How to find your purpose in life

It is a process that begins with self-knowledge, continues with exploration and takes shape through trial and error

Purpose in life

For a few years now, everyone seems to be looking for their purpose in life, what the Japanese would call ikigai. For our existence to have meaning, we need to have a reason to get out of bed, something that drives us and gives us direction, especially in times of uncertainty.

This longing is what pushes Izan, the young protagonist of the fable ¿Para qué he venido a este mundo? (Why did I come into this world?), to escape from his home and to take to the road in search of his purpose. In the words of the book’s author, Tony Estruch: “Every human being sooner or later faces one of these two pains: either you assume the pain of not being yourself to please others, or you accept the pain of being who you are and that some people will distance themselves from you, or even reject you, because they do not approve of your life decisions.”

There are those who would like to lead a completely different existence than the one they have, but they stay in a narrow and uncomfortable comfort zone for fear of failing or being belittled by the known and familiar world.

However, what happens when we are unhappy with our reality, but also have no alternative? Bertolt Brecht illustrated this type of existential crisis very graphically in his famous poem Changing the Wheel: “I am sitting by the side of the road. / The driver is changing the wheel. / I don’t like where I was. / I don’t like where I’m going to. / Why do I watch the changing of the wheel with impatience?”

Perhaps because, while the traveler is moving, they at least have the illusion that they are going somewhere. How can we discover our purpose when we feel lost and do not even suspect what our mission in the world may be?

There are three ways that can help us in our search:

Self-knowledge. If I don’t know who I am, I will hardly be able to find my purpose, because it is closely linked to my talent. When a person becomes aware that they have a gift for listening, for example, that can help them see themselves as a future therapist, coach or consultant. Therefore, it is important to consider what we can offer the world, which in turn shapes our purpose.

Exploration. The meaning of life will not magically come knocking when we are sitting on the couch. As the existentialists stated, we must create it. And to do this we have to go out into the world and increase the bandwidth of our experiences. Talk to different people — some of whom may have already found their purpose —, take part in projects that take you out of your routine, attend conferences, read books and watch different movies to the ones you usually watch. In short, come out of your shell.

Trial and error. This is how experimental science progresses: different possibilities are tried out until one of them “switches on the light bulb,” as happened with Edison, who made the historic discovery after trying a thousand filaments that didn’t work. Trial and error also applies when it comes to finding your passion. “What you don’t like in me, improve it in you,” said Alejandro Jodorowsky. If you’ve been unhappy in every office you’ve worked in, chances are you’re in your element as a freelancer. As we rule out options, we get closer to our ikigai.

These clues can lead to finding a vocation, a purpose in life, although it may not be your “mission in the world.” For it to meet this definition, it needs to meet one more condition: what we do has a positive impact on humanity.

We are talking about this at a time when there is also reflection on the great resignation in the United States: when millions of people left their jobs at the end of the pandemic because they were not growing nor did they feel that they were improving the world in any concrete way.

This leads us to a fourth way of finding our purpose in life: start with what the world needs. If I perceive, for example, that there is a lack of kindness in the world due to the prevailing aggressiveness and polarization, I can turn to my talents and see how I can focus them for this purpose.

In simple terms, we can ask ourselves this question: how and where can we be most useful to the world? Perhaps we have been stumbling in a certain direction, but life shows us another path where our efforts will have more impact.

For this reason, a purposeful existence is often found at the point where what you expect from life intersects with what life expects of you.

The what, the how and the why

In the corporate world, Simon Sinek is one of the authors who have written the most about the pursuit for the meaning of life is. He explains that three levels of evolution, often citing the philosophy of Steve Jobs at Apple as an example.

— The first level is WHAT you do. In the case of Apple, the answer is: “We make personal computers.”

— The second level is HOW you do it. Jobs would have responded: “Our products are beautiful and easy to use.”

— The top level is WHY. Apple's reason was: “Challenge the status quo and do things differently.”

Analyzing the what, how and why will allow us to delve deeper into the true motivations that underlie what we do. And if there isn’t a why, then perhaps we need to look for a more meaningful mission elsewhere.

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