Last week I visited a Stonehenge exhibit at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science. While much about Stonehenge continues to remain a mystery, archaeologists agree that it served as a burial site, a place of ritual, and an intentional framing of the sun during the winter and summer solstices. As I wandered through the exhibit, I thought about humanity’s yearning to connect to something greater than ourselves. From the Neolithic tribes who built Stonehenge, to the masons who constructed medieval cathedrals, to the space engineers who designed the International Space Station, these people contributed to great feats that reflect this eternal drive to push limits, connect to the world beyond us, and be of purpose.
We often hear comments in our Guided Career & Life Transitions course from women longing for a greater sense of purpose and connection. As they look to create their next life chapter, this desire to positively impact the world and contribute to something greater than themselves drives their thinking. And last week while walking through the Stonehenge exhibit, I was struck by the universality and timelessness of this desire for purpose and connection.
This has me thinking and rethinking about purpose. How do we craft purposeful lives?
We often look to our careers as a vehicle for expressing our purpose. However, it is not uncommon for us to see women, even those employed in the most purpose-driven fields, attest to burnout, frustration, or feeling like incidental cogs in the wheel. Yet, research conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman over his 50 plus year career confirms that having meaning and purpose in our lives is one of the five critical indicators for high levels of well-being.
So, while rethinking this subject of purpose, I’ve found it helpful to switch from the perspective of purpose as something to search for outside ourselves, to an internal cultivation of being purposeful in what we do each day. This internal perspective goes beyond mindfulness – of being present and aware of the moment. It includes making choices about the intentional impact our actions can have today, even the most mundane ones. This perspective can be especially powerful when our lives have been disrupted and feel out of control. Purposefully engaging in day-to-day activities can help us make meaning even in chaotic times.
This shift from an external search for purpose to an internal cultivation of purpose isn’t necessarily easy.
In his book, Think Again, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes about the challenges of rethinking, especially when it comes to thoughts about our goals, identities, and habits. He shares his story of becoming an All-American diver who qualified for the Junior Olympic Nationals in high school. However, when he arrived at college, he found that he didn’t have the talent to compete at this higher level. He was stuck. Diving had been his purpose. It was his identity. It was how he made meaning of his life. Rethinking it was unimaginable. And he resisted. Yet when he finally stepped back and assessed his life as a diver, he realized his greater sense of purpose came from contributing to a team, growing, and excelling – three things he could do in many arenas. He decided to shift his focus to growing and contributing to those around him through work as a diving coach, magician, and psychology researcher, which eventually led him to his purposeful work as an award-winning organizational psychologist and professor.
So rather than searching for that thing outside ourselves to bring us purpose, what if we reverse the process and explore being purposeful in what we do each day? How do we show up purposefully for the meeting that typically bores us? How do we purposefully spend and invest money? What happens when we purposefully connect with the store clerk by making an authentic connection? What results when we purposefully take a curious stance about someone we disagree with and don’t understand? It is often when we are purposeful in our actions, that we have the greatest impact.
Infinite opportunities exist for finding purpose in the moment and adding value to the world around us today, even while working towards a major career and life transition.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Similarly, I believe that through this process of being purposeful now, we live our way into our greater purpose.