Discovering the Purpose of Your Life: 4 Exercises

You believe there's some reason you're here. Discover it.

Posted Apr 19, 2014

But first… some ground rules and assumptions:

  • You believe that there is a purpose to your life. Somehow making it through till you die doesn’t count. We’re talking here about the unique you – that you are here for a reason, that there is one thing that one that no one else can do that will, however big or small, make a difference.
  • Your purpose may change over time. Life purpose evolves from our experience, our shifting values.
  • Purpose isn't focused on and measured by outcome  -- becoming the CEO, publishing the Great American Novel, having the house you always dreamed of. This is a slippery slope because the outcomes are impossible to control. Living your life of purpose is instead about  making your outer life match your inner self and vision. Purpose becomes the engine that moves you day by day. It shapes how you run your life and what you focus upon.

Agreed? Okay, let's move on.

Exercise #1: Write it out. This is adapted from Steve Pavlina – and I have recommended to clients for several years. Essentially what you do is get a piece of paper (not computer), write at the top What is my life purpose? and then free associate and write whatever comes to mind – I have no idea, I want to be an astronaut… -- it doesn’t matter just write. Whenever you write something that has an emotional punch – where you go “Yeah” – circle it. Keep going.

After about 20-30 minutes you will hit the wall – This is stupid, I have no good ideas – write those down and keep going. After about 40 minutes you will find yourself circling around a theme ( this is like cluster writing) – I want to teach others, I want to help my children to be independent and compassionate. You may get a clear purpose statement, or something more loose like a mission statement, but definitely more solid.

The next step is to dwell on it, see how it fits, see how you can integrate it into your life.

Exercise #2. Childhood dreams. Think back to what you wanted to be when you grew up. The fireman, the doctor, the writer, whatever. Have any of these dreams persisted? If the dreams have changed over time (doctor to writer to ballet dancer) is there some unifying quality that runs through – helping others, being creative or adventurous, bringing joy or challenge …what? Again, don’t think outcome – be a doctor and make a million dollars – but look for the larger impact on your life, your loved ones, the world. Write it out if that helps.

The idea here is that childhood fantasies about our adult selves are elemental dreams that tap into our core selves before life lays on its heavy hand of right and wrong, should and want, they want we want and scrambles us. The next step is to translate this one thing, this quality into your everyday goals and life.

Exercise #3. Who you admire, who are your heroes?The trick is go down several levels from the surface – no Taylor Swift for her fame or money, no Brad Pitt for looks. You’re looking for people who, in your mind, run their lives well, who embody your and their values and core beliefs. Maybe Taylor Swift for her ability to continuously recreate herself and call her own shots; Brad Pitt for his support of Angelina through her surgery, his house-rebuilding work in New Orleans, his commitment to his craft. Maybe your grandmother for her tenacity and ability to always speak her mind. Your attraction tells you something about what you too have and want to develop within you. Pull it out.

Exercise #4. Eternal Recurrence. I apologize; we’re getting into Nietzsche here. He was Mr. Gusto, the original advocate for "just do it", about living life to the fullest, will, and taking charge. To help set you in the right direction, he proposed the notion of eternal recurrence -- imagining that you had to live your life over again for infinity, relive every day of your present life -- the gun to the head. What would you do, he asked, or not do, to celebrate it, to avoid its pain?

Applying this notion on an everyday level is an exercise in being proactive, about consciously shaping you time, your day, rather than taking what you get. It's also about learning from you past experience. So on a great day what is it that makes it great? How does it bring out the best in you? How does that day represent who you are right now? How can you bring that into your everyday life?

The theme running through each of these is clear: Boil your life down to basics and passions that drive you, that captivate your soul, that represent the best of you. Then find a way to inject this core into your everyday life. Worry less about the outcome and more about integrity -- about staying close to yourself, keeping your ear to the ground that is you, being willing to listen to those instincts and voices within.

If you do, the rest will be…