Focus: Purpose - Purpose As A Process

No tools, tips or tricks this time... just a different perspective

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

Time for another newsletter about purpose on our rotation of topics. Honestly, this is the pillar that I struggle with the most. I kind of dread it when it comes time to write a purpose-focused newsletter. Not because I don’t think purpose is important. It absolutely is! But because it’s so darn hard to define exactly what “purpose” is. I think too many people put too much emphasis on some huge “reason for being” that they’re trying to identify for themselves, but I don’t think purpose has to be that. But what is it?

I was doing some reading to see if I could figure out how to better define it and give you all some useful “tips and tricks” to find your purpose. I found a body of work that I really like. The people who spend their careers studying purpose are starting to define it more as a journey than a destination. It’s about deliberately looking at what your skills are and how they can best fit the current situation for self-fulfillment and the benefit of others - and how that changes and evolves over time. I found a Mother Teresa quote that I think sums it up well. She said, "We do not do great things. We do small things with great love." So, I’m officially abandoning the “purpose statement.” I’m adopting the “purpose process.” It’s a journey of small things, not a grand destination.

Part of the new literature that I really like talks about the purpose journey in different stages. When you’re a teen and young adult, your job is to actively look at what you like to do and how that will benefit others. Namely, you’re usually looking for either a career or a family, or both. The journey, at that stage, is formative. You’re asking yourself about yourself and how you and your skills fit in the world, so you can make money, grow a family and “contribute.” Then, when you become a full-fledged adult, your journey is more about evolving what you determined you wanted to do. Mostly, you’re growing your career and/or family, or finding higher and better uses for your skills. You’re finding where you can make bigger and bigger contributions and hone those skills you identified in your youth. The next phase of the journey (the Third Act), after the career is big and the family is grown, is less well understood, but most studies agree that the most successful Third Actors retreat a bit and do more assessments like they did as young adults. They re-evaluate their skills and look at where society, or their families or their communities, need those skills. They continue to look at it as a journey. In one study, researchers interviewed people ages 61-70 and identified the ones who were able to maintain or increase their sense of purpose over the decade. Those individuals often turned their efforts inward to learn about themselves and evolve their skills and contributions, similar to the process they went through as young adults, and they did that on a regular basis. As William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose and a professor at Stanford explains, “the pause of retirement and an empty nest can be an invitation to introspection, in ways that weren’t possible in our chaotic midlives, and a reconnection with the things that truly matter.” Our parents may have wanted to conclude that they have “lived their purpose” and it was time to sit back and relax, but that’s no longer the case for those embarking on their Third Act.

So, maybe we need to stop looking at our purpose as some big statement about our values and our grand contribution. It’s a process. One that flows naturally. Having said that, I also am firmly of the opinion that what you don’t consciously evaluate never gets much traction. So, I feel like the process has to be deliberate. This Great Third Act that we’re embarking upon comes with great possibility and great opportunity and we can all live a purposeful life, even if we’re not sure we have up until now, but it needs to be an examined life. We need a process to live our most purposeful life. It may be a simple as finding what you enjoy doing and making sure you do it on a regular basis and being open as those things change. My thing is to write goals yearly and revisit them quarterly. Some people prefer journals and retrospection. If you like value statements, I think those can work, too, if you’re open to revisiting them and evolving them as your skills and your community changes. I don’t know the best process, but experts and studies agree that those who live the most purposeful (and happiest) Third Acts have a process. They think of their purpose as a journey. They “do small things with great love."

This newsletter was a little different than most that I have written. As I said, that’s because I’m still struggling with what “purpose” really means, myself. Honestly, I think that’s an important part of my purpose process and journey.

So, what do you think? Is purpose important in the Third Act? Do you need to be deliberate about it, or does it just happen? Is it a purpose statement, value statement or a mission statement? Have you examined where you got your feeling of purpose in the last two acts? Do you have a purpose process? This is where this community can really be supportive. Tell us your thoughts so we can all learn from you! Pop them in the comments section. I’m afraid I have more questions than answers this time and I’d love to learn how you’re tackling this one!