“The secret of success is consistency of purpose.”

— Benjamin Disraeli

Life is made up of moments. One that I’ll never forget left an indelible impression on my future. As a teenager, I used to love sitting on the rocks overlooking Lake Michigan. Enjoying the peaceful sounds of the lake, it was one of my favorite spots to read … and, often, to simply think. One crystal clear, sunny day, when I was 16 years old, I was full of angst. Why am I here, I wanted to know. What’s my purpose? What am I going to do with my life?

I didn’t have a clue. All I knew is that I wanted my life to be meaningful. And while trying to articulate my purpose in that moment was elusive, I felt a sense of urgency. I needed to figure it out. It took me close to two decades to gain clarity around these perplexing questions. At 35, I was able to identify my purpose: to be a catalyst for change — in myself and in others.

The Importance of Knowing Your Purpose

Once I realized my purpose, I began to feel a newfound sense of peace. It didn’t matter that it still took time for me to put the pieces of the puzzle together to act on it; the knowledge of my purpose allowed me to appreciate the choices, challenges, and even the hardships in my life — because they shaped me into the person I had become.

When I tell people that it took me until I was 35 years old to figure out my purpose, they almost always ask me if I have regrets. After all, my career path was anything but direct: I was a teacher in the Chicago Public School System … I was a server at one of Chicago’s best known, high-end restaurants … I spent 15 years in the finance industry. The answer is always the same: No, I don’t have regrets. Even though I spent many years frustrated by not living in alignment with my true “North Star,” none of my experiences were wasted time. Collectively, they led me on the path to discovery.

“Purpose is quiet. It goes far deeper, embedded in your soul. You don’t need to declare it to the world; your purpose becomes you as you become your purpose.”

Had I known the answer earlier in my career, I may have missed out on the rich lessons — about myself and others — that I learned along the way to becoming the coach and psychotherapist I am today. People who know me — and know the crazy hours I work — often assume that I’m a workaholic. Really, I’m not. Because my work is so beautifully aligned with my purpose, I can’t turn it off. It’s not just what I do; it’s who I am. Your purpose forms the foundation for building your career, your relationships and your life. It helps you determine where you plant your roots, and what grounds you; it shapes the type of leader (or parent … or partner … or all of the above) that you become; it guides your decisions, your actions and, most importantly, the lens through which you see the world.

Related: Overcoming Life’s Biggest Regrets

Purpose vs Identity

It’s easy to think that because you’re confident in your identity, you know your purpose. But while purpose and identity are intertwined, they’re not the same. Your identity is often shaped by external factors … where you live, what you do, how you look and the roles you take on — at work and in life. Identity can shift over time; maybe you were a liberal back in your college days, but as you’ve matured, you now think of yourself as a conservative. Culturally driven, your identity lives closer to the surface. It’s apparent to others, as if you were wearing it as a label on a t-shirt, a proclamation for all to see. Purpose is quiet. It goes far deeper, embedded in your soul. You don’t need to declare it to the world; your purpose becomes you as you become your purpose.

Identify Your Purpose: Ask Yourself These Questions

If you can’t articulate your purpose, you’re not alone. Psychological studies reveal that most people don’t really know themselves. They may think they know who they are, but only on a very superficial level. True self-knowledge is the result of hard work — work that demands time and energy. It can often be painful to ask yourself questions for which there aren’t easy answers. Become a private investigator — of yourself. Clues are everywhere. Every day. And they have been since around the time you were 18 months old. Start to notice them.

And ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you gravitate toward … or away from?
  • What kind of people do you surround yourself with?
  • How do you spend your time — and how do you wish you could spend your time?
  • What kind of “play” kept you engaged as a young child?
  • Where are you selfless? What brings out your generosity of spirit, time, energy?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

As you answer these questions, continue to dig deeper. Ask yourself “why?” When you find an answer, again, ask “why?” Don’t stop with the first or second answer, which is, more likely than not, vague or superficial. You’ll know your purpose when your reaction is visceral. You’ll know it to be true because you’ll feel it — in your heart, and in every fiber of your being.

What Can You Do to Create a Life That Aligns With Your Purpose?

Give yourself time — and bandwidth — to reflect. To plan. To dream. Buy a special notebook in which you record your thoughts and feelings. Be intentional as you create the life you want to live. Taking time out of your busy schedule to work on “you” isn’t selfish; in fact, it’s the opposite. The changes in your life won’t be immediate, but they’ll be worth it. Your path will be your own, involving shifts both large and small. Some might be frightening, while others bring you peace. Push through the discomfort you might feel in leaving your comfort zone; what awaits on the other side of fear can be better than you ever imagined.

“Push through the discomfort you might feel in leaving your comfort zone; what awaits on the other side of fear can be better than you ever imagined.”

It took me another three years to figure out how my purpose would ultimately guide my career. After I went back to grad school to earn an advanced degree in psychology, I let the possibilities percolate in my mind until I achieved the clarity that drove me to establish Jody Michael Associates. Over the past 20+ years, the company has grown, and I’ve grown right along with it, never losing sight of my purpose — or the journey I traveled to find it. With spring on the Chicago horizon, I look forward to the occasional walk along the lakefront, where the sight of the rocks serves as a fond reminder of that sunny day that turned out to be a catalyst for my personal search for meaning.

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Other Posts You Should Read:
Overcoming Life’s Biggest Regrets
Prioritizing: 7 Ways to Incorporate Self Care