We all want our lives to have meaning. To have purpose. Yet, it’s easy to get lost in life’s daily “to-do” list when time seems unlimited.
I was recently in a conversation with a friend whose wife has terminal cancer. As he shared her story with me - and how she measures life knowing she has real time constraints - I felt a profound sense of clarity about meaning and purpose.
I use these words together - so here’s my framework for thinking this way. For me, Finding Meaning is to assign value or to feel the significance of an action or event. It’s highly personal. To Create Purpose is to bring value to something or someone. Purpose is both transpersonal and interpersonal - defined by the actions we take and the resulting impact to others. Together, meaning and purpose are acts of significance that bring value to others and to the world.
I do not believe meaning and purpose are wrapped up in some big, hairy, or audacious goal. Instead, they are found in the way we live each day that brings the most of our potential into the world. We find meaning and purpose in the conversation between our heart and the heartaches of the world - building a bridge between our unique gifts and what the world needs most from us.
5 Insights to Meaning and Purpose
Below are 5 insights that have helped me to define my own meaning and purpose driven from that conversation. Finding meaning and creating purpose come from:
1. Doing something today that matters. Having a reason to get out of bed, get dressed and do something positive creates momentum for daily well-being. We often forget that everything we say and do has an effect on somebody and something - even when we do nothing. Daily well-being comes from meaningful actions and positive interactions.
2. Having something to look forward to beyond today. Anticipation of events to come gives us reason to move forward. We all need something to look forward to in life. A healthy sense of “anticipation” can often help energize our lives, especially during tough times. While living in the present is a very beneficial thing – sometimes the present can be a prison of grief, pain, or worry. When we find ourselves in those less-than-ideal present moments, having something to look forward to can give us the courage to keep our faith and hope alive even during the most difficult times.
3. Belonging. Meaning and purpose come from belonging - being in relationships where we are valued for who we are intrinsically. Real belonging transcends what you believe and doesn’t require us to “sign up” for anyone’s agenda. Real belonging springs from love. It lives in moments among individuals who accept one another as they are and share a deep human bond.
4. Giving back - serving a purpose beyond myself. Having meaning comes from serving something beyond ourselves and from developing the best within us. Meaning is less about what we want and more about what we give. Using our strengths to serve others creates deep meaning.
5. Practicing gratitude. Gratitude helps us realize all we have - and that it is enough. Being aware of blessings (in the midst of difficult situations) curbs our human tendency to simply want more all the time.
It does not matter how long you live, how much money you earn, nor how much attention you receive - what gives life meaning and purpose is the positive impact you have made in the lives of others.
The journey of life unfolds unexpectedly - filled with highs and lows, moments of joy and times of deep sorrow. It’s easy when life is really good. But when things are really bad, finding meaning and creating purpose gives us something to hold to; something to live for; a reason to move forward. It gives us hope.
No one else can give our life meaning. Nor do I believe we suddenly “find” our purpose. We create it for ourselves. I find meaning and build purpose in my life through my interactions with my family, my writing, my work, and my community.
We must assume the responsibility for finding our own meaning. Our purpose will not magically appear one day. We find meaning and create purpose daily by the series of small choices we make.
Michael is an executive coach, entrepreneur, investor, and strategist with 30 years of experience leading investor-backed, high-growth organizations.
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