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Living Life on Purpose

purposePeople are talking about purpose a lot these days, as bloggers and academics and coaches debate whether it’s better to actively “find your purpose” versus do things that “help your purpose find you.”  A quick web search for the term “purpose” returns an endless stream of results, including one website where I can apparently find out “how to discover my life’s purpose in about 20 minutes.”

Although it would be awesome if the purpose question could be answered in 20 short minutes on the Internet, I actually think that figuring this out – what your purpose is, what to do to find it/let it find you, and how it should and can realistically direct your life – is extraordinarily difficult and requires time and effort (I wrote a post about the early stages of my personal purpose journey a few months ago).  But there is something I think is related, yet much easier to wrap your head around and practice: living life on purpose.

In my mind, there is a significant difference between living a purpose-driven life and living life on purpose.  The former comes from a very deep place that touches the core of our being; this is my deep, deep aspiration and my individual journey, but not yet my current reality.  The latter, however, relates to things that are easier to grasp – things like reason and deliberation and goal-directedness and the ability to hold both the near-term and the long-term at the same time.  This definitely isn’t easy, but to me, it seems doable.

For me, living life on purpose is about being intentional about my actions and decisions (I’ve heard this described as disambiguation, which sounds robotic, but makes good sense to me).  Living with intention involves things like actively making trade-offs, aiming to always understand how your time is being spent and why, and putting guardrails in place to ensure you stay on track.  For example, in my wellfesto, I’ve made commitments like “I exercise as much as my time and body allow because it gives me energy and de-clutters my mind and helps me stay in the present and helps me feel like myself;” and “I prioritize my relationships with my husband, kids, family, and friends even when it means sacrifice in other areas of my life.”  These statements have very little to do with my deep, core purpose in life….but they have everything to do with living life on purpose.

I had a professor in graduate school who shared a story about how she and her partner sat down every January 1 and talked about various aspects of their lives that were going well versus not.  Something she said really stuck with me (paraphrasing here): “We know it’s impossible to optimize for everything we’d like in our lives, so we work to find a comfortable balance between things that are great and things that aren’t.  For example, we’d like to live in a warmer climate, but we love our jobs…so living in Chicago trumps moving to a warmer place.  We’d like to make more money, but we value autonomy, so we’re OK with a simpler lifestyle.”  She had incredible clarity about the trade-offs she was making and why. She was (and still is, I hope) living life on purpose.

Different people likely thrive with varying levels of intentionality about the way they live their lives.  Some may float through life happily, letting things come into and go out of their lives with little though…and that’s fine.  But others may benefit from greater attention and intention, in everyday moments, phases of their life (i.e., the roaring 20s or the mid-thirties parenting fog), or their whole life.  If you’re interested in applying the idea of intention, here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  • Be clear about what matters most to you: Be honest with yourself and the people around you about what’s most important to you….and then design your life to maximize time around those things.
  • Actively make trade-offs: Take stock now and again of what’s going on in your life and why.  If there are things that aren’t ideal, think about them in the context of everything else.  Can you make peace with renting instead of buying a house because you don’t have the risk profile to carry a huge mortgage?  Can you live with a career plateau so you can see your kids grow up?  Or are you OK with finding someone amazing to take care of your kids so you can make a meaningful impact in your work?
  • Focus on the present: I posted earlier this week that “the way we spend our days is the way we spend our life.”  Think about where your time is going every day, and work toward a place where the way you spend most of your days reflects the way you see yourself spending your life.  I think there is a lot of value in the saying “we become what we do all day long.”
  • Ask for feedback: Talk to good friends and family now and again about whether they believe you’re walking the walk and not just talking the talk about what matters most.  Our best friends are often our most honest mirrors.
  • Be thankful.  Being able to live life on purpose is easier for some people than it is for others.  If you’re lucky enough to have the structural support, time and autonomy to be intentional about your minutes and hours and days and years, don’t lose sight of what a luxury that is.  A simple gratitude practice may push you one step further…

With or without an omnipresent purpose, not everything in life can be bright and shiny all the time.  But it’s a lot easier to accept the things that aren’t when they have been actively chosen versus decided for us.  To me, this peace of mind and clarity of thought is the greatest value of living life on purpose.

How do you feel about living your life on purpose?  Does it matter to you, or does it feel constraining?  If intention is important to you, what do you do to make sure you’re living the way you want to be living?    

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