Quora: How does one go about discovering or defining purpose?

This question was originally posted here on Quora.com.

How does one go about discovering or defining purpose?

My response:

That is definitely a tough question hence appropriate for this venue. I will start off by simply saying, regrettably maybe, I don’t know. How do you like that for honesty? Regardless, maybe some discussion can help more than simply being given an answer. If we dig around some together, maybe something significant will arise. Who knows?

First, I’d like to say I love your choice of verbs: “discover” and “define.” The discovery of a thing suggests that it existed objectively prior to one’s search for it, much like the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans. This land was here prior to any European’s experiential knowledge of its existence.

But when we define a thing, especially an abstract or intangible notion such as purpose, we are usually engaged in its creation. Where once purpose did not exist, now it exists because I have chosen to engage in its creation.

So do we stumble across or create our purpose in life? I honestly believe neither possibilities are mutually exclusive. Yes, for some, purpose falls almost randomly into their laps, while for others, it is the result of dedicated research and creative activity. Yet, even when purpose seemingly falls out of the sky, into our lives, we must still engage in sustaining its existence, in a sense, engage in its continual creation.

It seems we have a choice. We either wait around for purpose to magically appear, or we start to engage in the process of forging it for ourselves. Don’t let my tone fool you. I do sincerely believe that for some, purpose does “magically appear,” which does indeed make waiting around for purpose a valid option. Yet, how nerve-racking it would be to sit around waiting for something to come about that may never actually come about. And really, considering those who suggest that they randomly discovered their purpose, I have a feeling they weren’t just sitting around waiting for this to occur. I bet they were already engaged in the process of determining or defining their purpose when its discovery took place. There’s a lesson in this, I think: purpose may come about, or be discovered, as a result of engaging in its creation, or definition.

Maybe, just maybe, start defining your purpose and you may discover it.

So then the question becomes, “How do I define my purpose?” But such language is too limiting; it suggests that we define a thing, and then we’re done. But, are we ever really done, that is, while we are still breathing? To better capture the idea of process––for life is a process––maybe the question should be posed, “How do I engage in defining my purpose?”

For me, that’s the toughest question of all. Really, it’s a daunting prospect. It takes courage and a willingness to experience failure. It means trying new things, even those things that we may find boring or trite or not worth our time. It means doing some sincere soul-searching, spending some time in solitude, asking oneself what stimulates one’s interest. It means spending time with trusted others to get their feedback as to what they think would be good for us. We need both time alone and time with others to know ourselves well.

Maybe this was not the “answer” you were seeking. I rarely have them. More often I have lots of words that may or may not lead anywhere concrete. The one thing I do believe, however, is that sincere and compassionate discussion usually always helps in one way or another. I hope, at least, you found this entertaining. Be well.

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