Purpose is a concept that has been defined in different ways by different people for different reasons throughout history. So when you think about your purpose, the ideas that come to mind have been influenced by cultural ideologies, circumstances, and events you’ve experienced.
That means if you’re Christian, that has specifically influenced what you think about your purpose, where it came from, and how to execute it.
That means your mom (or dad or parental figure) probably impacted your belief system by demonstrating theirs- either giving you a similar one or causing you to careen off in a different direction.
That means that if you’re 14, 32, 56, or 78, you have a unique conception of purpose relative to where you’re at in life and based on what society has told you to expect.
That means that if you’ve lost someone, been severely sick, achieved an important goal, experienced repeated failures, or have a loving, supportive community, any of those factors may have influenced how you engage with and interpret your personal purpose.
Imagine purpose is a computer and although you don’t have any knowledge of how a computer is constructed, it’s a model you’ve had your whole life and there hasn’t been much to question. However, recently you learned that there are CPUs that are capable of doing more for you, so you’ve decided you’d like to build one. To learn how to do that you’re going to have to start with what you’ve got so you can figure out if you want to repurpose any of the parts or start completely from scratch.
To construct your new purpose computer, you’re going to have to dismantle the old one and see what it is made of.
From this page, you’ll be walked through six major topics that influence our individual and collective conceptions of purpose and be offered reflections to help you pinpoint the purpose narrative that you’ve been operating with up until this point in time. Armed with this information you can more deeply understand where you’re at today, inform better where you want to go, and possibly deepen your compassion for both yourself and others on their purpose journeys.
It All Influences Your “Purpose Narrative”
The idea of purpose exists because of culture.
Purpose is a socially conceived construct. It is an idea that’s existence is reliant on an individual putting weight on the significance of their actions and life. The moral significance we arrive at is heavily impacted by the cultures we grow up in and the experiences we have.
Cultural narratives are ideas regarding valuable ways of being and the nature of ‘how things work’ that are held by a group of people. They influence how we behave, what we desire or avoid, how we treat one another, and even what we believe to be right or wrong. They come from traditions, religion, and other ideological backgrounds, and give us roadmaps for navigating our lives or understanding why things are the way they are.
- “The American Dream”: If you work hard enough, you will succeed.
- Meritocracy: You succeed or fail based on personal merit.
- The Indian Caste System: Your position/value in society is something you are born into. There is a hierarchy of value amongst people based on caste.
- American political Conservatism: Traditional values should dictate societal decisions.
- Globalism: The world should cooperate.
- Christianity: Everyone is born a sinner and has the opportunity to be reconciled through belief in Christ.
These social influences (i.e., cultural narratives) impact our personal narratives, which frame what we believe about ourselves, others, and the way the world works. Essentially, the bigger cultural narratives trickle down into us and often become unconscious and implicit.
If you can imagine these larger cultural stories about the world coloring the glasses through which we see the world, it would be as if we didn’t even realize we had the glasses on!
Cultural narratives are not objectively good or bad. However, upon inspection, you may find that some of the ones you’ve adopted don’t serve your personal mission. Maybe they make your lenses so dark they obscure what you’re looking at, for example. Believing that ‘money corrupts’ may prevent you from pursuing opportunities to expand your wealth, or it may block potential relationships from forming because you don’t trust how someone manages their own wealth.*Btw, there is an entire part of this site dedicated to money here.
Having narratives like this is totally normal! When we begin to recognize and make conscious the narratives that influence us (i.e., realizing we’re wearing glasses), we can hold them with curiosity and decide which ones we want to keep and which ones we’d like to change. But on the other hand, if we don’t examine them at all, we don’t create the opportunity to grow beyond them.
Examples of personal narratives that could limit your cultivation of purpose:
- Money corrupts.
- A good person is someone who dedicates their lives to helping others.
- I have to be conventionally successful to be happy.
- People who get to do amazing things with their lives are just lucky.
- Simple purposes are less valuable than grand ones.
- Money is the best indicator of success.
*You can go in depth with several other limiting purpose narratives in The 7 Myths of Purpose.
We have narratives about everything. Our purpose narrative includes stories about many different aspects of our lives. This section focuses explicitly on narratives that relate to Purpose (if you want to dive further into “everything,” help yourself to the section “Your Storied Life”).
If you were to imagine you have a garden of purpose narratives, there are quite a few things that grow there!
Ultimately in order to cultivate purpose, we will need to examine and understand these narratives. While you can dive into and personally define many of them in each section below (and far more specifically in the Clarify section of Purpose –a page dedicated to reflecting on narratives, desires, skills, and dreams), first we will dive into their context: what influences our narratives. Like taking a closer look at the type and quality of rain that falls on a garden, we’ll be exploring what affects your personal narratives regarding purpose.
- Purpose itself → How have I defined purpose? What is its role in my life?
- Myself → What do I believe I’m capable of? What do I believe I deserve?
- “How Life Works” → What have I been taught about how life works? About how to survive and thrive? What do I believe is possible or right?
- The nature of Work → What is the point of work for me? What are my beliefs about work?
- Passion, Happiness, and Meaning → How important are passion, happiness, and meaning to me? What have I been taught about their nature?
- Success and Money → What does success mean to me? How have I been taught to achieve it?
- Duty → What are my feelings about duty? What have I been told I’m responsible for?
Take a look at the Purpose Narrative Garden again above.
This section is an exploration of the rain in the image, while the narratives themselves are represented by the flowers.
Making conscious exactly what our narratives are on these topics (the flowers), we can better understand how they have impacted (and do currently impact) our life choices.
Knowing these narratives, understanding where they came from, and seeing how they’ve influenced our desires can empower us to make sure our desires are authentically ours. The other option is to be potentially misguided by unexamined narratives that we blindly adopted as children, leading us towards ends that won’t bring us fulfillment or joy.
What do you think? Do you want to more accurately pursue goals, activities, and a lifestyle that will be most rewarding for you personally (versus, for example, the socially prescribed narratives of success and happiness you’ve been offered by default)?
As you go through this section, do keep in mind that what you decide on will inevitably be socially influenced, and that isn’t wrong or bad. Social coherence contributes to our sense of belonging and contribution, and thus well-being. The point is to consciously understand the difference between what is authentic for us and what has been inherited by default.
Six topics that influence how you think about purpose: The “Context”
Each of the following pages takes a deeper look at its title topic. Click on each button to find explanations of how each thing has shaped the way you understand purpose, then use the expertly curated reflection prompts and exercises (pooled, filtered, and optimized from hundreds of purpose-related resources) so you can see what’s holding you back!
After you’ve explored external influences on your understanding of purpose, you’ll be better prepared to examine their internal effects. There is much more to uncover regarding your personal narratives in the Clarify section, and, following this series of pages up with Purpose As Your Work and Hindrances to Purpose will best prepare you to consider the questions in the Clarify section more deeply.
- Clarify – The master collection of questions and exercises to help you discover and refine what you want, identify and better understand your beliefs/narratives, figure out your interests, skills, and best-suited ways for you to make a contribution to the world.
- Purpose as Your Work – Purpose is inherently work; thus we often conflate purpose with our jobs. This section helps you explore purpose in the context of your career and how meaningful work can make all the difference to your satisfaction. Additionally, Should You Quit Your Job helps you analyze if your job is currently up to par with what you want from it.
- Hindrances to Purpose – What beliefs, behaviors, and cultural institutions make cultivating purpose difficult? There are oodles of them! Questions adults ask, traditional school systems, our mindset, fear itself, and even passion– just to name a few.
Click each to visit the subpage and see more elaboration.
Culture is like the air we breathe- we rarely see it but it is all around us at all times. Learning to see the narratives that our Cultures offer us about life and valuable ways to spend our time can illuminate ways we’ve been taught to organize our lives.
For many folks in the past purpose was an implicit part of life: think of tradesmen, militia, farmers, or mothers whose purpose was defined by their daily work and contribution to society. As society has evolved and we’ve become more secure and stable, our idea of purpose has transformed. Today in Western societies it has become the individual’s responsibility, which can feel like a ton of pressure! Find out how modern conceptions of purpose affect you personally.
Family, Childhood, & Personal Experiences
Modern psychology has deduced that human beings are strongly impacted by the environments and influences of their youth- and especially their relationships with their parents. Understanding the sources (such as our families and childhood) that shape our habits and beliefs can aid us in shifting unserving habits and beliefs.
Religion, Ethics, & Morality
How do you know what is “good” or “right”? What is the right way to behave? What is good for the world?
We often pick up answers to these questions from religion. Inspecting what you believe is good or bad can uncovering underlying reasons for important choices you’ve made in your life.
Economic & Political Stability
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that people in dire circumstances can have a stronger sense of purpose than those without existential pressures; however, this is an entirely different type of purpose than the section as a whole explores. Someone’s impoverishment or the presence of violence and instability can influence the type of purpose they have access to.
While research indicates that purposefulness often increases as we age (at least until late life), it is possible to feel a lack of purpose at any age. Many adolescents report a sense of emptiness and in one survey of folks in late adulthood to late-life only 30% claimed to feel purposeful. Each stage of life presents its own unique challenges to cultivating purpose.
*Including the 6 subpages.
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