How to find your true purpose?
Let’s say you have a job you find interesting, with colleagues you respect, and a promising future. Yet, illogical as it might seem, you still find yourself listening to a nagging little voice in your head that asks, “Is this all there is?”
In her new book, Now It’s Clear: The Career You Own, Jane Horan recalls that sense of dissatisfaction: "I experienced as an elusive absence, a hollow core I needed to find and fill.” At the time, she writes, she had “a good job with a great company.” Even so, she was “grappling to find a meaningful career.” A series of career coaches, life coaches, and online assessments didn’t help.
What finally did? A little over a decade ago, Horan moved her entire family—husband, two children, dog, and cat—from Hong Kong to Singapore for an even bigger and better job. Just eight months later, she got laid off in a corporate shakeup and found herself suddenly stranded in an unfamiliar place with a skimpy severance package.
That jolt, as painful as it was, was the push Horan needed to go after something different: starting her own coaching and talent-development firm. The Horan Group, based in Singapore, now includes GE, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Unilever, Disney, and many other global behemoths among its clients.
Monster recently spoke with Horan about why “purpose-driven,” a trendy term in many big companies lately, is more than just a buzzword—and how to figure out what you truly want from your career.
Q: So many big companies now, from Deloitte to Starbucks, want employees to be “purpose-driven,” but what does that mean for individuals?
A: A lot of reliable research has found that people who work with a sense of purpose or meaning are 125% more productive than average and 50% more likely to become leaders. So employers are jumping on the “purpose-driven” bandwagon.
But on the individual level, the meaning is highly personal. “Values” are no help, because 20 people in a room can all share the same values, yet have very different ideas about what meaningful work is. Simply figuring out what you really want is harder than it sounds. It takes some serious introspection, which so many people never slow down long enough to do.
Q: Your book is all about how to think it through. Where does one begin?
A: One place to start is by asking yourself some questions. Whom do I want to impact? Am I happiest and most productive as a lone contributor, a team player, a leader of others? Do I have particular goals I want to pursue, or am I at my best when I’m helping others reach theirs? Another way to look at it is, where do you get your energy? What can you do for hours at a time, without noticing that time is passing?
At the same time, look back at your life and career so far. What did you study in school, and why? Was there a time when you were doing what was most meaningful to you? If you got away from it at some point—for example, let’s say you got promoted beyond it, which often happens—is there something you’d like to do now that’s similar?
If you write down the answers to these kinds of questions and think about them, you’ll begin to see patterns that point you toward your purpose.
Q: Suppose finding one’s purpose means changing jobs. Any advice for job seekers?
A: While you’re thinking about what’s meaningful to you, analyze the job you already have. What do you look forward to? Is it planning a project and then seeing it through to the end? Or belonging to a team where you’re contributing to a group effort? In the role you're aiming for, what would you do less of than you do now, and what would you rather concentrate on? Maybe you have a desire to change the world in some way, or maybe that just doesn’t resonate with you.
The better you understand what matters to you, the more specific the questions you can ask in job interviews. This is crucial. I speak with so many frustrated hiring managers who say to me, “It’s so hard to find job candidates who can tell me who they are and what they want.”
Once you know what your purpose is, practice describing it concisely, in a few sentences. Be ready to tell [a hiring manager] exactly what you’re looking for, what you’re good at, and how you’d fit in if this employer hires you.
Q: Speaking of fitting in, are there ways to tell whether the culture of a particular organization is right for you?
A: One of the most revealing ways, which job hunters often overlook, is taking a close look at company websites and comparing them with each other. Of course, the sites are designed as marketing tools, but you can usually see past the public-relations polish to get a sense of what matters in that company, what gets rewarded, and what drives people.
I could show you two corporate sites, for instance, that belong to two huge commercial banks. One is strictly about the bottom line and achieving the highest possible profitability. The other is clearly profit-driven, but also serious about diversity, gender equality, and supporting the larger community. Neither is “better” than the other—it’s a question of knowing where you’d most likely thrive.
Q: What do you say to people who plan to put off finding, or pursuing, their purpose until they retire?
A. Well, for one thing, staying in a job you hate, or that just has no meaning for you, is terrible for your long-term physical health and, of course, no one knows what the future might bring for any of us. So waiting for retirement to do what you really want to do is risky. I always encourage people to at least ask the question: Why not now?
You own this
Want to make a move but not sure where to start? Join Monster today. As a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox to cut down on time spent looking through ads. Those are two of the easiest ways you can begin to match your values and mission with employers.
Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1996. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?