Are you in your final year of study at university or recently graduated? Do you ‘know your purpose’? That’s a question posed to students these days. When I look back to when I was 21, I hadn’t a clue. Realisation and insight only came to me much later in life. Asking yourself the question when young can feel loaded with expectations from other people. Is it helpful or does it create unnecessary pressure?

Harvard Professor, Clayton M Christensen, says that the most useful learning anyone can do is to determine their life’s purpose. Then all subsequent goals are a means of living your life’s purpose. Your decisions where you put your precious time, energy and talent will then shape your life’s strategy.

What do you think about that? Is this your fundamental starting point or something to put on the back burner? What you want from a job or career will change over the course of your life. Having a clear, unchanging purpose in life may feed the need for certainty in an uncertain world. You could see it as a rudder to help navigate the uncharted waters of your career; or as an anchor that stops you losing your way in rough seas; or simply a reflection of what you love being and doing.

Knowing Your Purpose

The mantra of knowing your purpose suggests that everyone has one or needs one. And why only one? It can be motivational, create urgency, maintain momentum and fuel action. The will to succeed depends on how heartfelt and compelling your purpose is. But how realistic is that when your life experience is limited? In my experience, knowing your purpose at 21 is the exception rather than the rule.

Knowing your purpose comes from within and it can also emerge through experience. It might be there internally and external factors light the dry tinder. Ken Robinson,in his book The Element, tells the story of Matt.

From a young age when he made up stories using little dinosaur figures, Matt knew he was going to do this for the rest of his life. Everybody else wanted him to follow a predictable series of stages – go to school, go to college, get qualifications and get a job.

But Matt knew his life’s purpose was to draw cartoons forever and he never gave up hope that he would succeed, though he never considered it a viable career option. He didn’t think he’d ever get paid for it, didn’t think he drew well enough, but he knew it made him happy.

When he left school, Matt moved to a big city and did several mundane jobs like washing dishes, being a waiter and a driver. But he was optimistic and eventually his comic strip got placed in a weekly newspaper.

This led to an opportunity to pitch to a film company for a half hour animation in a TV show. When he was standing outside the presentation waiting to go in, he had no idea what he was going to propose. But being flexible and adaptable he came up with something that changed his and other people’s lives.

What Groening proposed was the Simpsons and the rest is history.

A Sense of Purpose

During emerging adulthood, having a sense of purpose seems to me more meaningful and attainable than having to know your purpose. For example, your instincts might be to help people in need, to make a lot of money, or to create or build something. It’s not fully formed or necessarily specific. That instinct can be shaped by a combination of nature and nurture. Understanding and recognising your personal values and beliefs are a good starting point for shaping your sense of purpose.

Being Purposeful

Another perspective is to be purposeful and intentional. It’s living more in the present than the future or the past. Throwing yourself into a job or career direction and seeing where it takes you. For example, working on a 6-months project with a clear goal and end point. It may speak to your sense of purpose and begin to stimulate a deeper life purpose. Because being purposeful is action-oriented, it helps you move on from a passive, circular internal dialogue about what your purpose might be.

Many people don’t end up doing something they thought they would with their working lives. Two-thirds of today’s graduates don’t use their degrees in their jobs. We are going to be changing careers more often. If you know your purpose now, great, go for it. If you don’t, that’s OK! Be purposeful and get a sense of your purpose – explore the world, find out about yourself along the way and seize opportunities.