What Is Your Why? (A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life)
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“Nothing gives a person inner wholeness and peace like a distinct understanding of where they are going.” – Thomas Oppong
Ever wonder what your reason is for getting up every day?
Some of us go through each day searching for our “why”—the purpose of our existence. Some stumble in their searches, while others make successful discoveries.
There are also those who have successfully identified their purpose but still veer onto different paths, diverted by other pursuits.
Perhaps you’ve been led to this article because, like many others, you’re searching for your own life's purpose.
This is a legitimate question to ask yourself, and this post will provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to find your “why” in life. We hope that these tips can clarify your purpose, and by doing so benefit your career and personal life. First, let’s talk about the importance of having a life purpose.
What You Will Learn
- The Importance of Knowing Your “Why”
- The Major Benefits of Knowing Your “Why”
- How to Find Your Why
- 1. Identify the things you can do to make other people’s lives better.
- 2. Think back to the activities you did that made you forget about the passage of time.
- 3. Recall what you liked to do when you were a kid.
- 4. Think about the things that you are willing to do even if you look like a fool.
- 5. Observe what people ask of you when they come to you for help.
- 6. Imagine what you would be doing if you learned that you only had a year left to live.
- 7. Enumerate the things for which you would be willing to go the extra mile.
- 8. If you were given the chance to teach others (e.g., young people), what would you teach them?
- 9. What task at work would you do for free if you didn’t need the paycheck?
- 10. What’s usually the reason why people thank you?
- 11. If you were given the chance to do something that you love and not worry about the paycheck, what would it be?
- 12. What was your happiest memory of your childhood?
The Importance of Knowing Your “Why”
Simon Sinek, author of the book Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Finding Purpose for You and Your Team, writes that it is only when you understand your “why” (or your purpose) that you’ll be more capable of pursuing the things that give you fulfillment. It will serve as your point of reference for all your actions and decisions from this moment on, allowing you to measure your progress and know when you have met your goals.
The Japanese have the term “ikigai,” which can be translated to mean “a reason for being.” This is anything that gives a deep sense of purpose to a person’s life and makes it worthwhile. It is what you get up for every morning.
For an elderly woman, her ikigai might be a granddaughter that she takes care of while the parents work. For another person, their ikigai could be their friends or members of their community.
The infographic below shows how ikigai can be used to discover your purpose in life. There are five questions you need to answer, as well as 10 rules to keep in mind about applying ikigai in your own life.
The Major Benefits of Knowing Your “Why”
It provides clarity in your life.
People who have a sense of purpose are often seen as being unstoppable. They are capable of shaping their lives in the ways they want. When you become laser-focused on your goals, you will have no question about what you are getting up each and every day to accomplish.
On the other hand, without knowing your purpose, you will be unclear about what you want out of life, and become prone to wasting your time on futile endeavors. This can leave you confused and cause you to lack confidence in your work.
It infuses you with passion for your goals.
When you know your purpose in life, you are more deeply committed to pursuing your goals. The idea behind this is that you will never have to settle for less than what you want in life. The chances are slim that your ultimate goal is to work for someone else or be someone's assistant. You probably want to create your own way. This goal will be fueled by your passion.
It keeps you focused on your goals.
When you’ve identified your life’s purpose, it’s easier to focus on what truly matters. You’ll be better equipped to avoid distractions in order to achieve your vision. You’ll practice this trait in the workplace, at home, and in social settings.
To stay focused on your goals, they must be important to you. Your subconscious can try to trick you into believing that you want one thing, when in reality these things do very little to help you live out your purpose. For example, let's say you are entering college and your passion in life is art.
However, everyone you know is going into business or another field that is less subjective, so you tell yourself that majoring in business is what you want to do because that is what you feel like you “should” do. But doing so will not let you live out your purpose. If you are clear on what your “why” is, you won't waste time on trying to obtain pointless goals.
It helps you live healthier and longer.
Numerous studies have shown that having a purpose in life leads to longer lifespans in older adults. This may be because when you are living with a purpose, you adopt a prospective focus, looking forward to the day when your purpose is fulfilled. This causes everyday stressors to become less influential and have a smaller impact on your overall well-being.
It helps you develop resilience.
People who have a deeper sense of purpose in life are better at finding meaning in setbacks they experience compared with those who wander through life aimlessly. When you know your purpose, you have a feeling of mastery that helps you let go of anything that goes wrong in your life that is irrelevant to your core values. This means that you can learn from life's hardships and bounce back quickly from adversity.
It allows you to live a life with integrity.
Those who know their purpose in life understand who they are and what they are here for. They are more satisfied in general because they’re living true to their core values. When this is the case, a person doesn't have to put on a façade or act like they are passionate about a job that they truly dislike. Instead, their passion is genuine for everything they do, and they always show up as their true selves.
In the video below, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle discuss a section of the latter’s book, New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. The discussion centers on people’s feeling of dissatisfaction about life, the pursuit of fulfillment, the difference between inner and outer purpose, and the importance of being centered and present in the “now” as a life purpose.
Now that you know the importance of finding your why, let's look at some strategies you can use to find your purpose in life.
How to Find Your Why
These activities require you to be introspective and answer some questions about your personal experiences to uncover your life’s purpose. It is a good idea to write down your thoughts in a journal as you do these exercises.
1. Identify the things you can do to make other people’s lives better.
Having self-awareness is great. However, doing something that will benefit others more than yourself is amazing. In fact, research has shown that people who have a sense of purpose and are grateful for the life they are living often contribute more to the world beyond themselves than those who do not have this sense of gratitude. This might be because, if someone can see how others benefit their life, that person will be more motivated to give back to humanity.
One study in particular found that people who engage in altruistic behaviors such as volunteering or donating money typically have a greater sense of purpose than those who don't.
Further, research has shown that people who are altruistic also report having a strong sense of purpose. The feeling of making a difference in the world or in someone else's life is ultimately the most important thing for your own joy and fulfillment—and importance is parallel with purpose.
2. Think back to the activities you did that made you forget about the passage of time.
You have probably heard people say, “Time flies when you are having fun!” Moments like this are what psychologists call the “flow,” and what spirituals call connecting with the divine. Whatever is the case for you, these activities are where your passions are.
You are fulfilling your purpose when you are doing something that energizes you rather than something that drains your energy and leaves you feeling exhausted. When you are living your purpose, you are not left wondering, “Is it 5:00 yet?”
3. Recall what you liked to do when you were a kid.
You can see glimpses of your purpose by remembering the things that you did just for the sheer fun of it as a child. As you reflect upon the story of your life, it’s easy to pick up on certain patterns that tend to repeat themselves, or some trends in the activities that you did. These patterns may hold clues to your purpose. What have you found enjoyment in for your entire life?
We have a tendency to lose touch with the things that we loved as children. With adolescence and adulthood come societal pressures that take certain passions away from us.
As adults, we often believe that we should only do things that we are somehow rewarded for. The transactional nature of our society often leaves us disconnected from doing the things that we truly love.
4. Think about the things that you are willing to do even if you look like a fool.
Before you can do something well, at some point you have to do it without any competence or knowledge about what you're doing. And, in order to continue working at something even after you have made some mistakes and embarrassed yourself in doing so, you have to be passionate about it. These activities are meaningful enough for you that you do them regardless of other people’s opinions.
People avoid embarrassment for obvious reasons, but if you avoid doing anything that has the potential to embarrass you, then you won't end up doing anything that feels meaningful.
Feeling foolish comes with the territory when you are on the path to achieve something important or significant. The more intimidated you are by a major life decision, the more you probably need to be doing it.
5. Observe what people ask of you when they come to you for help.
Is it a specific talent that you have? Are you a sounding board for your friends’ concerns? What do people thank you for? Appreciation from other people can help fuel your work.
You may not be able to see your strengths like others do because they come naturally to you. Look for common themes in reasons behind why people reach out to you in times of need.
For example, you might not realize the ways in which you inspire your friends to want to be like you. If you ask your friends directly what they believe your strengths to be, they might say something like, “You are great at being proactive in solving problems, rather than being reactive once a problem occurs.” You can tie these strengths into your “why.”
6. Imagine what you would be doing if you learned that you only had a year left to live.
Most people don't like thinking about death, but death forces us to focus on the truly important things. Knowing this often leads you to realize what your “why” is, and allows you to let go of things that are trivial or distracting. Death may be the only thing that can give you a clear perspective on the value of your life. How do you want people to remember you?
When people do not feel like they have a sense of direction or purpose, it is because they haven't figured out what’s important to them or what their values are. And if you aren't living in line with your own values, whose values or priorities are you living for? Discovering your “why” in life means that you have found a way to spend your limited amount of time here on earth well.
7. Enumerate the things for which you would be willing to go the extra mile.
These are the things that, regardless of failure or setbacks, you’ll still make an effort to do—and get up and learn from your previous mistakes. A lot of people don’t understand that passion is a result of action rather than the cause of it. You won't find your passion by being complacent. It is a trial-and-error process. If you aren't willing to go out of your way to do something, then you aren't truly passionate about it.
8. If you were given the chance to teach others (e.g., young people), what would you teach them?
If you consider this question, you are really thinking about what you would change about the world, or what knowledge you want to pass on to future generations. This question also forces you to reflect upon the things in life that you believe you are truly competent in and able to teach other people about. How would you want to improve other people's lives, or where do you believe there is a gap in knowledge that you could fill?
9. What task at work would you do for free if you didn’t need the paycheck?
Do you work to live or do you live to work? If you are doing something that you are passionate about, it won't feel like work. There will never be a Sunday night where you are dreading the imminent Monday morning.
What part of your work comes easy to you because you are happy while you're doing it? Aligning your professional life with your purpose is a critical part of living out your why.
10. What’s usually the reason why people thank you?
Similar to observing why people come to your for help, how do people find value in you or your contributions? Do you give great advice? Are you willing to take extra time out of your day to help your friends with something in particular? Think about the things that you do for people that are unique.
11. If you were given the chance to do something that you love and not worry about the paycheck, what would it be?
Considering this question is a great way to discover your passion. What would you do with all of your free time if money was not an issue? If you're not motivated by money, the only other thing you can be motivated by is time, and how you spend your time would certainly be on something that you love.
12. What was your happiest memory of your childhood?
Did you love to be on stage dancing as a child, but gave that up with age? Or maybe you loved a certain class in elementary school that you couldn't necessarily apply to a career. Think back to what you had a passion for before adult life got in the way, and find a way to tie your current life back to those original interests.
The video below shows Kimiko Nashimoto, a 90-year-old Japanese woman who made photography her life’s purpose. She is an inspiration for many in her community. She has done exhibits of her photos in galleries, and has over 100,000 followers on her Instagram account. This woman is proof that having a purpose in life can help a person live a long and happy life.
Finding your “why” is important not only for success in your professional and personal life, but also for your well-being and longevity.
Hopefully, the tips presented above on discovering your “why” can help you identify your own purpose and implement it in all areas of your life.
You need to look within, discover the things that you are passionate about, and pursue them—regardless of other people’s doubts or the setbacks you’ll meet. Your own purpose will point the way to your success.
And if you are aiming for success in the workplace, you might want to visit this post to learn about the 36 good workplace habits you need to build a successful career.