The biggest question of all

What’s my purpose? Gulp.

Some days I’m challenged to answer which pair of shoes to wear, which dog- walking route to take, what to cook (or defrost) for the evening meal. 

So this question, raised yesterday in a provocative NYT piece by David Brooks, is the ultimate of challenging questions—the type that most folks avoid assiduously, by diving into Facebook, flipping on reality TV, or burying themselves into piles of work.  

Brooks says, “There are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most. As a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right questions to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.”

I get that. I really do. In my 20’s, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy —and pulled out a considerable amount of hair—trying to determine my purpose. It pained me to my core that I didn’t know what I was on this Earth to do, to concentrate on, to achieve. I read many books for many years, searching for meaning. 

Now, as an Executive Coach helping people discover and uncover direction and professional meaning in their lives, I bump up against the “purpose” question frequently. It is a rare client in a job search or career change who does not utter at least once, “What should I be doing?” (what’s my purpose), followed by a hopeful look in my direction—seeking the “right” answer. 

And each time this happens, I say the same thing: "let’s climb down from the macro and get granular." Let’s start with warmer, more approachable questions:

  • What do you love to do?
  • What values do you hold dear?
  • What are you good at?

All smaller questions that can maybe, just maybe, start to build some definition of purpose. 

As much as I admire the question Brooks poses, I think its massive weight, height, and depth—and the inference there is one right purpose (above others that are wrong) makes it perhaps the wrong question to ask. 

That said, I do wholeheartedly support Brooks’ idea of an open conversation on purpose—please participate if you’re so moved! 

I  believe that if we’re lucky, we live our lives doing things that allow us to experience and contribute as our highest and best selves. And maybe that’s purpose enough.