Discovering your purpose

Looking for a purposeAsk a roomful of people whether they think networking is important and everyone will knowingly nod. Now, ask them for the purpose of their network.


Most will be thinking “Networks have a purpose?” or, worse, “I don’t know, I’m still searching for my purpose.”

Networking needn’t be an aimless collection of contacts. Instead, you can think of building a network as developing relationships towards some end. It’s why one of the 5 elements of working out loud is being purposeful. 

Not sure of your purpose? Here’s how to discover it.

The myth of purpose

For most of us, thinking about the One True Purpose of our career or life is daunting, even dispiriting. A career counselor, interviewed in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, described the pathos of his profession:

”…he remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited – long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms – what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling.’”

Cal Newport said it even more succinctly: ‘Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.” 

When I was 5, I was going to be a paleontologist, digging up dinosaur bones. At 11, I knew I’d be a baseball player. Then, in turn, a psychologist, a reengineering consultant, and a computer scientist modeling how the brain works. None of that happened. Instead, I spent most of my career working on trading floors in big banks. 

The sad part isn’t that I didn’t fulfill my early career aspirations. It’s that I bought into a romantic myth that I had One True Purpose in the first place. 

Learning to explore the possibilities

Fortunately, you don’t need to identify your true calling – astronaut, actor, arctic adventurer – to find fulfillment and meaning at work. You can start with a purpose that’s simple and practical. Here, for example, are the most common goals of the people I coach:

  • Find a job in a new company or location
  • Get more recognition at their current job
  • Explore possibilities in a new field
  • Find people with the same interests
  • Get better at what they do

Notice how these goals are more modest, short-term, and practical than you might expect. It’s because in coaching people, I’m not trying to help them find their One True Purpose. Instead, I’m helping them learn how to work in a more open, connected way that helps them build relationships. It’s those skills that will equip them to pursue any goal in the future. And it’s those relationships that will shape what their future can be.

A few decades ago, perhaps, we could take a personality test, list our talents, and find a suitable career. Not any more. Today, the world of work has splintered into a infinite set of ever-changing possibilities. So we have to learn to explore and discover our purpose. As Seth Godin wrote (just today, in fact):

“Discovery is what happens when the universe (or an organization, or a friend) helps you encounter something you didn’t even know you were looking for.”

Discovering meaning & fulfillment

Remember the story of Jordi Muñoz, the Mexican kid who grew up to be the CEO of a robotics company specializing in drones? Growing up, he dreamed of being a pilot. But that’s only because he had no idea of all the other possibilities. Jordi’s humble purpose in working out loud was simply to get better at something he loved doing. And that exploration helped him combine several of his interests into a job he could never have imagined otherwise.

For me, even the wisest career counselor couldn’t predict the arc of my career or have foreseen the work I’m doing now. My current job didn’t exist just a few years ago and I’d have never considered coaching and writing a book related to it. It was only through making my work visible and building relationships that I was able to discover possibilities I’d have otherwise missed. 

Do you have a purpose? Start working out loud so you learn how to explore and discover one. Let the universe help you encounter how to make the most of your work and life. 

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Working out loud and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Discovering your purpose

  1. Kathryn Everest says:

    I think what I love the most about working in an open, transparent organization and working out loud is that it has provided me the opportunities to “try on” different tasks, roles, and experiences that help me identify the *attributes* of what really engages me. Being asked “what I want to be when I grow up” has been too daunting a question to answer, despite being over 50. But what I do know, is my workstyle, and know I need to be in an organization/role that support my workstyle and is congruent with who I am. There was a time when those things were great to have but I’ve now I know they are non-negotiable. I’ve spoken to many of my clients about how working this way has changed them, and like me, they can’t go back. The future changes and roles change. But workstyle and being able to bring your whole self to work doesn’t.

  2. Bob Heuman says:

    I like this quote ” ‘Follow your passion’ might just be terrible advice.”
    I think opportunity is underrated. The passion thing implies long term goals and straight line progress, which of course is great and works for some people sometimes, but for most of us life is a series of zig zags. It’s nice to try lots of things, fail at some, wildly succeed at others. The key is to know when something isn’t working and when to turn around. Now there is a life skill to figure out (see John’s post about fears 😉

  3. Hayley Webb says:

    Loved reading this. You’ve reminded me to take the pressure off figuring out what my “one purpose in life” is and always remembering to be open to exploring ALL the possibilities. Thank you John 🙂

    • John Stepper says:

      You’re welcome, Hayley. I’ve found it’s much easy to explore your way to meaning & fulfillment than to try and think your way to it. We simply know too little about the possibilities.

  4. simongterry says:

    Great post as ever, John. Purpose is not an abstract philosophical question. Purpose in the work we do and the networks we keep. The more we see purpose in our work the greater the power (see Thanks for sharing

  5. Great post John. I always thought I was a bit odd because I never followed a career plan – most of my “planning” involved looking for something fun/interesting when the current role had become stale. I had breakfast with the CIO on Thursday and it turns out that her plan was pretty much the same thing.
    I left school at 16 to become a plasterer in London and ended up in IT on Wall St. How did THAT happen?

    • John Stepper says:

      Are you working on your own personal version of “The Motorcycle Diaries”? I’d want to read it and I’ve never even written a motorcycle. Your own story could be part Che Guevara and part Robert Pirsig. Write it, please?

      • Before I came to the US I was 2 weeks away from leaving my job and backpacking around the world. That was 19 years ago. I’m hoping that this has just been delayed instead of cancelled 🙂

  6. moyramackie says:

    John I like to think of our career path in sailing terms. First of all it’s important to a) set sail and b) be heading somewhere. Makes sense. But wherever we’re headed we need to remain open and flexible. Perhaps the weather and scenery aren’t so great – where next? Or maybe we change tack on the way when the winds change? Sail boats don’t go in straight lines, and neither do we. We need to head somewhere with purpose, but life is a heck of a lot more interesting if we change course every now and again. And working out loud is an essential tool to allow us to do that!

    • John Stepper says:

      I always like seeing my coach comment here. Thanks, Moyra! And yes, sailing is a good metaphor for careers – preparation and planning are important, and so is the feeling the cool breeze blow or admiring a sunset.

  7. Sue Mastroianni says:

    I feel like your latest blogs are directed right at me! I guess that’s what makes you such a good writer.

  8. Pingback: Discovering your purpose | Happiness is THE Jou...

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  10. Irene Johansen says:

    “Let the universe help you …” What a load off my shoulders. I forget how I got into some of my best experiences: Composition – “Hmm, that looks like an interesting option.”; Summer job showing kids how they could create their own musical experiences with what was around them – applied for a job with the City of Calgary AS A BUYER; Conducting – (realizing my fellow composer was not a conductor when he first tried to test-run scenes from his opera)… “If you can’t find anyone else, I’ll do it.” I became the company’s resident conductor. Many other skills that have kept the wolf from the door (alas, the work in music doesn’t)… and for some reason, I keep forgetting, and think I can’t find my way out of my box. Let the universe help me indeed. Prepare, prepare, prepare, and the opportunity will come. The new twist? Working Out Loud. Thanks. Again.

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