Who ARE you? In the era of consumerism, your identity was once anchored by where you live, what car you drive, what clothes you wear… all markers of how much money you have. And then the classic cocktail party question started to become: what do you do? An answer that might provide some clue to your character, your education, your interests, or your work ethic.
Nowadays, when you meet new people, they may just as likely try to get a grasp of what kind of person you are by asking you what you care about… What are your causes? What ignites your passion? What do you see as your mission in life? In other words… What is your purpose?
What an incredibly daunting question! I meet a lot of people who greet this question with a messy blend of confusion and shame. I don’t know what it is. But I feel like I should. We have coined terms like the Purpose Economy, and the Purpose Generation; the use of such language points to a growing focus on the concept of purpose. And if you don’t know what yours is, just search for life purpose on Google and you will find myriad definitions, recipes, formulas, and advice on how you can find your purpose… all suggesting different ways you can figure it out.
Ikigai is one idea that has been depicted and widely shared in the form of an infographic. Ikigai is a Japanese word that means a “reason for being”. A beautiful thing about Japanese linguistic culture is that they do not have a word for retirement. In other words, they have not historically needed a word to describe “life after work” because in their universe, there is no need to separate the two. An ikigai is often described as an intense internal burning desire to carry out a personal mission that we have a strong affinity to.
A visual interpretation of Ikigai was popularized with a Venn diagram, showing four categories of things - (a) what you are good at, (b) what you love, (c) what you get paid for, and (d) what the world needs. The diagram seems to suggest, if you make a list of all the things that fit into category A, category B, category C, and category D, then look at where they overlap, you will be revealed THE ANSWER. Neat, right? Sure. Except, things are not quite so… simple.
Here is why this approach to finding, or figuring out, our purpose is flawed.
1. Your purpose is dynamic
As human beings we are part of a vast global ecosystem made up of so many different influences, ideas, forums, resources, connections, cultures, community, environment and technology, among other things. We are in a constant feedback loop with these forces, all of which are constantly shifting themselves, even as they shape us, our thoughts, our feelings and our actions. Even if we could pin down a singular purpose for our lives, it would most likely change as soon as we could identify it.
2. Your purpose is not a What, it’s a Way
Instead of focusing on finding A purpose, we could talk about living ON purpose. The moment that we turn purpose into a THING that we need to go out into the world and find, or a CONCEPT that we need to invest mental strain into figuring it out, it becomes more limiting than it is freeing. It becomes just another category, another label, another attachment… It becomes something that starts to go stale and keep us stuck in a particular identity or idea about ourselves as soon as we take it on. If we put energy into living and working ON purpose, rather than trying to search around to find A purpose, that might be more useful.
3. Your purpose is not actually yours
This is perhaps the largest leap of logic to make, but I will go out on a limb here and say it - ultimately the reason you will never find your purpose is that your purpose doesn’t belong to you. We mistake purpose for something that is personal, something that we can claim for ourselves, articulate in words, and perhaps even print on a business card. But purpose by its nature is dependent on the interaction between you, the individual, and the broader collective. It is the unique interplay of your gifts and the world’s needs… which again (to come full circle back to point number one), is dynamic.
Now you might be wondering, what does it mean if our life purpose is not something find-able, or figure out-able? It means that our task is at once both simple and difficult. To live and work on purpose then, requires us to show up to the world in an entirely different way: present, clear, responsive… and available to serve. That is a life’s work, and that is a lifelong process.