professional development

Stop hoping to find your purpose: It could be time to start building it

Martin Kovacs /

The quest to find purpose can be all-consuming for some, but it could be time to take a different approach.

Author John Coleman writes at the Harvard Business Review that in the six years since he published Passion & Purpose with Daniel Gulati and Oliver Segovia, he has “received hundreds of questions”, the most common being: “How do I find my purpose?”

“We’re all looking for purpose,” he writes.

“Most of us feel that we’ve never found it, we’ve lost it, or in some way we’re falling short.”

However, Coleman says he believes “we’re also suffering from what I see as fundamental misconceptions about purpose”, which he says in being challenged “could help us all develop a more rounded vision of purpose”.

Purpose is not only something that is found

Coleman characterises the “Hollywood version” of purpose as being where “we’re all just moving through life waiting until fate delivers a higher calling to us”.

While this can happen, Coleman says that he believes “it’s rarer than most people think”.

“For the average 20-year-old in college or 40-year-old in an unfulfilling job, searching for the silver bullet to give life meaning is more likely to end in frustration than fulfilment,” he writes.

“In achieving professional purpose, most of us have to focus as much on making our work meaningful as in taking meaning from it. Put differently, purpose is a thing you build, not a thing you find.”

Coleman observes that “some jobs more naturally lend themselves to senses of meaning, but many require at least some deliberate effort to invest them with the purpose we seek”.

More than one purpose

Purpose does not necessarily have to be singular and all-consuming – there is room for more than one purpose.

Coleman says while some people genuinely seem to have an overwhelming purpose, we mostly “have multiple sources of purpose in our lives”.

“For almost everyone, there’s no one thing we can find,” he writes.

“It’s not purpose, but purposes we are looking for – the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives.

“Professional commitments are only one component of this meaning, and often our work isn’t central to our purpose, but a means to helping others, including our families and communities. Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose takes the pressure off of finding a single thing to give our lives meaning.”

Purpose can evolve

Your purpose can naturally evolve over time, and as you change and new opportunities present themselves, your sense of purpose will likely change too.

Coleman observes “evolution in our sources of purpose isn’t flaky or demonstrative of a lack of commitment, but natural and good”.

“Just as we all find meaning in multiple places, the sources of that meaning can and do change over time,” he writes.

“My focus and sense of purpose at 20 was dramatically different in many ways than it is now, and the same could be said of almost anyone you meet.”

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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