Why is it so hard to find our life purpose? There certainly is no short supply of problems in this world that need solving. There is no limit on the number of people whom we could help, or inspire, or support. There is no cap on the number of passions we could pursue. Yet, our life purpose often feels hard to pursue.
There are many reasons why you may not know your life purpose (take the well-being quiz to see what might be holding you back). Sometimes it's because the world's problems seem too big. Or we seem too small. Or maybe we are just exhausted from life and don't know where we'll find the energy to fight for what really matters to us. But finding and living our purpose is key to having a meaningful, fulfilling life, so I certainly strive to help people insert purpose into their lives. (Here's my purpose-driven business program if you need help applying your purpose to your business).
I also talk a lot about how to find life purpose and meaning in my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone. Here are some of the key steps I suggest to get started exploring your purpose.
Step 1: Find out what drives you.
When I was a teenager, I was at a party and came upon a friend of mine. Her head was cast downward, her bangs were in front of her eyes, and she was squeezing her hand into a tight fist. As I approached, I noticed something red on her hand. It was blood!
I rushed over to her, grabbing her hand, demanding that she let me help her. Finally, after much prodding, she opened her hand. Laying in her palm was a piece of glass, glass that she had been squeezing as hard as she possibly could.
It was then I realized that she was intentionally making her hand bleed. She was so unhappy that she squeezed that piece of glass until blood was dripping on the floor. I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment was the first in a series of moments that would show me my life's purpose.
In the years that followed, I saw the scars of self-burning, the glazed-over eyes that come with extensive drug use, and the skin that hangs off a body that is being intentionally starved. I witnessed the depths of depression and the heights of mania, suicide attempts and near overdoses. It turns out that a person can only see so much pain before becoming driven to stop it. Or at least that's what happened to me.
So one way to find your purpose is to ask yourself: What pain or injustice or unhappiness have you witnessed that you just can't live with? Is there anything that touches you so deeply that it drives you? Often, a powerful purpose can come from powerful pain.
Step 2: Find out what energizes you.
It was a sunny but cool spring morning. I had just started my shift at the addiction rehab center where I worked. As usual, I went to the backyard to make sure none of the teenagers were smoking on the back roof. One of them was, so I told him to go back inside. He spent the next eight hours cussing at me, right up until the moment my shift ended.
This was the day I learned that you can burn out your life purpose if you pursue it in the wrong ways — ways that deplete rather than energize you. It is not enough to know the problem you want to solve; you have to think carefully about the way that you want to solve it.
So to find your life purpose, ask yourself: What energizes you?
Step 3: Find out what you are willing to sacrifice for.
Feeling deflated and defeated after working at the addiction rehab center, I paused to ask myself what I really wanted to do. I don't know about you, but often I think I want to do something, but I don't end up following through or putting in the work required to succeed — a sign that whatever it was, it wasn't really important enough to me to sacrifice for.
This time was different, though. I decided I wanted to go to graduate school to study emotion and mental health to figure out how, exactly, to solve the mental health issues I saw all around me.
This time, I listened to GRE words on my iPod during my lunch break at work. I volunteered in a research lab on my days off. I studied and wrote and learned until I passed out from exhaustion while preparing my graduate school applications.
This willingness to sacrifice didn't end when I got into graduate school. I worked relentlessly to the point of burnout. Now, I'm not recommending that you sacrifice to the point of burnout. All I'm saying is that when you find something that you are willing to sacrifice a lot for, you know that you've found your purpose.
So ask yourself: What are you willing to sacrifice for?
Step 4: Find out who you want to help.
I have taught hundreds of students across four different universities, developed well-being-boosting products, and helped organizations create programs and positive technologies that have reached more than a million people worldwide. But perhaps the biggest impact I had was when I mentored a student my first year in graduate school. Always eager to learn, she'd smile big, excited about each new project and responsibility. At the end of our time working together, she became the first person in her family to graduate college.
Even though most psychology Ph.D.'s help students in universities, help customers or employees in companies, or help clients as therapists, I feel most in line with my life purpose when I support the change-makers: the people who will make this world a happier, healthier, better place. In fact, most of my work now focuses on doing just this: helping entrepreneurs build products and businesses that make a real difference.
To find your life purpose, ask yourself: Who do you want to help? There are many ways to chip away at the same problem, and it's up to you to find out who you want to help. By figuring out the specific person or people you want to help, you can more easily find your purpose.
Step 5: Find out how you want to help.
When I first started working with entrepreneurs, I helped in any way I could. I conducted research, ran statistics, and created surveys. This is what I knew and was good at, but it didn't energize me (remember Step 2). As I acquired more and more clients with different needs, I found a real passion for product development and content creation. Yup! I like to write and like to create. I'm even sitting here on a Saturday afternoon writing this article ... because I feel like it.
Ask yourself: What do you love to do? And how do you apply this passion to your purpose? To find your purpose, you need to figure out how you can best use your passions and skills to achieve your unique goals and solve your unique problems.
Taking the steps to find your life purpose
Finding your life purpose is a lifelong journey. It's OK to take it one step at a time. It's normal to pause and reevaluate long-term goals regularly. And it's OK to feel overwhelmed. Nothing worth doing is easy, and this will not always be easy.
You will encounter frustrations and challenges along the way. Some days, you'll throw your hands up in the air in defeat. But then you'll remember Step 1. You're driven to solve this problem, and for some reason, you won't let yourself give up.
Originally published on BerkeleyWellBeing.com.