The Signs of Purpose

One of my most treasured books is the classic Self-Renewal by John Gardner, which deals with the decay and renewal of societies, organizations, and individuals.

Gardner explored the question of why some of us “go to seed” while others remain vital all of our lives. Why some of us seem to run out of steam in midlife while others steam ahead. Why some people, no matter how busy they seem to be, have stopped growing.

Meaning in Life

What does meaning in life mean to you? Do you have a “felt sense” that your life matters?

In a speech Gardner delivered to McKinsey Company in 1990 about Self-Renewal, he quotes Robert Louis Stevenson: “Old or young, we’re on our last cruise.” We want it to mean something.

Gardner ended his speech with a story and a profound quote. A man wrote to him from Colorado saying that his 20-year-old daughter had been killed in an auto accident some weeks before and that she was carrying in her billfold a paragraph from a speech of Gardners. He said he was grateful because the paragraph – and the fact that she kept it close to her – told him something he might not have otherwise known about her purpose.

Here is that paragraph:

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”

I can often tell when I’m with a person who has unlocked their purpose in life or is doing purpose projects that lights them up. They have a curiosity and an energy about them that draws me in and lights me up. They have uncovered their raison d’etre (aka purpose) or are acting towards it. They are “building meaning into their lives” as Gardner writes. They are listening to the stirrings of their hearts and feeling their way forward by “growing and giving” on an everyday basis. They wake up with a mindset as Helen Keller writes: “It all comes to this; the simplest way to be happy is to do good.”

Signs of Purpose

Here are seven signs of purpose that I experience with people on purpose:

  1. They get energized by “growing and giving” on a daily basis.
  2. They don’t feel shy about expressing who they are and what they care about.
  3. They get up most mornings with an answer to “why.”
  4. They have “purpose projects’ that they are engaged with.
  5. They attract people and resources to their purpose projects without having to ask.
  6. They are “purpose activists” who are eager to serve.
  7. They know NO: they have boundaries on how they spend their previous time.

Who are the people in your life who evidence signs of purpose?

Richard Leider, founder of Inventure – The Purpose Company, is the author of twelve books, including two best sellers, which have sold over one million copies. Repacking Your Bags and The Power of Purpose are considered classics in the personal growth field.  Richard’s PBS Special – The Power of Purpose – was viewed by millions of people across the U.S.  His recent book is Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old?: The Path of Purposeful Aging. His newest book is the 4th edition of The Power of Purpose: To Grow and to Give for Life with longtime co-author David Shapiro to be released December 2024.

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