Five lessons on finding a sense of purpose in life and work

Five lessons on finding a sense of purpose in life and work

This year I spoke to over 100 different people about the work they do and how they find meaning in it. Here are five things I learnt about the ways we find purpose in our work: 

1 – Finding a sense of purpose is a process of balancing self and other

As Roman Krznaric told me in our interview, the twenty first century has been an age of introspection, of self-help books and looking inside for answers. Finding empathy for others challenges us to adapt our skills and experience to meet the needs of the wider world.

There’s also a point about sustainability here – often the work that is most purposeful and valuable to others can be the most personally taxing.

2 – You get further by experiment than by thought

Some of us are naturally more inclined to thought than action (me included). But much of the time you learn more by action, by experiment and by mistake. In this sense the decisions you make are less important – it’s the actions that follow that make the difference.  

Some of the best advice on getting beyond thought came from David Papa via Happy Startups:

  • Focus on feelings — the tasks and work that feels good, particularly feelings of pride and excitement.

  • Never work alone — find collaborators with different strengths and fears to your own.

  • Work in the service of others — be responsive to other people’s needs.

3 - Growth means change and uncertainty

When I started out I expected answers. Concrete and certain. I’ve learnt that the real challenge is to learn to live with change and uncertainty. As Sophie Howarth said:

‘I don’t think that the point is to stop wrestling with it and arrive at an answer, I think the challenge is to stay in the uncertainty… enlarging yourself and continuing this debate as you change as a person, in all the different phases of your life.’ Sophie Howarth, Co-founder, School of Life

Allow room for growth and change, but get faster at spotting the opportunities to move forward. As the world of work changes we cannot expect to reach a static point in our lives and careers. 

4 - Create space for change

Sometimes the clutter of life can blur our thinking - like burnout and fatigue from past work. Space between one thing and another - it doesn't have to be productive space – leaves room for experiment with no expectations. It’s in these in-between times that we find room for curiosity. Read, travel, ponder, do nothing. Follow your curiosity for no other goal than to explore. Many of the people I spoke to about purposeful work had allowed themselves a period of space between one thing and another that allowed new opportunities to emerge. Most importantly, find playfulness in the process.

5 - Beware of your own preconceptions

Get outside your own head - talk to others, especially those with different backgrounds and lifestyles. We don't realise how bound up we are with our own expectations until we challenge them. Recognise there are other ways to think and feel and be (and experience them for yourself). Sometimes our preconceptions can blind us to opportunities - stay open.

The mountaineer and the explorer: two approaches to the purpose quest

The mountaineer and the explorer: two approaches to the purpose quest

The joy with the pain

The joy with the pain