Practicing purpose can infuse our lives with a profound sense of fulfillment. For many, it’s an essential part of leading a meaningful life.
And yet, we can also very easily over-prioritize purpose, suffocating it to death. We convince ourselves that our lives cannot be meaningful unless we are in a constant state of service. Or we feel the need to constantly make our purpose bigger, more meaningful, and more impactful and visible to the world. Or we agonize over whether we’ve truly found our “true,” “highest” purpose.
Because of that, even as I extol the virtues of purpose in other pieces, it also feels important to help people right-size it in their lives. That way, we can orient to purpose in a way that enlivens and fulfills rather than suffocates and imprisons.
So first, let’s be crystal clear: There’s a lot more to a meaningful life than purpose. Second, let’s take a look at the different pursuits that help us experience our lives as meaningful.
1. Purpose: The gateway to fulfillment
We can think of purpose in many different ways. We can think of it as our motivation and ultimate reason for the work we do, the why. We can also think of it as the practical endeavor of contributing something to the world, the what and how.
However, purpose can also simply be a felt experience, a sense of focus and fulfillment. If I’m filled with purpose, it means I am dedicated to some project that I believe offers my life meaning and focus and the pursuit of which I find fulfilling. That sense of purpose is what I’m referring to here. When we pursue purpose, we are perhaps ultimately trying to cultivate that internal experience, that feeling of focus and fulfillment that comes from knowing what our lives mean to us and believing that they contribute something meaningful to others.
Purpose is what allows us to feel that our lives matter to ourselves and others.
2. Passion: The gateway to inspiration
As we’ve discussed in earlier entries, passion is an essential ingredient of purpose. Purpose is passion plus service. In this case, by passion, I mean the sense of aliveness and inspiration one gets by doing what they love. We all have our passions: the things in life that we most love to do and experience. Passion is simply the experience of doing those things.
While passion is a key ingredient of purpose, it also thrives in the absence of purpose. We might get that sense of aliveness and inspiration by going on a walk through the woods on a beautiful day, listening to new music, playing our favorite video game, engaging with a friend, having sex, or any number of things.
I believe we experience our lives as most meaningful when we pursue passion both within the context of our purpose work and simply for its own sake. In pursuing passion for passion’s sake, we recharge our batteries so that we have the energy needed to do our purpose work. But perhaps more than that, we practice loving our lives and loving ourselves. If purpose is our gift to the world. Passion is our gift to ourselves.
Passion is what inspires and motivates us to create something meaningful in the world.
3. Presence: The gateway to aliveness
Finally, presence is perhaps the very bedrock of a meaningful life. Some use this word to convey a sense of gravitas one can exude. When someone is self-assured, calm, and powerful in how they carry themselves, we say they have presence. That is not what I mean here. Rather, presence in this sense is the capacity to be with, attune to, accept, and embrace all that is in the present moment. This kind of presence is typically what people are intending to cultivate when they practice meditation or mindfulness.
So often we spend our lives in our minds obsessed with some future goal or ruminating over past pains. Through presence, we untangle ourselves from the past and future and simply rejoice in the here and now. We untangle ourselves from our mind and find respite and freedom in the expansiveness of our being. We realize that that feeling of aliveness we all seem to yearn for is always available to all of us right in this very moment.
Presence is what allows us to experience ourselves as truly alive and at peace.
I like to think of presence, passion, and purpose as three concentric circles. The pursuit of purpose falls within our pursuit of passion. In other words, if something doesn’t evoke our passion, it’s not purpose. Similarly, we might also think of passion as falling with presence. If it doesn’t bring us more into the present moment, it’s not passion.
But we might also think of these circles as defining the limitations and boundaries of these pursuits. Our purpose is limited by our capacity for passion. The more we cultivate our passion, the more fully we can experience the fulfillment of purpose. Similarly, our passion is constricted by our capacity for presence. The more we cultivate our presence, the more passion can blossom within us.
So here’s my invitation: If you spend so much of your life trying to serve the world that it no longer feels enlivening or fulfilling, allow yourself to do more of whatever it is that you love most for its own sake. And if you spend so much of your life trying to do something in order to experience life as meaningful, give yourself the permission to simply be in and rejoice in this very moment without having to do anything at all. Allow yourself just to be.
Always remember: If your purpose work is not helping you feel alive, inspired, and fulfilled in the here and now, it’s not really purpose.