By Jim Whitt
The “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question has conditioned us to think of our life’s purpose in terms of a vocation. When we were children we might say, “I want to be a cowboy, a teacher, a doctor or maybe even President of the United States.” Unfortunately this carries over into adulthood. We confuse our purpose with a vocation. Think of it like this. Your purpose is your destination in life. A vocation is merely a vehicle that takes you there.
For example, my vehicles are speaking, writing and consulting. Another way to think of it is that these are the roles I play to deliver my verse in life’s powerful play. All of them are effective vehicles to fulfill my purpose of “helping people reach their full potential.” But what if I defined my purpose as being a professional speaker or a consultant? Well, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Writing is also an effective vehicle for me to fulfill my purpose.
A four-wheel drive SUV and a sports car are both vehicles. One can crawl over rough terrain, the other zips down the freeway. Both are forms of transportation that perform different functions. Both will serve the purpose of getting you to your destination. You don’t drive the same car forever. Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s the same with the vehicles that carry you on the road to your purpose. For example, you might be a schoolteacher and later become a newspaper reporter. Both can perform the function of educating. Both are good vehicles — but for what purpose?
When we don’t know our destination (purpose) in life, it’s like driving down the interstate looking for the right exit. We take an exit and drive around awhile until we finally throw up our hands and say, “This isn’t it.” So we get back on the interstate and drive to the next exit for some more accidental tourism. All of us have experienced the frustration of being lost. Doesn’t it make more sense to just stop and ask for directions?
We can’t look for vehicles with no earthly idea of where or why we’re going in the first place. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles Steve Martin and John Candy are trying to get home to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Their journey is a comedy of errors that requires them to engage multiple modes of transportation. They didn’t care how they got to Chicago as long as they got there. We too, need to know the destination first. It is only then that we can determine what vehicles we need to get us there. Like Steve Martin and John Candy, we might use several. It was only after I found my purpose that I found the right vehicles to fulfill it.
The discovery of your purpose may put you in the market for a new vehicle. When Dan showed up at one of our workshops he was a quietly desperate attorney on the road most traveled. He had “followed the formula” but discovered his “law” vehicle had turned out to just be work. About eighteen months after Dan attended our workshop I had lunch with him and he shared how the discovery of his purpose had transformed his life:
When I graduated from college I had no plans and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had always just taken the next natural step automatically; graduate from high school — go to college — graduate from college — get a job. I didn’t really want to go to law school, but I had been offered a scholarship and graduated with honors.
The next natural step after graduating from law school is to get a job at a law firm. So that’s what I did. I didn’t have the passion to really dive into the work and learn more about it, and excel, and I could only go so far on self-discipline. I began to grow very frustrated with the emptiness I felt towards my job.
One day, I was meeting in my office with a young couple who were going through a divorce. As they discussed the terms of the divorce I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind, “I think this marriage can be saved. I would much rather be working to save this marriage than helping them with the divorce.” That was the first day that I ever considered being a counselor. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became.
I attended the purpose workshop and a common theme continued to surface. I realized that my purpose is to “resolve conflicts and bring unity.”
I gave my boss a full month’s advance notice. A couple of weeks later, he came into my office and told me, “Dan, usually when somebody quits a job, their work begins to decline. But since you quit, you have become more effective, more productive, more confident. It’s like somebody took the old Dan and replaced him with a new one. I have never seen anything like this. It’s been a learning experience for me watching this change in you.” I left with his blessing because he could clearly see the life-giving effect of me discovering my purpose.
The effect was almost immediate. I felt like life was pouring into me. I felt like I had been asleep for a very long time and now I was awake and anxious to get started.
Before I started taking my classes, I went to Africa for 10 weeks to work with a friend of mine with World Relief. After I had been there a few weeks he told me, “When you first told me that you were thinking about becoming a counselor, I couldn’t see it. But now I can see it’s a good fit.”
All he had ever known me to be was a guy who was trying to fit a lawyer/business man mold, and a person who generally lacked passion. It was especially rewarding to me to have him say that I was definitely more optimistic and positive than he had ever known me to be.
When Dan found his purpose, it set him on the right road. He found that being an attorney wasn’t the right vehicle for him to “resolve conflicts and bring unity.” So he changed vehicles. As his friend observed, being a counselor looked like a good “fit” for Dan.
The Transformational Power of Purpose: Finding & Fulfilling Your Purpose in Life contains exercises at the end of each chapter that will help you find your purpose in life and set you on the path of its fulfillment (it makes a great graduation gift!).