley quotes Václav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, who said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”
You should never feel alone on your journey. Some will criticize your choices, and you may need to refuel your courage along the way. Make sure you have at least two friends, or a mastermind group, to help you sustain your commitment.
Wheatley also advises that claiming a new path requires you be gentle with yourself. She doesn’t suggest that you love every aspect of yourself or pump yourself up to conquer the world. Her focus is on allowing yourself to be a full human, who makes errors in judgment and sometimes forgets to breathe, before you emotionally react.
“As we learn how to hold ourselves with tenderness,” she writes, “perhaps even with curiosity, we develop a quality of gentleness and acceptance. We accept that we’re just like every other human — we try hard, we mess up, we try again, we fail again — this is what it means to live a life.” True humility builds your confidence. You know you can succeed without being perfect.
What should you do with the rest of your life? Know who you are at your best, and then choose a path that calls forth your best to contribute or model the way. Then take care of yourself by finding a supportive community that will applaud your choices, help heal your wounds, and inspire a smile no matter what happens.
The research results can be found in Wander Woman: How high-achieving women find contentment and direction. Berrett-Koehler, 2010.
Wheatley, Margaret. Who Do We Choose To Be: Facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity. Berrett-Koehler, 2017.