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What is ‘purpose’ and how can you find it?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Coming out of high school, you’ve likely got tonnes of questions about what you want to study and who you want to be. We’ll help you answer them.

Who are we, or more to the point, who should we be? Philosophers throughout history have tried to answer this question using frameworks of duty, obligation, virtues and universal moral laws. Fortunately, you don’t need to unravel the secrets of human existence to find a purpose that’ll make you feel fulfilled. Uni is a chance to find your purpose without too many existential headaches! In this article, we’ll define what purpose is and then offer some ways to help find yours and determine if that purpose is a good fit for your life. We’re not experts on you, so take everything we say with a grain of salt! The idea is to help you ask the right questions of yourself. 

Defining ‘purpose’

Your life’s purpose is something you come up with. That means the definition is completely up to you. For people like Elon Musk, changing the world through technology is their purpose. For others, it’s making sure their kids grow up well adjusted. None is any better or worse than the other. The important thing is it makes you and the people around you happy. We could sit around pondering the merits of happiness or feelings as a whole and whether they ought to play a part in moral calculus, but unless being a great philosopher is your purpose, that’s not going to help. Just focus on you right now. 

You don’t need to stick with just one thing either. If there are seven things you really want out of life, make all seven your purpose! So long as they aren’t mutually exclusive, there’s no reason to limit yourself. 

‘Purpose’ doesn’t need to refer to the grand scheme of things either. A purpose can be something as simple as what you want to achieve for the day. Yet, funnily enough, you can apply a similar frame of reasoning. So the next logical question is, what is that reasoning? 

Finding your purpose

Honestly, there isn’t an easy way to do this, but there’s a good way to get started. Take something you know you enjoy, even if it’s not work or school-related. Then ask yourself why you think you enjoy it. 

Feel free to break the question down even further before you answer. You can ask, what are the enjoyable components of the activity? Are there parts of it I don’t enjoy? If so, why not?

The purpose of the exercise is to find out what you like about that thing and whether or not there’s any cross-pollination between that and ideas for university study and work. It’s also a chance to understand with greater certainty the things you don’t enjoy and either work on them or avoid them in future. After all, something you may not like today may become a great strength and asset in future.

Let’s apply this. Say you’re big into soccer. Been playing since you were a kid. Right now, all you know is you love the game. First, you’d ask yourself why you love it. You may then answer, ‘well, it’s because I love the thrill of competition.’ So why do you love the thrill of competition? Your answer may be, ‘the thrill makes me feel alive.’ From this answer, two questions might arise.

  1. Why do you think the thrill makes you feel alive?

  2. What is it about feeling alive that’s positive from your perspective?

Those are both fairly tricky to answer. What if you can’t think of any answers, no matter how long you give it? Well, that’s OK. The answers you’ve previously given are what you work with. You know you enjoy ‘feeling alive’, so perhaps you should seek thrilling work? Let’s say you can answer question 2 however by saying, ‘I like the sensation of being fully aware of my current circumstances; it’s an almost meditative, fully aware state.’ How zen of you! If that’s your answer though, you can adapt what you want out of your purpose: something that’ll give you the chance to wholly be focussed on the present. By analysing all your interests like this, you give yourself the opportunity to build a profile of experiences you do and don’t like, which will help in deriving a purpose, be it that long-term life purpose, or just some goals for the week. 

What if there are several things I want to do, but can’t do them all?

Another very tricky question. All you can do is list out those potential purposes or goals and order them based on which to the best of your knowledge will serve your interests best. That’s all. You don’t need to make perfect decisions, or worry about regretting your choice later. So long as you’ve done all you can to make the best choice with the knowledge you’ve got, you can live with no regrets. After all, the rest is out of your control. And that’s OK. 

You’ve got plenty of time to change your mind. If you’re just trying to find what you want to do at uni, you can transfer to something else. If you end up finishing your degree and getting into the workforce but finding you don’t like it, it’s possible to change there too. Basically, you’re not doomed if you don’t make the ‘right’ choice! We all get to where we want to be in different ways. If you don’t land on your purpose immediately, there’s plenty of time to figure it out. 

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