Once you have discovered your life purpose, you must tackle the difficult task of making it happen in your life. Many people want to find a career that is a manifestation of their life purpose. Some want to manifest it in other ways, such as a meaningful volunteer project. In either case, this involves research, experimenting, strategizing, planning, taking risks, growing and learning. Most people don’t find that their life purpose fits neatly into an existing job description. You may have to create your own job within an existing organization. You may want to start your own business or become an independent consultant or practitioner. This takes time, effort, initiative, and creativity.
This article introduces a model for creating and updating a strategy for actualizing your life purpose. It shows the various levels of understanding, planning, action, and learning that are involved in this process. The model is partially derived from the “action inquiry” method developed by William Torbert in his book Personal and Organizational Transformations.
The following levels of planning/action start with the most introspective and abstract and gradually become more practical. To illustrate this model, I will give examples from people I have coached on actualizing their life purpose. To preserve confidentiality, I will combine a number of clients into one fictitious person I will call Don.
Source of Life Purpose
The source of your life purpose is more fundamental than a career or project. It is your dedication to something larger than yourself. It involves a deep, heartfelt sense of belonging and commitment that moves you passionately. You might be dedicated to the creation of peace or beauty or the liberation of oppressed people.
The source of Don’s life purpose is his dedication to advancing spiritual evolution and bringing peace and healing into the world.
General Direction of Career
Each level of this model becomes more specific than the previous. At this level, you know the general direction of your career (or project) but not the details. You may know the area of your career, such as theater or helping people. You may be clear on your primary concern, such as saving the environment. You may know that you want to focus on a certain talent of yours, such as doing inspirational speaking. Frequently people know that they want to integrate two or more areas of passion, such as integrating singing and intercultural appreciation.
The general direction of Don’s career is awakening people to their unrealized potential and helping them to grow through writing and speaking.
Ideal Work Vision
At this level, you develop a vision of the ideal work for you. This should be specific enough to really stir your passion without getting into the details of exactly how it would happen.
Don’s ideal work involves being public speaker and journalist with the following goals:
- Awakening and motivating people in transitions or crisis to use the crisis for personal growth
- Motivating people in their 50s and later to focus on personal growth and self realization.
- Motivating people in leadership roles to serve their organizations by focusing on their own personal growth
The next step is to devise a strategy for bringing about this ideal work or some variation of it that is feasible. This may involve researching, experimenting with the work, and making some practical decisions. As part of your strategy, specify action steps, including steps must be taken before other steps and which steps can be pursued simultaneously.
Don’s initial strategy involves the following steps:
- Develop my skills as a journalist
- Define a target audience for magazine articles
- Write a first article and get it published
- Refine my existing public speaking abilities
- Develop talks on the role of personal growth and self-realization in achieving personal wholeness and in transforming our culture and its organizations
- Learn how to market public speaking
With regard to writing, he will pursue the first two steps at the same time and then write an article for publication. He figures he can work on the last three steps (related to speaking) at the same time.
This overall strategy must be implemented through various projects. Each of the steps in Don’s strategy is a project, and each of them may have sub-projects. For example, under Don’s project of developing talks, he has three sub-projects:
- Create an elevator speech (a short, 15 second introduction to his message, called an elevator speech because you must be able to give it during the time that you are in an elevator with someone)
- Create a one hour overview speech for people in their 50’s in crisis
- Create an educational talk on crisis, transitions and personal growth for people in 50s—2 to 4 hours
For each project or sub-project that you plan to undertake, there are various behaviors needed to make it happen. Some of these can be planned in advance, and some need to happen on the spur of the moment.
For example, under Don’s sub-project of creating an elevator speech, he has the following behaviors:
- Create the speech
- Practice it
- Try it out with my wife and two friends
- Find five situations during the next two weeks when I could practice giving the talk to someone on the spur of the moment.
Each project, sub-project, and behavior has an outcome of some kind in the world. This outcome helps you to know whether you are going in the right direction to actualize your life purpose. If the outcome is what you hoped for, it probably means that your plans are good and your behavior effective. If the outcome is not what you wanted, it may mean that you need to revise something—change your behavior, project, strategy, etc. (A negative outcome is never a sign of unworthiness, though you may feel that way.)
For each behavior, it is useful to write down how you will measure the outcome. For example, when Don tries out his elevator speech with his wife or a friend, he can ask them for feedback. When he tries it with a colleague on the spur on the moment, he might also ask for feedback. In both these cases, he may need to emphasize that he wants honest feedback, or he may have to take the feedback with a grain of salt. When he tries the talk with a stranger, he may have to rely on the person’s facial expression or spontaneous response to evaluate the outcome. Of course, any one person’s response doesn’t tell Don much. It is only the overall pattern of outcomes that is meaningful.
Revising based on Outcome
When there is a pattern of outcomes that is not what you want, what do you do about it? The first thing you need to consider is changing your behavior. In Don’s case, does he need to change his delivery of the elevator talk? Does he need to pick different people to talk to?
However, maybe your behavior is OK and the project needs revising. Does Don need to change the content of his elevator speech? Or maybe he shouldn’t focus on an elevator speech at all. An elevator speech is basically a form of marketing. Maybe he should put his emphasis on his regular talks and find other ways to market himself.
In some cases, you may need to revise something even further up the levels. Maybe your strategy needs revising. Maybe you find that there really isn’t the need or the readiness for the services you want to offer. Maybe you discover that you don’t really have the talent or skill required to provide what is needed. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should change your strategy. You might just need to find different ways to reach people, or you may just need to develop more skill. However, you need to be ready to revise your strategy if that is what is called for. For example, maybe giving talks isn’t the best use of Don’s energy and he should focus primarily on writing articles.
If the outcomes indicate, you may even decide to revise your career as a whole. Perhaps Don realizes that it isn’t right for him to focus on working with people in crisis. He may choose to help people grow in other ways.
Though this doesn’t happen often, you might even decide to revise the general direction of your career, or you may get new insight into the source of your life purpose. All of the levels should be open to revision.
This discussion of the need for revising your plan may discourage you from pursuing your life purpose. It may make you feel that you will run into problems and things may be difficult. This is often true! Actualizing your true life purpose usually isn’t easy. It requires courage and initiative, steadfastness and creativity. However, look at the rewards! To live a life of deep fulfillment is worth all the trouble you may have to face.
Revising based on Inner Alignment
So far I have talked about revising your behavior or strategy based on real world consequences. However, there is another reason why you might want to revise. As you are actualizing your life purpose, you need two types of feedback, one from the external world and one from your inner guidance. In addition to feedback from the world, it is just as important for you to continually check in with your inner sense of meaning. As you plan your projects and carry them out, how does it feel to you? Does the work feel like it is truly aligned with your deeper life purpose? Is it as fulfilling as you imagined? If you sense a mismatch, it may indicate that you should revise your behavior, project, strategy, etc. just as we explored above.
For example, Don may discover that even though he is a good public speaker, he doesn’t find it very fulfilling, that he gets great satisfaction from writing about the issues he cares about, but not from speaking. So he may decide to focus on writing for that reason.
Revising by Personal Growth and Learning
Once you have decided to revise your behavior, how do you do it? In some cases you may be able to simply change what you do by deciding on a different action. However, in other cases, deeper work may be required. For example, suppose Don’s speeches aren’t working well, and he wants to change his delivery. It may work to simply decide to present himself in a different way. However, that may not work, and some growth or learning may be required. Don may need to work with a coach who helps people with public speaking. Or if Don is being held back by shyness, he may need to do psychological work on his fears in order to improve his self-confidence with people. It is not uncommon for people to need growth and learning to fully actualize their life purpose.
Revising by Collaboration
If you are missing a skill or personal quality that is needed to actualize your life purpose, there is another option for revising your plan. If you feel that it would be too difficult for you to develop the needed capacity yourself, you can collaborate with someone who has it. Suppose Don is not good at personal networking (the elevator speech). He might collaborate with someone with the same life purpose concerns who is good at that. You don’t have to actualize your life purpose all by yourself.
You could go even further, and collaborate with a group of people, each of whom provides a unique skill or perspective. For example, Don might join in creating a small organization dedicated to encouraging personal growth during life crises. They each might provide certain skills—one is knowledgeable about business issues, another is primarily a visionary, a third has startup capital, a fourth is great at marketing. One has coaching experience, another is a therapist. The possibilities are endless.