How to find purpose in life: my journey of self-discovery

The single most important ingredient in all of life for achieving happiness and fulfilment: Purpose.

Harvey Volson

I remember many years ago when I was still in secondary school, my teacher asked a few of us what we wanted to do when we grew up.  Most of my school friends named a profession that they wanted to pursue like being an engineer, doctor or lawyer.  When it was my turn, without giving it much thought, I said “I want to be rich“.  This was not taken kindly, as I was thought to be too materialistic. But that was my life’s purpose at the time.  Maybe that was something I thought would give me happiness.

What is a purposeful life?

I have been pondering how to find purpose in life for some time.

I have been seeking answers from different channels, be it on social media, books and friends who are close to me.  It is a self-discovery journey and I would like to share some of my thoughts with you. 

At its most basic level, life is about ‘survival’.  It is a core motivation of life – the reason we are getting up in the morning.  However, is this adequate to satisfy our existence? 

In my past experience, I have worked with many executives in the area of career development and personal growth.  I would say many of the most effective leaders have a fairly clear purpose in what they want to achieve and how they intend to get there. They undertake their leadership role with passion, enthusiasm, commitment and a clear personal vision. The same can be applied with most of other people I interact with.

Those who are most happy and live a meaningful life have a clear life purpose.  More importantly, they find meaning and value in what they do.  Many studies have demonstrated that people who live life with a strong purpose are happier, healthier and live longer compared to those who do not have it.

This prompted me to start my journey of self-discovery by questioning my personal values and priorities.  How can I find a deeper sense of purpose in what I do and how do I ensure having the discipline to follow through?  

The purpose of life is to live, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt

In essence, a purposeful life needs to consist of two key elements:

  • Something you enjoy doing and feel good about
  • Something that is bigger than yourself and creates an impact

Unfortunately, most of us hardly make an effort to think deeply about our life purpose as we are too caught up in our daily routines and activities. We often overburdened with our jobs, family commitments and daily routine activities.

The obstacles to a purposeful life

One of the biggest obstacles to living a meaningful life purpose is ‘conformity‘.  It is generally easier to do what the majority are doing.  However, if we want success in life, the last thing we want to do is to follow others blindly. The moment of awakening arrives, often than not when something dramatic happens, for example in near death experience, retrenchment or in a serious crisis.

A close friend who has achieved a great career, social status and personal wealth was informed by his doctor with only 6 months to live.  As I was talking to him, he started to question his dedication towards his career, status and wealth if it was worthwhile.  If he was to turn the clock back, how he would have done differently.

In another instance, I regretted not to have spent more quality time with my mother before she had her terminal illness. I wished I had taken her to a nice vacation and do something memorable; which I would have definitely done if given a second chance.

A meaningful life purpose allows us to look back with pride.  Won’t it be great if we can possess a sense of gratitude and contentment without regrets at the end of our life journey?  This may sound idealistic because we all made mistakes.  However, with a bit more of planning, the results can be very different.

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in first finding something to live for.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 Where to look for inspiration

When we think about drafting a life purpose, we are often drawn to famous people whom we most admire.  

Some of our famous heroes may include Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and etc.  Muhammad Ali had an indomitable spirit towards his religion and was an anti-war hero.  Martin Luther King was a relentless freedom fighter for racial equality.  Bruce Lee represented total commitment to martial arts and physical excellence. Nelson Mandela was the ultimate warrior against apartheid for his people under extreme adversity.  

However, not everyone needs to follow their heroes to be aligned to their personal goals.

If you have a strong purpose in life, you don’t have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there.

Roy T. Bennett

One person whom I admire is my martial arts teacher who came from a humble background.  He was never given a proper education.  Solely driven by his passion in martial art he trained himself diligently to become a well-known champion and eventually started a training school for many young people.

He is a relentless learner. He learnt English, on his own, and acquired commercial knowledge to run his business successfully.  He can converse and interact with people of all levels as his curiosity stretches in new areas beyond his normal scope of activities.

Some of his students became successful coaches and local champions in Hong Kong.  He satisfies many aspects of my definition in living a life with purpose and meaning.   Anyone who interacts with him can feel that he approaches life with both dedication and enthusiasm.

The ‘Ikigai’ Philosophy of Life

‘Ikigai’ is a Japanese word for ‘the reason for being’ which means you are in a state of ‘flow’ and ‘effortlessness’ whereby you operate at your optimal level even at a subconscious state. 

In order to achieve Ikigai, there are four key criteria:

  1. You are doing something that you truly love 
  2. You possess a natural talent in the things that you do
  3. You are providing a service that people find useful
  4. You are doing something for which people are willing to pay 

Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Lao Tzu

How to find purpose in life: questions to ask yourself

I have undertaken a survey, asking how to find purpose in life, and have received some useful feedback. The results from the survey point to the importance of having a clear sense of self-awareness regarding what you want and how to achieve it. 

Some critical questions you should ask yourself include:

  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • What areas of work are most important to you? Why?
  • What are your core values?
  • What is the best case scenario if your life purpose is met?
  • What impact will you like to create for yourself and others?
  • How would you feel, behave and act if these outcomes are met? 

As a first step, you may want to find a quiet place to relax and write down your immediate thoughts on each question. This will help you gain a deeper sense of who you are and what you truly want.

Next, you can find someone whom you can trust and share your thoughts with candor. This will give new personal insights about yourself and priorities that make the most sense to you.  Personally I find getting guidance from a trusted mentor helps you tremendously.

The secret of success is constancy to purpose.

Benjamin Disraeli

Additional tips for finding purpose in life

Here are some additional tips that people find most useful in achieving their purpose:

Look at past events that defined usOur Tipping Point – by letting go of our ego and accepting our previous mistakes.  More importantly, learn from them.  Being vulnerable to our emotional self, being positive and forming a growth mindset.

Do meditation to calm your mind and think clearly.  I have observed many business leaders who transform themselves through spending quality time doing morning meditation on a daily basis. 

Be curious in finding new hobbies such as reading, music, joining a new community to meet new people.  This has helped many people changing their career to do something they truly love.  As a result, they are living a more fulfilled lifestyle with contentment. 

Go travelling to expand your horizon and global perspective.  By exposing ourselves to a new environment, you can better understand your personal values and other’s point of view. 

Doing something bigger than ourselves.  By giving more, you receive more.  While this concept may sound alien to some of us, you will be surprised by the results once you begin.

The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to make things better.

Robert. F. Kennedy

Formulating a life’s purpose for yourself

Here is a suggested structure for drafting your life purpose, with my own life purpose as an example (in brackets). 

My purpose of life is… (to encourage learning and personal growth)

For… (people who want to excel and fulfill their potential)

So that… (they live a more fulfilling and compassionate life)

The above is an example how you might go about developing a life purpose statement.  It is important you display it in a prominent area to constantly remind yourself what you do every day is in alignment with your purpose.

For it to be a good purpose, a few criteria need to be satisfied:

  • It is inspiring enough to give you motivation and a sense of urgency 
  • It is specific enough to guide you towards positive behaviors and constructive actions
  • It is enduring enough to touch your deepest core values

Final thoughts on how to find purpose in life

The above content is a consolidation of opinions and advice I have come across from people of all walks of life.  I find them practical and useful.  I hope you will try out the suggestions that you find relevant and useful for yourself.

When I started writing this article, exploring how to find purpose in life, I did not have a preconception what the final content will look like. I took it up because I feel this will help me in my coaching and mentoring work. I also want to critically re-examine my current belief and life purpose.  

Life is like the four seasons with its ups and downs.  Tough times and difficulties are inevitable.  But we get stronger, better and wiser with each obstacle in life. As humans, we have the unique ability to make choices and create our own destiny. 

To live is the rarest thing in the world.  Most people just exist.

Oscar Wilde

I hope the above will strike a chord with you.