A Simple Approach to Understanding Your Purpose

Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org.

There is a lot of buzz about “purpose” these days. Books and blog posts galore implore you to “find your purpose”, and promise that if you can do that, then you’ll find a way to be more fulfilled in life.

I, in fact, am very guilty of preaching the ideas (and ideals) of “a purpose economy“, but have done so without addressing a very simple question that you are likely wondering: “How do I find my purpose?”

Luckily, there has been a significant amount of research into the science of purpose. Here’s what you need to know:

What purpose is (and isn’t)

Purpose is the reason we work, beyond financial rewards or recognition. It is often felt as the deep sense of fulfillment you experience when doing work that is aligned with your purpose.

Imact explaining purpose of people building a cathedral

It’s important to note here what purpose is not: it isn’t tied to a single cause, it isn’t a job, it isn’t exclusively something available to those with privilege, and it isn’t something only discovered via a moment of epiphany. Rather, purpose is that internal sense of pride that results in the internal motivation to keep going and keep improving, even when things are hard.

What purpose is not from Imperative

According to Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy, purpose is the overlap of seeing the impact of your work on an entity you care about, using your strengths to create that impact, and contributing to something bigger than yourself.

venn diagram about purpose

How you find “Purpose”

Overview Video from Imperative on Vimeo.

“Finding purpose” is a bit of a misnomer. A more accurate way to think about it is discovering which activities give you a sense of purpose, and which detract from it. To find the activities that give you purpose, you need to understand the following:

  1. WHO do you work to benefit?
  2. WHY do you do the work?
  3. HOW do you do the work?

These are the Who, How, and Why ”purpose drivers”, which we define in the following section. It takes some self-reflection to understand what your purpose drivers are, but as soon as you do, you’ll see how they really influence your working style and day-to-day activities..

Imperative's three purpose drivers

Defining purpose drivers

Driver #1: WHO do you work to benefit or impact?

The first driver is the WHO driver. Imperative research shows that people get the most energy from working to impact one of three specific entities:

  1. Individuals: If you think back on the moments that warmed your heart, what made you the most proud? Was it when you helped a specific person? Was it when you worked directly with an individual?
  2. Organizations: When you talk about the work that you are most proud of, do you consistently talk about how you made a team or organization better? Are you most motivated to do things that help teams accomplish more? Do you use “we” a lot?
  3. Society: Are you most driven to change big, hard, society-level problems?
Imperative's WHO purpose driver

Driver #2: WHY do you want to make an impact?

The second driver is the WHY driver. This driver shows that people are most motivated to have an impact on others for one of two reasons. Both are centered on how they believe the world works:

  1. Karma: You believe that people who work hard should benefit, and although you will do everything you can to set people up for success, you also believe that their own drive and competition are important to create a better world.
  2. Harmony: You believe that all people should be equal and have the same access to opportunities.
Imperative's WHY purpose driver

Keep in mind that both of these might resonate with you, but in reality, you will have a dominant drive in this category.

Driver #3: HOW do you seek to make an impact?

The third driver is HOW do you seek to make an impact. I like to think about it like this: if you think back to the most enjoyable work day you had, what were you doing? Customizing things for individuals? Working with a team? Building tools and guides? Researching on your own? This is HOW you make an impact, and it’s an important part of the equation. According to Imperative, there are four main drivers in this category:

  1. HUMAN: Do you enjoy exploring human experiences and contexts to provide authentic and tailor-made solutions, putting the customer / end-user at the center of attention?
  2. COMMUNITY: Do you bring all stakeholders together to find the best and most innovative solutions, creating communities in order to address issues and look at different angles and perspectives?
  3. STRUCTURE: Do you put new tools, systems, and structures in place to solve problems, advance outdated or inefficient processes, and think lean?
  4. KNOWLEDGE: Do you engage in extensive research to really understand the current situation and uncover new knowledge, ideas, and perspectives?
Imperative's HOW purpose driver

Your purpose “profile”

According to Imperative, there are 24 purpose types, and they have a really robust assessment to help you figure out which best applies to you.

Imperative's 24 purpose types

Check out the infographic below, which helps explain each of the different purpose types. I bet if you skim it, you will see one that resonates with you the most, or perhaps a few. But don’t be lured by a specific title or your initial impression. It takes time to learn about what your purpose profile really is, so make sure to also discuss this with others to get a more holistic view into which is most like you.

How your purpose drivers affect your leadership style

According to Imperative, we each have a dominant category of drivers that influence us the most. If your WHO driver is the most powerful, you are an impact-driven leader. If you are most driven by WHY, then you are a values-driven leader. And lastly, if your HOW dimension is the strongest, you are a craft-driven leader. A simple way to think about it is like this: An impact-driven leader will be most driven by seeing the results of their work, a craft-driven leader is most motivated by the way in which a task is carried out, and a values-driven leader sees the most importance in the ethics behind a decision.

How your purpose drivers affect your leadership style

Learn more about purpose

While we use the Imperative Purpose Assessment in our Institute, there are other tools you can use, too. Read Arron Hurst’s book, The Purpose Economy, as well as Drive by Daniel Pink, and The Invisible Leader by MovingWorlds Institute speaker Zach Mercurio. You should also talk to your HR team to see if they are partners with Imperative and can give you access to the assessment. 

Seeing purpose at work

Once you take the time to investigate the type of work that gives you purpose, you’ll continue to see how your purpose drivers steer you towards certain projects, influence how you do work, and why you feel proud of certain projects (but not others). As you proceed from here, I suggest you build time into your weekly schedule to reflect on the things that give you a sense of purpose, and which things detracted from it. The Designing Your Life Energy Engagement Worksheet is a great way to track your observations. Members of our community also suggest the following ideas:

  1. Build a recurring calendar appointment at the start or end of the work day or work week to journal and reflect
  2. Meet with a mentor our accountabilibuddy on a regular basis to discuss purpose with prompts like: 1. What was something this past week that gave you a sense of fulfillment? Why? 2. What was something that drained or depleted you? Why?
  3. Planning monthly or quarterly “purpose performance reviews”, where you will take time to do a “peaks and valleys” exercise. Start by thinking back over the time period and ask yourself: #1. What was a high? Why? #2.What was a low? Why? How does these map to my purpose drivers?

Find a job and career path with purpose

After supporting hundreds of professionals through career growth and transition in our MovingWorlds Institute, we’ve found that taking on a learning mindset is the most important thing you can do to evolve your job to have more purpose, or to change your career path to find it. Take the time to reflect on what motivates you, and then explore – inside through reflection and outside through experimentation – what makes you come alive in your current job and in future jobs. Equally, make sure to look at other people that might have similar purpose patterns to see if you can learn from their journeys.

Here are some good prompts to get you started on your research journey:

factors that are influenced by your purpose type from Imperative

For more guidance, check our 11-step guide to help think about how to find a job with more purpose, which will guide you through these steps:

  1. Audit your strengths
  2. Zero in on your purpose
  3. Shortlist the causes you want to impact
  4. Choose the type of organization you want to support
  5. Decide on workplace and team environment
  6. Find your ideal organizations
  7. Build the skills you need to earn a job
  8. Get experience
  9. Build the RIGHT network
  10. Fine-tune your resume and LinkedIn profile
  11. Ace the interview and negotiation
11 steps for career change to social impact from MovingWorlds

An understanding of your purpose will not only lead to greater feelings of fulfillment in your own life, but it will also lend a greater understanding of how you can appropriately apply your skills towards making a meaningful impact out in the world that will last. If you want to learn more about our learning community where we explore the ideas of purpose, impact, and lifelong career growth, take a look at our MovingWorlds Institute. Looking to bring more purpose into your company? Take a look at our Corporate Social Impact Leader Workshops.