“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Attributed to Socrates, by Plato
The picture above, featured in the October 1974 issue of Boy’s Life magazine, changed my life! Growing up in a small Indiana town, impatiently waiting to be 12 years old, the sight of that boy gazing into the future, holding a model of a sleek white, twin-engine T-38 training jet…the high performance sports car of training aircraft…ignited my imagination! That issue included an engaging story of a young boy learning to fly from his pilot father. About the same time, I read another story of the challenges and pride of making it through basic cadet training at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
This inspired me to establish my first five- and ten-year objectives for my life—to attend the Academy and become a pilot. It was a proud moment for me to receive my wings in a ceremony at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, and I still had a few five and ten-year goals I was pursuing; but to be honest, I was still a bit hazy on an overall purpose as a 25-year-old pilot. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the power that lies in articulating a personal purpose statement.
Expressing a purpose statement in writing gives our lives focus and motivation. What do we want to accomplish in our lives? Where are our lives presently headed? Is it the direction that we want to go? Most importantly, do we know why we want to get there?
Perhaps the best way to answer the all-important “why” question is to start with a self-examination of our own passions, talents, and dreams. What types of activities inspire us to hop out of bed and hit the floor running rather than lay on our backs thumbing through Facebook feeds?
Research confirms the common sense idea that workers who regard their work as enjoyable, challenging, and meaningful are much more engaged and productive in that work. People tend to have three different attitudes toward their work, viewing it as a either a job, a career, or a calling. Those who view work as a job are only focused on the material benefits the job brings. Increased self-esteem, social standing, or other external rewards motivate those who see their work as a career. But those who find deep meaning in their work, who see it as a calling that fits their natural drive and talents, find the work to be its own reward. These fortunate people, who have put their minds to finding a purpose in life and appreciate the meaning of their work, are psychologically happier and physically healthier. The good news is that we can choose to make ourselves one of those fortunate people by proactively finding the meaning in our work and life.
In the award-winning book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, author Cal Newport shows that people who end up seeing their work as a calling don’t get there by the old adage of “following their passion.” Instead, he found that people passionate about their work started with deep effort, focused intently on becoming excellent at something valuable.
Psychologist Angela Duckworth found having superior determination, what she calls having “grit,” is much better at predicting success than intelligence or natural talent. She also sees that people with grit tend to stick to one interest and, to keep from getting bored, find the nuances of developing mastery rather than searching for novelty in something different. That’s closely related to the concept of “deliberate practice,” which Peak author Anders Ericsson describes as using good feedback to focus on specific techniques that will lead to real improvement.
You may have heard of the “10-year, 10,000-hour” rule, made well-known by author Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers. He contends that it takes 10,000 hours of effortful practice, which would take someone about 10 years, to really master a craft to a top level. People who experience their work as a calling fully engage with their mind and body and push their expertise to the limit. So, the why and how these people have for their work is much more important than what they do.
The passion that comes with seeing your work as a calling must be cultivated by nurturing specific motivational areas that can apply to any type of work. In a podcast interview, Newport noted, “the type of factors we know from the research that lead to a sense of passion for your work include a sense of autonomy, a sense of competence or mastery, a sense of connection to people or a mission, a sense of impacting and a sense of creativity.”
The sense of autonomy means that people feel they have a choice over their work, and are able to act on those choices. Autonomous people don’t wait around for a boss to tell them what to do, step by step. They engage their imagination and creativity to make work meaningful. The motivating factors of having a sense of mission and making an impact are more easily accomplished by having a written personal mission statement. As leaders, we want to provide a work environment that develops the factors of autonomy, competency, connection to people and mission, positive impact, and creativity…but we should start with ourselves. A great starting place is by stating our personal purpose.
Thoughtfully asking ourselves “Why am I here?” is the type of self-examination it takes to discover our life purpose statement. How many of us work for companies that have a “mission statement,” “vision,” or other MBA-approved wording that is designed to inform and guide their workers, investors, suppliers and customers, giving a clear idea of the fundamental purpose of that organization?
If companies do this to be more successful, then it makes sense that we can improve the chances of our success by doing the same. Leadership starts with self-awareness, having a solid base and strong sense of direction. A purpose statement keeps us on track and informs all the other decisions in our lives. The more solid and personally tailored it is, the more it helps us overcome temporary emotions or confusion in chaotic situations. It helps us define who we are and what we are about.
Activity: Discover and Write a Personal Purpose Statement
What to Do: Reflect on your talents, interests, and dreams, and write a one to two sentence Personal Purpose Statement.
Tips on How to Do It:
- Ask “what are my strengths?” This may be from your own self-assessment, but I highly recommend asking friends or trusted colleagues what they see as your strengths. Think about your strengths in terms of the value that you can create with them.
- Ask yourself what you enjoy working on or studying about…it may not be your strongest point, but does it get you so interested that you enjoy spending free time, or lose track of time, while you do it?
- Reach back to your childhood…what games or activities did you like to do as a child? Was there anything that you said that you wanted to be when you grew up that might still apply to your interests as an adult?
- After identifying your interests and strength, focus on a target group for whom you create value.
- Think about the desired outcome, from the successful execution of your purpose.
“Continuously update & apply knowledge & skills to develop my mental, physical, emotional, & spiritual self to humbly inspire, empower, & improve the condition of my fellow human beings & my immediate environment.” (This is my personal purpose statement)
“Use my musical and artistic talents to bring joy to people searching for inspiration.”
Developing one’s purpose statement is an on-going process that can and should be tweaked on a regular basis. It’s easy to get caught in the routines of daily life and lose sight of the end goal. In the next article, I will discuss developing life guiding principles, incorporating positive traits that act as guideposts to keep us headed on the path aligned with our life purpose. Stay tuned!
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.
 Stairs, M. and Gilpin, M. (2010) Positive Engagement: From Employee Engagement to Work Place Happiness. In P. A. Linley, S. A. Harrington and N. Garcea (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Wrzesniewski, A. (2003) Finding Positive Meaning in Work. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton and R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
 Seligman, M. (2006) Authentic Happiness, Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. London: Nicholas Brealey.