Look Here If You’re Missing A Sense Of Purpose
“Time to make the donuts,” the famous Dunkin’ Donuts commercial stated, and seared into our collective memories. Many professionals of all stripes now feel just like that donut maker: waking at dawn, crawling out of bed to go to work and make donut after the same donut. All the time, a voice is poking at them, wondering, as the Talking Heads sang, “How did I get here?”
Helping clients to get clear about their purpose is a core part of many executive coaching engagements. It’s the missing link to truly enjoying our work. Purpose is our driver. It feeds intrinsic motivation. It’s what creates meaning from our labor, where we spend most of our waking hours.
Finding an inspired purpose is an equal opportunity desire. It’s a question for young professionals and seasoned CEOs. It affects those in nonprofits and on Wall Street. We all want it; even if we don’t know where to find it. When we don’t have a clear purpose, we feel something is missing. It’s hard to capture, and can be slippery once we grab it. It may even take a trigger to force us to confront it.
Consider an attorney I once knew who had a nagging dissatisfaction with the law firm structure where he worked, even as he was put up for partner. When he faced the financial commitment to enter the partnership – something he’d worked tirelessly for – he found himself ambivalent. He questioned the environment that he actually wanted to work in. Eventually, he left the firm to become in-house counsel for a company that allowed him to reconnect with what he enjoyed about the legal profession.
Purpose is personal. It disregards outside expectations. It exists within us, and is called forth by the situation we’re in. We hear a lot about purpose-driven organizations like TOMS Shoes or REI. And sure, it can be inspiring to work for an organization with a strong purpose that aligns with your own.
But for most people, we’re not going to find our purpose in a corporate mission statement. It’s something we have to figure out for ourselves, in a nuanced way. Purpose doesn’t have to be about a grand life’s purpose either, though it’s great if we know this. It’s also meaningful and inspiring to keep in close touch with our contextualized purpose – finding work that’s meaningful to us for where we are at this moment in our lives and in our careers.
So short of quitting your job what can you do? When I work with clients around this issue, I start by having them ask some important questions. We know from motivational research that there are certain factors that, especially when co-occurring, increase our engagement. I’ve developed a set of questions around these areas that can be helpful as thought starters. You can use these questions to think on, journal about, or to use in conversation with a colleague or friend. The latter is powerful in more ways than one. When we help someone to find that internal spark of purpose, we can get inspired ourselves through the conversation.
If you’re trying to get out of “donut making” and reignite your own sense of purpose, consider:
- What are you good at doing? What work activities come easiest to you? What do you do as well as, or better, than anybody in your role? For what actions have you consistently been complimented in your life?
- What do you enjoy doing? What are you doing that makes you lose track of time at work? When you consider a high point in your career, what were you doing? What would you do even if you didn’t get paid to do it?
- What feels most useful? What’s most important about what you contribute? How does your work help others or a larger cause? What are the highest priorities for your life and how does your work fit into them?
- What creates a sense of forward momentum? How’s your work today getting you closer to what you want for yourself? What do you hope is possible for you, without setting limitations? What could you do next with what you’re learning now?
- What is your preferred relationship to others? What’s your ideal work environment? How could your work enhance your relationships, both inside and outside the company? What would a culture of your favorite people look like?
Spend some time considering the answers to these questions. Then do an honest comparison against the work that you’re currently doing. You may realize that you can reframe your current job to be more purpose-oriented. This environment is chaotic but it’s providing me with opportunities to stretch. Or you might see that it’s time to make the switch. I’ve stopped growing toward my ultimate goal of running my own company.
Living into your purpose doesn’t have to be a bold, brave move. It can be determined by a series of questions that we remember to regularly ask ourselves.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.
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