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5 tips to find your personal purpose

Invest some time in figuring out your real story and you’ll end up happier, less stressed – and in the right job.

By Richard Hytner 01 November 2016

What’s your story? Your real story, I mean. Not some carefully curated version of yourself designed to impress friends on Facebook or to look more employable on LinkedIn, useful shortcuts though these social media provide to people wanting to get to know you.

The most authentic and enduring brands are built from the inside out. The least convincing, destined for a short shelf life, are those that believe they can communicate their way to greatness. That’s not branding, it’s spin, and people see that for what it is – manipulative, too good to be true, an overpromise that the brand can only ever fail to deliver.

Seeing yourself as a personal brand, and your life story as some form of brand communication is equally perilous, likely to prove incredible at best, narcissistic at worst, nowhere close to your authentic self and not remotely useful in guiding your passionate life choices.

Don't fake it to make it

So forget personal branding, cosmetically enhanced CVs and profile page makeovers. Embrace instead personal purpose to identify and capture who you really are, what you stand for, your long-term aspirations and your nearer-term ambitions. Then live this purpose every day to inspire people's deeper understanding of your authentic self.

Finding your personal purpose has unexpected benefits: it helps you manage your energy, stay positive, and remain focused, stopping you from doing all that’s not core to who you really are and helping you to say no to activity which is joyless, unproductive and ‘off’ purpose.

The more decisions you can take that are guided by your personal purpose, the less stressed you will feel – simply because you’re not faking it. As LBS Professor Rob Goffee puts it: ‘Be yourself more. With skill.’ 

Tip 1: Mirror, mirror

Immerse yourself in rigorous self-reflection. Think about when you are at your best. And worst. Why is that? What insights do your answers reveal? Capture how you – and those who know you intimately – describe the authentic ‘you’. Eliminate the gap between who you really are and who you project yourself to be. Imagine if Tim Cook had projected himself as Apple’s rock star CEO when he succeeded Steve Jobs. How long might it have taken the world to feel his discomfort?

Tip 2: Would you choose this?

Review your existing commitments. Using the lens of your newly created personal purpose, how many of them would you choose afresh? Use Kim & Mauborgne’s framework to develop a blue ocean strategy for your life. What commitments would you raise, how many would you reduce? What must you eliminate to stand any chance of being you more often? What new commitments should you create to transform to the purpose you have defined for yourself?

Tip 3: Test your best

Just as great stories have many narrative arcs, so personal purpose should be a platform for experimentation. Instead of thinking there’s just one best self to be expressed consistently in every encounter, embrace different versions of yourself and test them. Tell your story in different ways, too, depending on your audience and context, whilst maintaining a strong connection to your purpose. Whether I'm in a classroom at LBS or consulting with a leadership team, I always ask myself, ‘Am I helping these people land their best ideas? That is what keeps me ‘on purpose’ – even when I find myself off-piste.

Tip 4: Focus on the 'why'

Let other people participate in your purpose. Invite people to play back the ‘you’ they encounter, the feeling they get from collaborating with you. Ask people you trust, ‘does this purpose I have captured feel authentic to you or am I kidding myself? ‘Most of us know that we’re probably not our own best storytellers. That’s where your partners and friends are so important, because they are the people who will hold a mirror up to you, who know what you really believe, who you really are. 

The fundamental thing people find interesting about you is not what you actually do in your job, day in, day out. Nor your job title or your role, but your aspirations. The question that should occupy the majority of your reflection is the existential one – Why? In the world you would like to see happen, in your wildest dreams, what tiny part would you like to play in that? And why? That’s so much more interesting than which organisation’s T-shirt you’re wearing.,/p>

Ladder up the effect of what you do by asking yourself why you get up in the morning. Suppose you’re an auditor. Why might you get up today to do yet another audit? To provide some trust in a world that badly needs it, perhaps.

Tip 5: It's not all about you

Be more interested in other people’s personal purpose than in your own. You will find their dreams and values endlessly fascinating, you’ll learn a lot more about them and you’ll see how to help each other – which is of more value to colleagues and friends than if you’re just broadcasting about yourself.

One of the things to be very clear about is, ‘which places are most likely to support and help me be myself more, with skill?’ It’s important to know what your capacity is for any sort of deviation from the core of your Purpose. Of course you don’t want to be so much a reflection of the place where you work that you feel like you belong to a cult. But there has to be a strong connection between what your company wants to do and be, and what you want to do and be.

If you can’t see any connection at all, you’re in the wrong place. Don’t expect your company to find that connection. There are many things you can – and should – delegate responsibility for in life. Your personal purpose is not one of them.

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