Understanding Your Purpose in Life

January 7, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2019

When I was a little kid, we used to go up into the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina to visit family. We would follow my grandfather (I called him Papaw) up the side of a mountain, within eyesight of the log cabin where he grew up in the early 1900s. He would build a big fire and tell stories of growing up in those mountains.

We hung on every word he said. He was larger than life, and you could just get lost in his stories. What I always found compelling about listening to Papaw around the campfire was that it gave me such a sense of purpose. When I talked to him, I always felt like I knew who I was. I had a sense of connection to my past, my future, and my present.

The conversations would always turn from his past to our future and what we were here to do. He would really drive you to question your purpose and not pull back. It had such an impact on me for the rest of my life as I struggled through the challenges of becoming an Army Green Beret, going into combat, and doing what my country asked of me. Understanding my purpose was such a big part of that.

Professor James Clawson of the Darden School of Business said that what people really follow is “inside out leadership.” And he’s right. It’s your sense of purpose that people are attracted to, especially when times are tough.

Why is purpose so important? Simply put, because we’re humans. We are wired to seek out purpose. We’re the most meaning-seeking creatures on the planet; we absolutely crave meaning. We’re social creatures, too. We survive by forming groups and relying on each other. Our identity and our sense of purpose are everything to us. This is our universal truth.

The 2 Most Important Days of Your Life

Mark Twain said the two most important days in any person’s life are the day they were born and the day they figure out why. Our sense of purpose is essential in how we lead our lives. In the military, we give a mission statement. It doesn’t matter what the mission is; whether it’s to fly a fighter jet into Baghdad or to parachute onto a target under enemy fire, we always give two things at a minimum to an American warrior: task and purpose.

What we found is that the American warrior will do anything that you ask of them, of their own free will, if they know the answer to one simple question: Why? This isn’t just true of our service members, this is a universal truth for everybody, whether it’s your customer who’s trying to decide to click the “buy now” button, or the donor who’s figuring out whether to invest with you. They’re going to ask themselves, “Why? Why do I need to do this?”

You cannot explain to someone else why they should take action if you don’t understand your own purpose, your “why.” Simon Sinek was right when he said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

But there’s a challenge. It’s easy to lose sight of our higher purpose in today’s transactional society and rat race. Before you know it, we’ve buried our own purpose, and we’re focused on helping someone else achieve theirs.

Even if we’re making tons of money, we’re not necessarily fulfilling that sense of purpose and meaning that we crave and need. There are plenty of miserable rich people, and it’s often because their lives lack purpose.

I believe we are creatures of purpose. We are all here to do something bigger than ourselves. We’re all here to play a bigger game. Think about it. The happiest, most rewarding moments in your life are when you are achieving a purpose that’s bigger than yourself because it begins to satisfy the two biggest questions we ask ourselves: “Who am I?” and “why am I here?”

These are questions we never stop asking on our journey of self-discovery. We owe it to ourselves—and the people we lead—to get as much clarity on them as we can. The more clear we are on our purpose, the more we are able to move people to action when it really counts. People follow clarity of purpose—especially when the stakes and risks are high.

Questions to Ask Yourself

As we approach a new year, let’s do something different than just making ad-hoc resolutions that will be abandoned within days. Instead, let’s get clear on who we are and why we’re here.

Try this:

Go someplace quiet and just reflect for five minutes, asking yourself these questions: “Am I playing the game that I was put here to play? If not, am I playing somebody else’s game? Have I lost sight of the game that I’m supposed to be playing?” You don’t have to answer what that game is just yet, or what your purpose is—that will come in time.

You will know in your heart and in your gut if you’re playing the game you were meant to play. If you are, then ask yourself: “Am I playing that game as well as I could? Am I as clear on my purpose as I could be?”

And if you know deep down in the core of your being that you’re not, then be honest with yourself.

Our country is starved for authentic, transparent, effective leadership that moves people to action. We need this from you.

We need you to be clear on your purpose. That’s something all of us can raise our glasses and toast to in the new year.

Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com