In the early 1960s, while on a tour of NASA, President Kennedy saw a man walking in the hallway with a broom and bucket. The President walked over to him, introduced himself and said, “what do you do here?” The man, who was clearly a janitor, replied, “Sir, I help put a man on the moon.” This was a man with a sense of purpose.
What about you? Do you feel your life has a clear direction? Do you feel your daily activities are important?
While meaning is about looking back on your life, purpose is about looking forward. Purpose is about guiding you as you make choices in what you do and how you live.
Research has shown that purpose offers direction in life in the same way a compass provides direction when trying to choose the right path. This is essential as having a sense of purpose is sustainable unlike happiness, which is fleeting.
Purpose isn’t something to be found, but something we can only develop from within, and needs to be cultivated, according to Cornell University psychologist Anthony Burrow. He says a sense of purpose is not an objective truth, but more of a subjective experience. You can’t outsource it to someone else.
While you can’t hold your company responsible for you finding or fulfilling your sense of purpose, there are certainly things it can do to help cultivate it in you. But you too have responsibility as well.
Organizations can help foster a sense of purpose by connecting what the employee does to the impact they are having, says futurist and author of The Future of Work, Jacob Morgan, and when the employee shows up with an open mind, ready to contribute and give it their all.
There are physical and cognitive benefits of those with a sense of purpose as you’re more likely to have reduced stress, better coping skills and choosing health-promoting behaviors. And when you’re pursing something that is meaningful to you, it actually can make you more attractive to others. Individuals reporting a sense of purpose in life report being viewed as a more likeable persona.
What if you don’t have a sense of purpose? Burrow suggests three ways to help you to cultivate purpose. These are:
- What do you find yourself pursuing whether it’s an activity, passion or hobby? This may be something where you ultimately lose track of time and you do it primarily for intrinsic value. This is a pro-active approach.
- An event may happen that causes you to be called into a certain pursuit. Perhaps a family member gets sick, and you pursue something initially to be helpful, but ultimately find it more fulfilling. This is more reactive.
- You see someone else who inspires you to follow a certain direction. This is a social learning pathway where you find yourself identifying with someone and cultivate your own purpose by learning from them.
Burrow says when cultivating purpose, it’s not so much a mental exercise, but more typically by actively engaging with the world. It takes some effort, but ultimately will fulfill and sustain you unlike anything else.
When you cultivate purpose and pursue work that aligns with it, you will have greater satisfaction in your career and very likely your entire life.