Get Fueled by Purpose

What’s at the heart of fulfillment, the key to managing your time and secret of owning your life? Purpose. With purpose, life feels more meaningful, time is more focused and life proceeds in the direction of your dreams. And while much can and has been said about purpose, here’s a very personal account of how I found mine, and a few exercises to help you find – and get fueled – by yours.

Step 1: Find your purpose.

Remember the story of the professor who illustrates the importance of priorities using a jar and some rocks? Let me refresh your memory.

A professor stood in front of his class and said “Time for a quiz.” He had everyone’s attention. 

He pulled out a mason jar and set it on the table in front of him. Next he took about a dozen rocks and, one by one, added them to the jar. When no more rocks would fit inside, he asked the class, “Is this jar full?” Everyone answered “Yes.” 

Next, the professor reached under the table and pulled out a container of pebbles. He added the pebbles to the jar of rocks, shaking the jar and causing the pebbles to fill in the spaces between the rocks. Then he asked his class again, “Is this jar full?” Now the students weren’t so sure. Again, the professor reached under the table and, this time, brought out a container of sand. He poured the sand in, shaking the jar so that the sand filled the spaces left by the pebbles. Once more the professor asked, “Is this jar full?”

By this time the class was on to him. The professor lifted a pitcher of water and began to pour the water into the jar until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and explained that the jar represents life. The rocks are the truly important things, like family, health and relationships. If all else was lost, life would still be meaningful. The pebbles are other things that matter, like work and school. The sand represents the small stuff and the water is symbolic of the things that get in our way. The professor said, “In life, remember to put the rocks in first or you won’t have room for them.” 

I first heard this story at a time when I was questioning my goals in life. Some I had achieved, but others were less measurable. I wanted a successful career, but I had not found fulfillment from positions that ‘looked’ successful. I wanted to make a difference, but donating and volunteering didn’t feel like ‘enough.’ 

And so I created my own interpretation of the rocks story. I began to think of the jar not as my life, but as my life’s purpose. I asked myself the following four questions:

  1. What was I passionate about? 
  2. What did I feel I was really good at?
  3. What does the world ‘need’ that I can give?
  4. What are the skills I have that I can use to make a living?

It was at the intersection of these four answers that I found my purpose: to have a positive impact through the field of communications. I stopped looking for the organization that would fuel my purpose and decided to build that organization instead. In January 2013, I founded my company, Prosper for Purpose, on the concept of doing well by – and for – doing good. 

With my jar as my purpose, and my company as the real life representation of that purpose, I carefully selected my rocks. First in the jar were my values, because when we don’t put our values in first, we may find there is no room for them later. This can lead to compromises we’d rather (and should not) make. You can read about Prosper for Purpose’s values here. Next came my goals, because goals provide direction. 

My pebbles are the people and organizations I choose to work with. If an opportunity presents itself that doesn’t fit in with my values, it doesn’t go in the jar. This has translated into people I have chosen not to work with and paid opportunities I have chosen not to accept. Sometimes a pebble has made its way into my jar, but over time I see that it really doesn’t fit. That pebble goes. 

It is not easy to say no to revenue-generating opportunities. It’s even more difficult to part ways with a colleague. But it’s my jar. And I can only fill it with the rocks and pebbles that fit my purpose. 

The pebbles currently filling my jar are gems. They are the people and the organizations with whom I work. They shine and enhance my values. The sand is the work that we do together, and the things we do to keep us charged and focused. Some of these pebbles will leave the jar; employees may move on, client projects will end. These pebbles will carefully be replaced by other pebbles. And the water, when it gets in at all, finds that there’s not much opportunity to move me from my purpose. 

So, now it’s your turn. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. What are YOU passionate about? 
  2. What do you know you are really good at?
  3. What does the world need that you can give?
  4. What are the skills you can use to earn a living?

Step 2: Manage your time. 

Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life, says, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” When we focus on time in terms of days, we manage ourselves hour by hour to see how efficient we can be. We judge ourselves by how much we accomplish in a day. This is tragic. Hours, days, even years can be spent doing things that don’t further our purpose. 

But when we look at our time in terms of our lifetime, we are better able to invest in activities that fuel our purpose. With purpose, goals are easier to set and measure. With purpose comes direction. Purpose helps us set goals and priorities and, in turn, manage our time. 

Once you’ve identified your purpose and your values, set your goals and only ‘pick up’ pebbles that will help you fuel your purpose. This means there will be many pebbles you don’t pick up. Just as I learned to say no to people and opportunities that didn’t fit my purpose, so can you. Time is precious. Make it count. 

A great thing about the purpose exercise is that it can also be used at work. If you are fortunate enough to work for an organization that is true to its mission and values, the jar is the mission (purpose) and the rocks are the values and goals. The pebbles can be the people and tasks you do to further that mission. Choose them wisely. 

Step 3: Own your life.

I started my company nearly four years ago. My life is busier than it has ever been, yet I feel more excited and engaged than ever. Purpose provides me with energy and inspiration. 

You don’t have to start your own company to live your purpose. Most people don’t. Instead they have jobs that enable them to find purpose through their work. 

Occasionally, very purposeful people work jobs that don’t fuel their purpose directly, but instead enable their purpose. Some of these people are coaches, others volunteer walking dogs or feeding the homeless. Some earn a stipend, others nothing at all. Many retired adults attest to finding more purpose in their volunteer efforts than in their former jobs. 

In the end, what is important is that you find and follow your purpose. Honor your purpose by choosing the rocks, pebbles and sand that belong in your jar.

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