If you listened to the podcast conversation with Dr. Rob McKenna this week, you heard him describe his childhood dinner conversations. Rob’s father was a university president and family dinners were often like meetings where each person at the table was encouraged to describe their day, share their challenges, and talk about the goals they were taking on. Those at the table were curious and interested in the growth of everyone else there. Rob portrays a culture of encouragement and support. When I said to Rob “it sounds like what you’re doing professionally today is bringing that dinnertime conversation to the companies and organizations you work with,” he laughed out loud. “I’ve never really described it that way, but you’re right!” he agreed.

My conversation with Rob reminded me that we all search for purpose in our lives.  We all want that feeling that what we do has meaning and is tied to something bigger than us.  That said, figuring out our own individual purpose is one of the trickiest puzzles to solve.  Consider this post a collection of hints, hacks, tips, tricks and other ways to help you to clarify your purpose. 

Finding Your WHY

Rob is a great example of a person whose work is deeply embedded in his purpose. Is yours? Let me take a moment to describe what I mean by “Purpose.” Our purpose exists at the intersection of how we recognize the unique gifts and talents we possess and what we identify as the unmet needs in the world that we believe need to be addressed. Somewhere in there we are called to figure out how our personal gifts fit into curing that deficit — this is purpose. Moreover, our purpose powers us; it’s what inspires us and compels us to want to do our best work. Discovering your purpose requires you to reflect upon your why, who, what, how and when.

Many of my clients spend years driving around the highway of life searching out their Purpose as if there will be a giant neon sign pointing it out for them. In fact, your purpose is already written into your story. Your experiences and talents are unique to you and have shaped your perspectives and insight allowing you to see the world in a unique way. When asked the question “what does the world need more of?” or “what is a need in the world that that is unmet?” you’re going to answer that question differently than anyone else.

Identifying WHO

As you’re answering the unmet need question, you’ll most likely be able to quickly identify who it is you feel most passionately about working with. Maybe you had a single parent growing up and you saw how hard they worked and you want to figure out a way to make those people’s lives easier. Maybe you worked retail and you saw how cranky shoppers got with wonky-wheeled shopping carts and you want to eliminate that frustration for them. Whomever the people you want to help, these people are your “who.”

Figuring Out WHAT

So when we look at Rob McKenna, we see a guy who grew up with a parent tasked with leading a university and community. Hearing his dad’s conversations at the dinner table, Rob grew to understand the challenges and concerns of people tasked to lead. He said he “grew to have a heart for those who lead” because he knew the pressures they faced. It was those people he saw needed help — leaders became his “who.” The “what” evolved out of his dinnertime experience where the family offered his dad a place to converse, explore, and receive attention and encouragement. Rob wanted other leaders to experience that. For years Rob has worked and studied to create a company that seeks to provide that to others. Rob has written articles and books and developed tools focused to grow leaders’ skills and provide them support. Other people find purpose in inventing software or products that make life easier and better — from the Clapper to the iPhone — someone saw an unmet need and used their unique gifts to create something to fill it. “What” can take many forms — tapping in to your unique skill set and experience will shape what it looks like.

Choosing HOW

Your purpose can also be found not only in what you do but how you do it. That is, your purpose is found not in your product, but in how you deliver it. Take the example of Chick-fil-A. At first glance, one might think a fast food restaurant’s purpose is simply to get the population to “eat more chicken.” But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that Chick-fil-A operates differently. When their customers come in, trays are carried to tables for toddler-laden mamas, an employee comes by to pick up trash or offer refills, and chit chat. Part of its corporate purpose is “to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” Chick-fil-A accomplishes that goal by how they serve chicken sandwiches, not in the sandwiches themselves.

Deciding WHEN

You should note that your purpose can be a whole life devotion, or it might be something you commit to in a particular season of your life. Maybe you take time off from your job for six months to care for an aging parent. In the grand calendar of life, six months is a fraction, but the purpose of that time can be powerful and fraught with meaning. Or, pursuing your purpose may be a life-long endeavor like Jacques Cousteau who spent nearly fifty years educating the global public about the importance of the oceans. Purpose can be accomplished both short-term and long.

One Last Word About Purpose

You will have a purpose no matter what. You will either choose what it is or it will be chosen for you. I like to say you can either be a shining light or a warning light to those around you.  Those who aren’t willing to be thoughtful and strategic about their purpose, will end up in the latter category. For that reason, I hope you will make it a priority to be deliberate about living out the life you actually want to live.

By the way, if you’d like to do more intentional thinking about your purpose, I’ve created a workbook series that walks you through a focused process of activities designed to help you identify your purpose and how you can best live it out. I’m providing a link to it here. I hope you’ll check it out.