“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Choosing to follow your life purpose is much like Bilbo describes to Frodo . . there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to!
Luckily, there are some common experiences that are worth exploring. I took some time recently to develop a way of looking at the life purpose journey, and created a series of five different phases that we each go through as we find our way.
The Five Stages of Finding Your Life Purpose
Based on my own experience, and the hero’s journey that’s commonly used when writing novels and screenplays, I’ve defined five key stages of finding our life purpose. Why finding, and not following? In many ways, our life purpose is a moving target; as soon as you achieve one goal, another appears! Put differently, your life purpose could be seen as your own personal North Star, guiding you as you make choices on the journey of life.
Everyone’s journey is different, and in many ways the path towards a life purpose shifts and evolves as we do. By understanding where you are within these stages, you can identify positive steps to take that support you through the emotional, mental, and physical struggles that arise.
I’ve defined five stages as: Self-Discovery, Implementation, Re-Identification, Integration, Celebration. Throughout this article, I’ll be using the term Seeker to describe anyone who is going through these phases.
Life Purpose is a nonlinear cycle
It’s possible to go through these phases in a different order. A life change, such as a new job, marriage, divorce, or birth of a child, may propel you into the Implementation phase prior to any Self-Discovery – especially if the change wasn’t something you anticipated. Or you may discover something about yourself that leads to a need for Re-Identification. You may choose to Celebrate during or immediately after the Implementation phase, rather than waiting to go through Re-identification and Integration. In other words, there’s no right or wrong way to go through these stages!
Trying to show all possible paths through these stages would result in a chart that looks like a pile of spaghetti. However, for those who intentionally pursue self-discovery and personal development, the order presented is a common one in which to experience the journey.
First . . the inciting incident!
Before we start the journey, something prompted us to walk out the door, as Bilbo might say. Odds are, some feeling or event pushed, or is pushing, you towards a purpose-oriented life. It might be small, like a nagging feeling of discontent with your current job. Or it could be large, like losing a job or having a near-death experience. Whatever it is, this incident or feeling causes us to re-evaluate our lives and seek changes that lead us to a more meaningful, heart-centered existence.
For me, there were two inciting incidents that had a direct impact on my life purpose journey. The first was in January of 2013, when an inattentive driver turned left into a crosswalk, knocking me off-balance – both literally and metaphorically! Immediately after that incident, I recall thinking about how much I wish I’d spent time working on a novel instead of pursuing that promotion at work. Although I had several physical injuries (every joint on the right side of my body, except the elbow and knee, were sprained, as well as back, neck, and head injuries), I had more to think about than just recovering from this trauma. I spent a lot of time reflecting on my sense of identity, as well as what I wanted from my life. You can read more about it in my article The Healing Power of Trauma.
The incident with the SUV propelled me into the Self-Discovery phase. Several years, later, I was laid off from my corporate job, because we’d been acquired by a large company. This gave me the financial means – and the time – to move into the Implementation phase of my journey. For me, Implementation meant starting my own business, without which this blog wouldn’t exist!
How a coach can help: By identifying where you are in the journey, a coach can help you strategize next steps, and provide structure to the process of working to fulfill your purpose. You can also work with a coach to empty out thoughts and feelings related to your inciting incident, clarifying both short and long term objectives.
Phase One: Self-Discovery
If you aren’t already sure what your purpose is, or what brings meaning to your life, allow time for a period of self-discovery. Some people seem to be born knowing what they want out of life, others of us need years to sort through our various interests to narrow it down. This is a phase that will take as long as it needs, and like many things may expand to take as much time as you have available to do it!
In the Self-Discovery phase, the Seeker explores various components of their personality, likes and dislikes, values, needs, and desires. Depending on the level of self-awareness that you’re starting from, this can take months or even years to complete. Common tools include personality tests, career assessments, aptitude tests, journaling, and more.
The Self-Discovery phase can be either accidental or intentional. Similar to the Inciting Incident, you may make an accidental discovery about yourself that steers you to make changes to your life and career. Or you may actively pursue self-exploration, whether through journal exercises, working one-on-one with a coach or other professional, or attending workshops.
Regardless of how you find yourself in this phase, this is a period of self-reflection and looking inward. Input from friends, family, and colleagues that know you well is helpful, but the only person who truly knows you is you. How do you perceive yourself? What do you value? What brings joy and meaning to your life?
During my Self-Discovery phase, I reflected upon why I enjoyed writing fiction, and eventually realized that coaching would be a better fit for my goals. Even in my fiction, I liked to challenge common thoughts and assumptions, and one of my goals as a writer was to expand people’s thinking about topical issues, as well as inspire them to become better versions of themselves. Both of these are aspects of what I do as a coach!
How a coach can help: Coaches help their clients with Self-Discovery by offering tools and dialogue that determine values, interests, beliefs, and strengths that can be incorporated into a life purpose. Many coaches are also familiar with personality and career assessment tools, and can recommend one or two that will work well for you and your situation.
Phase Two: Implementation
In the Implementation phase, the Seeker is ready to start testing out strategies for living with purpose. This may involve volunteer work, finding a new job, transferring to a new department, taking classes to develop skills, or starting your own business.
If you’re not ready to go all-in, this phase can be accomplished through testing out possibilities, typically one at a time, without making significant changes to your daily life. In this way, you continue the Self-Discovery phase in a real-world, tangible setting. Whether or not you choose to make dramatic life changes, or phase them in in small increments, is entirely up to you.
Before diving into action, many clients find it helpful to have a measurement system. Defining what success looks like – even if it seems intangible – will help you make course corrections as you go.
During the Implementation phase, blocks and obstacles often arise that need to be worked through. These may be tangible, such as financial needs, or intangible, such as lack of self-confidence. Having a support system will help you tackle those obstacles, working through or around them to achieve your goal.
How a coach can help: Coaches can help you define success, develop measurement techniques, and prioritize tasks so you can balance the changes in your life against current responsibilities. They’ll also help you identify which action steps are most likely to help you achieve your goals.
Phase Three: Re-Identification
At some point along the journey, most of us wonder if we’ve made the right choice. Maybe shifting careers affects our finances or lifestyles in a way we didn’t anticipate. Perhaps it takes longer to achieve our goals than we had hoped. Or we get burned out from trying to make too many changes too quickly. Sometimes, friends & family are resist the changes we’re making. As we change, the world around us responds, and not always with positive reinforcement!
But how can you tell the difference between barriers and obstacles that you need to overcome and warning signs that it’s need to reconsider? This goes back to the measurement system developed in Phase Two (Implementation). It also may be helpful to go back to do a bit more self-discovery. (Remember, the phases aren’t linear!)
The crux of this phase is that as you change what you do, you also change who you are. Depending on the changes you make, this can be a dramatic shift. For example, I went from a very left-brained, analytical, corporate position to more right-brained, intuitive, self-employment. Even though it happened over a period of several years, it was a very dramatic change in self-identity, and I experienced several bouts of self-doubt along the way.
For most of us, the battle here is the head versus the heart. Logically and practically, we’re used to a certain way of life, we know how it works, and even if we aren’t happy with it, it’s familiar. But to fulfill our life purpose, our heart wants us to take a different road. Our head rebels, because there are too many unfamiliarities and uncertainties on the way!
How a coach can help: When we get discouraged, coaches remind us of how far we’ve come. They also help with emptying out & organizing thoughts and feelings, so we can better assess whether a course correction is necessary. Some coaches are also trained in techniques to help resolve conflicts between warring parts of our subconscious – such as the part that wants to change and the part that wants to stay the same.
Phase Four: Integration
As we work through the Re-Identification phase, the old and new parts of our identity integrate into a new sense of self. This can bring a sense of peace and tranquility, especially after the turmoil of Re-Identification.
Integration is less active than the prior three stages have been. Instead of actively looking for information, identifying action steps, or reconciling various parts of yourself, in this phase, Seekers begin to develop familiarity with their chosen path. For many, this familiarity leads to confidence in the skills they’ve been learning. In many ways, Integration is an acknowledgement of the work you’ve done and the person you’ve become.
During this phase, you may experience a sense of loss as you reflect upon your prior life, goals, and sense of self. This is perfectly normal. Allow yourself the time and space to experience the grief associated with that loss, and most of us will move through these feelings naturally.
If the changes in your life are significant, it’s perfectly normal to go back and forth between re-identification and integration several times, as you integrate different aspects of yourself that have changed. For example, I’ve had to adjust to bringing my intuitive, creative side into a professional setting, and later adjust to the change from a rigid corporate structure to the relative freedom of being self-employed.
How a coach can help: Seekers working with a coach will benefit from the acknowledgement of their journey, as well as discussion about next steps along the path. This is a good point at which to reassess and redefine the coaching relationship, as many of the initial goals may have been met.
Phase Five: Celebration
Even though life purpose is a journey as much as a destination, when you’ve reached this stage, there’s a sense of accomplishment. You’ve done the inner work, figured out what you want, and made it through the obstacles to achieve your goal. This is your moment to shine!
What comes next?
The journey of discovering our life purpose can become a continuous cycle of self-discovery and personal growth. In some ways, it’s like a spiral. When we complete one phase, we move on to the next, repeating the sequence. Once you celebrate the completion of one cycle, you’ll likely discover a shift in your vision, refinement of your purpose, or new steps to take to continue along the path you’re already on.
While there’s no right or wrong way to pursue your life purpose, understanding these five stages can help you to understand the progress you’ve made, what to expect as you continue, and how you can relate to others on a similar journey.