Asking Why to Discover Purpose

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One of the most important tasks we have as humans is to find and then live our purpose. Purpose is the thing that gets you excited to start your day. It gives strength, especially when going through life’s hard times. Purpose is like life’s compass, giving a sense of direction of where to go next.

Unfortunately, in this day of age– with all the distractions– it can be difficult to find purpose. It takes a timeout from the normal hustle and bustle to do a bit of reflection, which is hard for most people (including myself). Also, what should one reflect on to find purpose? Basically, finding purpose is a must, but how to do it is unclear.

This post describes a process I found helpful for attempting to discover purpose.

A Bottom-Up Approach

Our everyday actions are composed of tasks and habits. Tasks are those one-off things like going to the dentist. Habits are actions repeated every day or every few days. Tasks and habits can be positive (e.g. going to the gym) or negative (e.g. binge drinking alcohol). Beyond positivity, there are also tasks and habits that give an overall sense of happiness and fulfillment. Reflecting on why these tasks or habits lead to fulfillment is the first step to discovering purpose.

Step 1: Identify fulfilling habits.

From Habits to Goals

Why do we establish habits? Most times, it is because there is a bigger goal that we want to accomplish. For example, if a person goes to the gym 3 times a week (a habit), it is usually to accomplish a bigger goal like losing 30 pounds. The goal is the why to the habit. And the why is the emotional charge added to an action that ensures it continues.

Step 2: Identify goals that are the reasons for the fulfilling habits.

Going Up

Then the question arises, why do we have goals? Are they just random ideas that pop into our heads? Or is there some higher personal purpose that governs their creation? To me, the latter seems more likely. In the previous example, if the gym goer didn’t think health and fitness were important, he wouldn’t have set the goal to lose 30 pounds. His goal was established because it aligns with his principle to live a healthy life.

“Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behavior that gets you what you want out of life.” ~ Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work

Step 3: Identify the principle behind the goals.

Note: steps 1 through 3 can be done for many habits. The more principles discovered, the better.

Discovering Purpose

Once principles are established, there is usually an overall theme– one connecting element– that can be thought of as the super principle. Iterating over every principle and asking, “why do I have this principle” often works in teasing it out. It should be something that adds fire to your heart. Something that you feel is important enough to dedicate your life to pursuing.

Step 4: Discover purpose by finding the overall theme of every principle.

Summary

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. When I think of this process of discovering purpose through asking why, a pyramid comes to mind:

Why pyramid

Start at the bottom of the pyramid, ask why I am doing this habit or task? What goal does it serve? Once you discover the goal, ask why is this goal important to me to discover the underlying principle. At the principle level, asking why do I have this principle? Is there a higher level purpose to this principle?

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