Why is finding “purpose” so hard?


The encouragement to “live your purpose” is all around us all the time. Every time I look at social media, I am inundated with posts and quotes encouraging me to live my purpose and examples of people living their purpose. It seems so easy.

So… why is it so hard?

Why does it feel like some days I’m connected to purpose, but most days I’m not? Why don’t I wake up every morning knowing that I am living a meaningful, purpose-filled life and look as happy as all the other people seem to be?

I would argue we have an innate sense to live a purpose-filled life, but the space between knowing that we should live our purpose and actually living that purpose-filled life is a gap that is marred by confusion, intimidation (a.k.a. not knowing where to start), and a sense of failure.

How can we bridge the gap between knowing we are purpose filled and living that purpose?

To understand this better, let’s break down purpose into two categories:

Big P purpose: For most, the word purpose feels overwhelming. It’s like a giant thing that we are supposed to obtain, but we can’t see the whole picture. This is what I call “big P” Purpose. Purpose, in this sense, lives in the future. What creates the gap is that we can only see what’s immediately in front of us; unable to see over the horizon to grasp the whole scale. This is another way to say that a purpose is not finite – in reality, a true purpose is infinite in nature, constantly calling us forward. It is not something you can reach and then you’re done; it is a road that never ends and always extends over the horizon. As the contexts and situations of our lives shift and change, we are constantly reinventing how we act on our sense of purpose.

Here’s an example: I often have conversations with pre-med students* and ask the question, “why do you want to be a doctor?” Most respond with, “because I want to help people.” Good answer, but there’s more. The questioning continues with, “You can help someone cross the street, why do you want to be a doctor?” This is generally received with a pause and contemplation. We know that helping people is good and being a doctor is noble. But being a doctor is not big P Purpose – being a doctor is the mode in which you live your purpose. Helping all people you encounter live healthy and well, that is big P Purpose. Being a doctor is one way to do that.

Little p purpose: Living purpose requires action. If “big P” Purpose is infinite and always in front of us, then “little p” purpose is the present; it is happening in every moment all the time. Little p purpose is the day to day, moment to moment decisions we make that are informed by big P Purpose (and, as such, our big P Purpose is informed by the daily actions). These moments are opportunities to act on the larger scale purpose, and it is the collection of those actions that informs the larger narrative of purpose.

Living purpose requires utilizing a lens of big P Purpose to determine how to show up in moments. And this is where self-forgiveness comes in. As mentioned before, living purpose is an evolving, moving target. This means that sometimes we are doing it well and sometimes we aren’t. The goal isn’t to live our purpose perfectly all the time, the goal is to live with purpose-filled intent and to try our best to make decisions that give us the greatest opportunity to live that purpose.

It’s important to understand that we don’t all need to change the world on a grand scale. Purpose isn’t about grand-ness, it’s about action in the present. A collection of small moments and choices that are connected to a larger life vision ultimately turn into something grand.

I’ll leave you with a question: What actions can you take now to begin to live your life on purpose?

*Note: Could be any type of profession – this is just one example. 

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Dave Newell is director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development.

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