This is a pretty big question so you might want to strap yourself in:
What is your purpose?
Or asked another way: Why are you here? Or another: Why do you get up and do what you do every day? For most of us, these questions are not easily answered. We go about our work and life most days without pondering these profound questions, because let’s face it, it’s daunting and overwhelming and to be perfectly frank, for some of us it feels like it could blow our minds if we sat with it for too long.
We long to be more than the sum of the tasks we perform, and yet finding meaningful work feels like something we just can’t afford to think about let alone pursue. Yet when a sense of meaning is found in our jobs, a growing body of evidence suggests we’re happier, more motivated, more committed, and more satisfied, which enables us to perform better.
So where do you start?
When you think about the work you most want to do in the world, what lights you up? What would feel meaningful for you? It may be a stretch from where you sit now, but if you’re really honest, what is the work you would do even if nobody paid you to do it, or recognised you when you did? As courage coach, Margie Warrell asks: “For the sake of what are you willing to get out of your comfort zone, to risk failure, to put your ego aside and truly show up?”
Studies have found that women who develop a sense of purpose in their work by pursuing goals that align with their personal values and advance the collective good are able to look beyond the status quo to what’s possible and find compelling reasons to take action despite their personal fears and insecurities. Purpose helps us to leave our ego at the door and take up activities that are critical for our success such as networking, negotiating, and making sure that we’re heard. It helps us to focus our attention more on shared goals, on learning and growth, not just for us, but the teams that we’re in.
Purpose also fuels effective leadership. When you have a more purpose-driven goal as a leader, it helps connect other people to what you’re trying to achieve and to model the kind of behaviors that are acceptable in that team. Following purpose goals elicits our feminine traits, taking us from a drive and strive masculine mentality, to a more supportive and collaborative feminine one that inspires commitment, boosts resolve, and helps colleagues also find deeper meaning in their work.
Are you waiting to be struck by purpose?
Of course ‘find your purpose’ or ‘follow your dream‘ are popular themes of advice often passed on from notable business leaders in college commencement speeches. It sounds simple enough, but the reality is that finding a way to connect what we want to goals that are bigger than ourselves can be a big ask. So we wait, willing ourselves to one day be struck by a bolt of inspiration, which clearly lays out our purpose in front of us.
I hate to break it to you, but researchers have found that this is rarely the case. Instead, our purpose usually unfolds bit-by-bit. It often starts with the discovery of our interests, followed by a lot of development, and then a lifetime of deepening. Steve Jobs wasn’t struck with the idea of creating personal computers and changing what was possible for people. He tinkered with electronics as a kid, dropped in and out of creative classes at university, worked at Atari and finally, after joining a computing club, got inspired to build computers with great graphical interfaces.
So if your purpose feels a little fuzzy, try thinking about the following questions and without overthinking them, but as honestly as you can, play with what comes to mind. In our experience we all have a sense of our purpose, it’s just a matter of getting still enough to hear it calling.
1. Discover your interests
What do you like to think about? Where does your mind wander? What do you really care about? What matters most to you? If money wasn’t an issue what would you choose to do and why? How might this help others? What do you love doing, are good at and get lost in? And, in contrast, what do you find tedious or absolutely unbearable? If you find answering these questions hard, think back to your teen years, the stage of life when vocational interests commonly sprout.
2. Know why your goals matter
If you had to list ten priorities that were important to you in your ideal life vision, what would they be? List them down on a piece of paper. Then take them one at a time and for each ask: “Why does this matter?” Keep asking this question for each one until you reach the answer: “Just because.” Note this down. Once you’ve done this for all ten, see if you can find a pattern or common themes to your just because answers. How do they align to your interests? How might they help others? What might this suggest about the purpose drawing you forward?
3. Play around
As soon as you have even a small direction in mind, give yourself permission to explore it. Go out into the world and do something small with it and notice what happens and how you feel about it. Remember interests must be triggered again and again so find ways to make this happen. Keep asking questions, and let the answers lead you to more questions. Continue to dig. Seek out other people who share a similar purpose. And have patience. Give it time to allow your curiosity, knowledge, expertise, confidence, and curiosity to carry you forward.
For most of us, purpose doesn’t just happen, and we don’t get struck by it. We have to show up day after day, following our interests, giving them space and time to develop, and seeing where they lead us. So create that time and space, think about the reflection questions here, and do the work to play with what your most purposeful work could be in the world. It’s worth the journey to get there.
This is an exclusive extract from the book Lead Like A Woman: Your essential guide to true confidence, career clarity, vibrant wellbeing and leadership success by Megan Dalla-Camina and Michelle McQuaid. Lead Like A Woman is an enterprise co-founded by Megan and Michelle with a mission to empower women, transform leadership and create positive organisational change.