How to live a life of purpose

Do the things you were born to do and create significance in your life

Man walking on an endless road with rainbow on the horizon

"Something opens our wings.
Something makes boredom and heart disappear.
Someone fills the cup in front of us.
We taste only sacredness."

—Rumi

You are here for a reason

You were born into this world for a reason. You are here for a nobler purpose than just to eat, sleep, produce offspring, and die. You are here to make a difference. You are here to shine your light and leave the world in better shape then you received it. You are here to display the gifts you have been blessed with. You are here to use those gifts to make a contribution and create significance.

There is no one like you in this world. No one in this world can match your smile, style, or DNA. No one in this world can speak like you or think like you. You are unique, gifted, and special. And your gifts are tied to your purpose. When you do things you were born to do and use your innate gifts to make a difference, you are living and working with purpose.

When you live with purpose, you are energised and focussed, and have a sense of direction. You are concentrating on things that are important to you. Your life has meaning and direction, and you are able to pay attention to your work, family, and spirituality.

What a purposeful life looks like

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece,” wrote John Ruskin, the Victorian artist, scientist, poet, environmentalist, and philosopher.

All of nature is on call, operating in silence and yet on purpose. The mighty oak was once a little nut that stood its ground. The acorn contains the design for the fully developed oak tree in all its mightiness. Where you find purpose and strong principles, there you find success and balance.

Man holding huge gift box
When you do things you were born to do you use your innate gifts

A ship would never sail without a destination. Similarly you can’t find fulfilment without having a clear objective. When you have purpose, you know where you are going, and you know why you want to go there. You are driven to get there. A sense of purpose creates energy, meaning, gumption, and love. You lose track of time doing things that have a solid purpose.

Purposeful living enables you to know what’s really important in your life. You should not confuse important things with urgent things. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between what’s urgent and what’s important. What is important is generally not urgent. Things become urgent only if we have neglected to do them. Focussing on urgent things can lead to imbalance. Although many of us are aware of the differences between urgent and important, most of us are unaware of where our time disappears.

Why bother about purpose

“The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work,” commented Richard Bach, author of the best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

When you enjoy your work, you are more efficient and effective. Doing what you love in a conducive environment invites passion and makes it easier to wield your talent with maximum effect. You understand the bigger purpose of your work. You’re like the mason who knows that he is building a cathedral instead of just laying stones.

When you do purposeful work, you feel guided by principles. Your principles are the anchor, providing a source of steadiness amid tumultuous circumstances. If your anchor is bendable, then it will not hold the boat in place properly. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Important principles may and must be inflexible.” If principles can be bent, they cannot serve as reliable guides to behaviour.

Doing what you love in a conducive environment invites passion and makes it easier to wield your talent with maximum effect

Obstacles to living a purposeful life

Few of us have personal direction early in life. Instead of choosing our own ideal jobs, we let the jobs choose us. Most jobs look great if you don’t really know what you’re looking for. If you haven’t really decided where you want to go in your career, there are too many bewildering paths to take.

Many people seem to follow the same pattern in work or marriage: They leave a job that they’ve found unfulfilling and find the same kind of job next time around. The same applies for people who get divorced: They seem to end up marrying the same kind of person again. They then blame bad fortune and never realise that they simply didn’t reflect long enough or deep enough to decide what sort of work they wanted or what sort of spouse best complemented them.

Take the example of Leslie, who works as an administrative assistant for an average-sized company. She doesn’t like her job. She is interested in a job with more personal interaction. She finds her employer unreasonable and demanding. Every day she comes home miserable. This has affected her marriage and her relationship with her children. She has done this for 11 years. She is now 45 years old and feels that it is too late to change jobs.

It’s not too late. She has to make the choice to live with purpose. That choice will exact a price in the short run, but she will be far better off in the long run.

She must identify what she loves to do and what her innate gifts are. If she has not been happy with her job, the chances are that she is part of the problem. She is probably not working at her optimum, and her attitude is not positive. This contributes to the flawed relationship with her employer and to her less-than-optimum performance. It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Leslie can bring about a change in her life through lifelong learning, exploring options about her work and career, and discussions with her family about her dilemma.

“Successful and unsuccessful people do not vary greatly in their abilities,” according to John Maxwell, leadership trainer and author of the book Developing the Leader Within You, “They vary in their desires to reach their potential.”

Your principles are the anchor; if your anchor is bendable, then it will not hold the boat in place properly

Strategies to overcome these obstacles

Here are some ways to overcome obstacles to living a purposeful life at home and at work:

» Clarity of purpose

“The sole purpose of education is to help you find out what you, with all your heart, must love to do,” wrote Jiddu Krishnamurti, India-born 20th century philosopher.

And American author Robert Byrne wrote, “The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose.”

This wisdom from East and West boils down to this: To achieve a meaningful and significant life, you must have a vision and a mission statement that tells how you expect to implement that vision.

That means you can’t pick your line of work randomly. When making that choice, it’s important to reflect, take a long look inside yourself, and answer some hard questions about who you are and what you want. The key to purpose lies within you.

The Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, have a story about a man who lost his keys and searched for them in the street. A friend came by and helped him search. Finally, the friend asked, “Where were you when you lost your keys?”

“In the house,” replied the man.

“Then why aren’t you looking for them in the house?” asked the friend.

“Because the light’s better in the street,” came the reply.

You have to look for the key to purpose where it lies—within you—and not where it’s more convenient or less painful to look.

You can help identify your purpose by asking two questions:

  1. “If I were to die today, what would be written on my tombstone?”
  2. “If I had six months to live, how would I spend my remaining days?”

These questions put things in perspective. To answer them, you need to form a vision of what you want to be. You must identify your mission in life and describe that mission in a mission statement.

A mission statement can help you to remove the dust from the mirror so you can see clearly. You must separate truth and reality from the illusionary. You need a great deal of courage to challenge your beliefs and reach out to reality. If you are too caught up with the mundane, illusionary things of life, it will be difficult to get clarity.

Whenever you are confused about a course of action you need to take, you can go back to your mission statement and find the clarity of purpose there.

When you are clear about your vision, and believe in your ability, you invite help from the Universe. A thousand unseen hands come to your assistance. The universe conspires to help you. So sing the song that you have come here to sing; do not just string and unstring your instrument. Work in areas of your calling. Keep your eye on your goal, and see how energised and motivated you become.

If you are too caught up with the mundane, illusionary things of life, it will be difficult to get clarity

According to the Buddhist tradition of the Right Livelihood, the right work gives you a chance to develop your abilities and overcome your own ego-centeredness. When you find yourself doing purposeful work, in your area of interest, it will energise you. Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, but he did not do nearly as well in baseball.

If you are not enjoying your work, you’ll never become accomplished at what you do. Finding the right work comes from having both clarity of vision and clarity of mission. Developing mission statements both for your profession and for your family becomes crucial for clarity. Finding alignment between the two brings about congruence. A mission statement reveals the principles by which you would like to operate your life. It reflects your deep values and connects with your calling in life.

To help you achieve clarity, ask yourself the following:

  • Do you know the one thing you must do?
  • Are you spending your life stringing and unstringing the instrument instead of singing your song?
  • Do you keep your eye on the goal or on the obstacles?
  • Do you see and feel your goal and vision regularly?
  • Is your work mission aligned to your personal mission?
  • Do you know why you are doing what you are doing?
  • Is your work your greatest delight?
  • Does your purpose make a difference to others?
  • Do you know that you are born with a mission to make a difference?

» Your shared vision

“The passion of a shared vision empowers people to transcend beyond petty, negative interactions,” according to Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

When you have a shared vision there is harmony among members of your work team and of your family team. You waste less time arguing about where you are going, and you tend to pull together towards your mutual goals. All this helps with balancing your life, because it saves time and energy.

You do not live on an island. You have needs and responsibilities outside yourself. Therefore, having a shared vision at home and at work makes a lot of sense, and increases your chances of success. All family members need to buy into the vision. The same goes for your work team. Without involvement, team members will make no commitment.

» Choose wisely

Family holding a boardPeople today are inundated with choices. They range from too many brands of cereal to too many career choices, to too many life choices. It all gets a bit overwhelming. The variables you deal with include where you will live and work and what’s important for the family, for the children, and for you.

Choices create your destiny, and choices must be aligned with your purpose in life. As you choose, so you become.

When you choose to spend time with the family, you are choosing wisely. Azim recalls a dinner date he had with his daughter, Sahar, then 10 years old. As the dinner progressed, Azim was deeply moved [and even a little surprised] at how Sahar opened up and started to share of herself—her joys and her struggles. Azim was amazed at her candour and depth. In the intimate and honest connection they formed a good friendship. Azim felt he came to know his daughter on a deeper level.

When we spend time with our children, we build a powerful bond. Quality time is not enough; we also need to spend quantity time with them as well, especially when they are young. So the choices we make at home create balance or imbalance.

Making decisions about what you want in life means starting with yourself and not with the external demands of any situation. It’s important to discover what is unique about yourself, what things in life really motivate you, and where your joy springs from.

» Be willing to take risks

If you want to live with purpose, you must be willing to take risks. No objective worth pursuing comes without effort or risk. When you begin taking calculated risks that take you towards your objective, you feel more energetic and balanced. You foreclose the possibility that you will later find yourself saying, “If only I had taken that chance.” This energy and balance also carry over into your personal life. This underscores the importance of seizing the moment; of reaching for the stars while you’re gifted with youth, energy, and a sense of adventure. But your reach should not be blind. It must be guided by reflection and planning. Many of the seniors we’ve interviewed have told us they wished they had been more reflective in their prime. Many of them had been so caught up in the moment of action that they often lost focus on the meaning of what they were trying to accomplish.

Life moves at an ever-quickening pace, and by the time you’ve finished preparing and establishing yourself, its time to shift gears. Phase II, the second half of your life has arrived, and the days, weeks and years pick up speed like a river current approaching rapids. Suddenly your children are grown, your grandchildren are arriving, and you’re the age your parents were when you first thought of them as ‘old.’ Time is suddenly the most precious currency in life, and you regret taking the risk-free course and holding back from doing the things you love doing.

Seek integrity not security. Integrity comes when you choose the work you love and are born to do.

When you begin taking calculated risks that take you towards your objective, you feel more energetic and balanced

» Eliminate doubt from your life

To have doubts is to be human. But doubts are energy drains that bring on imbalance. They are stumbling blocks you need to clear out of your life.

It’s true that a degree of uncertainty keeps you from being careless; it’s the thing that makes you suddenly remember that you haven’t checked whether the stove was turned off or the doors were locked. A little uncertainty is OK if it keeps you on guard against dangerous situations.

woman with too many doubts
Never doubt your intentions or your desires. Be your own biggest fan

Some people allow themselves to feel like failures when they encounter obstacles to reaching their goals. Others treat the obstacles as temporary detours. They quickly find ways to return to the main road and continue toward their objectives. They never stop believing they’ll get there. To them, one inch of doubt is too much. Never doubt your intentions or your desires. Have faith in the unknown and be your own biggest fan. When you believe in yourself, everyone else does too.

» Aim for authenticity, not charisma

While being charismatic and dynamic are wonderful traits, being authentic is being precisely what the world perceives us to be. We can’t fool people. They can see us coming a mile away.

Success is secular, and significance is spiritual, just as happiness is transient, but joy is lasting. Significance is influenced by passion, and passion is the result of purpose. Being leads to doing. It’s not, I do and therefore I am; It’s I am, and therefore I do. Sounds heavy, but really it is a basic understanding about life and living and how work fits into all that. Let who you are dictate what you do.

During your work life, you’ve undoubtedly encountered the advice that you compile a ‘to-do list.’ It’s a standard tool of time management. We suggest that you prepare a ‘to-be list’ and a ‘stop-doing list.’

Authentic people know their strengths and weaknesses and are not afraid to be honest about both sides of their personalities. But charismatic people seek to hide their weaknesses behind their darker side. If you look back on your life, you’ll probably find that the teachers who made school life more meaningful for you weren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable instructors, but they were authentic people. They imparted a full sense of themselves and were able to transmit a more complete idea of humanity that made you want to be real and authentic too. Authentic individuals embody the values they advocate, and can model the new way of doing things. Authenticity linked to purpose creates synergy and meaning. On the other hand, charisma, if it is charm without substance, can be problematic.

Authentic people know their strengths and weaknesses and are not afraid to be honest about both sides of their personalities

Azim was once asked to introduce a colleague at a seminar. Azim poured his heart out in the introduction. It was the kind of introduction that Azim would want someone to give him. The praise was authentic; the colleague’s virtues were not exaggerated. The power of the introduction was heartfelt and sincere, and came with the right intention. When you give to others what you need most, your gift comes from the depth of authenticity and security. Azim admits that this has not always been easy for him to do.

When you practice authenticity in the family it is much more stable, happy, and balanced. The focus is on how you can support each other. There is no energy drain brought on by negativity and defence.

Authentic living means you are living in tune with your calling and your purpose. It means going to the source. It means no more lying to oneself.

As Azim puts it: “The whole world can think you are great, but if you do not feel that way from deep within, the world’s opinion means little. What counts is being true to your deeper self, not to others’ opinions about you.”

» Be transformational, not transactional

Transactional leaders focus on what they want to say; transformational leaders focus on the need to feel and believe.

Your beliefs lead to your behaviours, and your behaviours lead to results. It isn’t what you and I say that matters; it’s the effect it has long after we’ve said it. Transformational individuals recognise that it isn’t something you do in front of your clients that impresses them; it’s something you do with your clients. When clients ‘own’ what you share and ‘invest’ themselves in it, transformation is a likely result.

You feel it and hear it and see it when you have a transformational effect. Transactional people change behaviours; transformational people change hearts and minds. Transformational people do not do things that are temporary and short-lived. They tend to build long-term relationships. They make huge changes, create great progress, and produce a metamorphosis through which the thing that is transformed becomes greater than its parts.

Conversely, transactional people focus on the transaction—the give-and-take with a short-term outlook; the ‘You-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours’ kind of attitude. They tend to make a lot of noise, but create only a splash. Transactional people drink beer, burp and then go to sleep. Anyone can do that. Transformation requires much more than that.

Transactional people change behaviours; transformational people change hearts and minds

Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley are both examples of men who led lives of great accomplishment and reached great heights of fame and popularity, but died in misery amid all their wealth. Neither appears to have gone beyond the pursuit of personal gratification to become a transformational force in the world.

Elvis left behind a great body of music and movies. He left his indelible stamp on generations of music. And he was known for random acts of generosity. Yet he never attempted to use his wealth and influence in a focussed way to bring about a better world.

Howard Hughes had brilliant achievements in movie-making and in the aircraft industry, leaving behind movies as Hell’s Angels, Scarface and The Outlaw and making genuine contributions to aircraft design and performance prior to the World War II. But he spent his final years as an enigmatic recluse. He used his wealth to pursue his personal interests. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $2 billion, but his sole act of philanthropy was the founding of the Hughes Medical Institute. Since his death, the institute has become the nation’s largest private source of support for biomedical research and science education. But it achieved that status almost by accident, and under the guidance of leaders who created a vision for it that went well beyond Hughes’ dream of a tax shelter for his aircraft business.

Transformation comes about when you are purpose-centred and not ego-centred. A family that follows a ‘transformational outlook’ has a far better chance of having lasting relationships than a family that follows a ‘transactional outlook.’

» Create intentional congruence

To be congruent means to be in agreement, to harmonise, or to correspond. When your life is in congruence, anything and everything you do is in harmony with your core values and principles. Intentional congruence means that you intentionally get involved in projects and associations that connect harmoniously with each other and with your overall core values and principles.

You know you have it when two or more of your activities and strategies cumulatively create more than either could create separately. Nido’s network of interests provides a model. He is a professional speaker, which feeds into his consulting, which feeds into his magazine publishing, which leads to business for his public-relations firm. Everything he does has an interlocking relationship with everything else he’s involved in. The result is maximum effectiveness and productivity.

Living a life of congruence invites balance. You can achieve that congruence by examining the purpose of your life and connecting everything you do to that purpose. It is important, therefore, to determine what you want to place at the centre of your being – what you want to become the source of your core motivation.

When your life is people-centred, the important thing to you is what others want. When it’s possession-centred, the important thing is what you have. When it is activity-centred, the important thing is what you do. These are all external sources of motivation.

When you put principles at the centre of your life, you have a solid, unwavering foundation for decision-making

But when your life is principle-centred, the important thing is who and what you are. Your core motivation lies within you. The principles we live by determine our character—the essence of who we are.

When you choose an external source of core motivation, you place yourself at the mercy of mood swings, inconsistent behaviour, and uncontrollable changes of fortune. When you put principles at the centre of your life, you have a solid, unwavering foundation for decision-making.

When we live by our principles, we are being true to ourselves. This is quite different from being self-centred. Self-centred people don’t reach out to others, and don’t concern themselves with others’ interests. They therefore live their lives in emotional isolation, often developing mental-health problems. Intentions and desires come from your spiritual nature. Release them to the universe to take over, remembering that the universe knows more about you than you know about yourself. Surrender to its timing. Just as every seed embodies huge potential, so too does every person. Just as the seed must give itself to the fertile ground to reach its potential, so too must we give ourselves to the universe around us.

Man trying to view from top of the hill» Stay in the big picture

Don’t lose sight of your big picture as you get caught up in the activity of life. In every problem lies an opportunity, so focus on the opportunity and the solutions. Maintain positive energy. Decide your priorities based on your shared vision, and act accordingly. Just thinking of your goals is not enough; you must take action to fulfil those dreams and make them happen. When your thinking arises from your goals, it results in wise choices that will help you accomplish those goals.

» From here to there

Fulfilment comes from closing the gap between where you are and where you want to go. To close that gap, you begin with two questions: ‘What do I want?’ and ‘How am I going to get it?’

Once you have answered those questions, you will be fired up for action. Your sense of purpose will make it clear what your goals are. Finally, it will erase the doubts and negativity and stop those anxiety-causing questions such as ‘What good is my life?’ or ‘Why am I doing all this anyway?’

“Everyone has a purpose in life—a unique gift or special talent to give to others,” says Deepak Chopra, noted authority on holistic medicine. Note the phrase ‘to give to others.’ Your sense of purpose must involve more than raw numbers. If your purpose is to make $100,000 a week, achieving it is unlikely to give you a warm sense of accomplishment.

Fulfilment comes from closing the gap between where you are and where you want to go

Nido’s sense of purpose is vividly illustrated by his wills.

He has a conventional will that details what happens to his material goods when he dies. That’s simply a mechanical instrument, designed to transmit his material assets to his heirs while minimising the tax burden on them. He lets a lawyer handle that. The ones he spends his own time on are his ethical wills.

He has written a private document to each of his four children that says, “Material things come and go, but let me tell you what I’ve left for you that will stay with you all your years and, even more important, which you can pass on to many generations thereafter.”

This ethical will talks about values, about purpose, about character. This is an example of a far deeper wealth and sense of purpose in life, carrying more meaning than just material wealth.

Finally it is important to know whether you are actually living on your purpose. Self-awareness aids in the making of choices. In his Journal for Lasting Happiness: Your Key to Success, Azim encourages each person to write a daily journal as a habit of self-reflection. When you increase your self-awareness, you understand reality better, and therefore, tend to be more giving. Azim has sometimes found himself doing things that are contrary to his teaching, but his journal writing allows him to catch himself in the act and practice self-correction. Otherwise he would be living an illusion, believing that he practices everything he preaches. Self-awareness comes from asking and answering hard questions that require deep personal integrity.

Living and working on purpose allows you to see beyond present reality to a place where you want to be. You are able to remain focussed on your big goals and not let petty things sidetrack you. You feel happy and productive. Purpose is the key to finding your way in the universal puzzle and reaching your destiny.

“The secret to success is consistency of purpose,” said Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British prime minister.

As with so many things, Disraeli was right.

Adapted with permission from Life Balance the Sufi Way by Azim Jamal and Nido Qubein. Published by Jaico


A version of this article was first published in the January 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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