Not sure how to find your purpose in life? Follow this innovative process.
Have you been struggling with the process of finding purpose in your life or work? If so, you may need to use a more effective approach: the innovative design thinking method.
Many people think finding purpose in life entails this miraculous revelation where, out of nowhere, all of your life experiences suddenly culminate in a big aha moment.
But it doesn’t work like that.
As Harvard Business Review exclaims you don’t need to wait for an epiphany. In fact, you don’t find purpose, you build it.
Building it can be incredibly difficult if you don’t know where to start or lack a reliable process you can leverage.
That’s why in my coaching program, I use a non-conventional but quite effective approach in working with clients to find their purpose in life. It’s the design thinking process.
The design thinking method is a creative strategy that combines a designer’s intuition with a strategist’s sensibility for an innovative yet practical way to generate viable solutions.
What I value most about this method is that it is solution-oriented. Using the process immediately elevates your mindset so you apply creative, critical, and constructive thinking toward a positive future outcome.
This is contrary to being problem-oriented where you are fixated on the problem itself or focused on why the issue emerged. Problem-oriented thinking may help you identify the cause of a problem (perhaps so you can avoid making the same mistake) but it will not help you solve the situation.
When it comes to finding your purpose you don’t want to get bogged down with negative thinking such as: why has it taken me so long to find my purpose, shouldn’t I have figured this out by now, why is it so hard to find myself?
These are the types of thoughts that come out of being problem-oriented. Alternatively, solution-oriented thinking, as you’ll employ with the design thinking process, helps you reframe your situation and start thinking in terms of “how might I … “ instead.
Finding Purpose in Life & Work
I studied design thinking at Stanford University’s d.school (explore their free virtual crash course) and have been using it to solve problems and uncover opportunities ever since. The Stanford design thinking methodology uses a 5-step process as shown in the illustration.
I’ve repurposed the 5-step design thinking process so it is applicable to personal growth (though I also use it in business as the model was originally designed for). This guide shows you how it can be adapted specifically to assist you with finding your purpose.
In a business context Stanford defines the empathy phase as learning about the audience you are designing for via observation and interview. Ask questions such as who is my user and what matters to them?
In personal development you can adapt this step to be all about gathering information (about yourself) in a nonjudgmental way.
Reflect on the ideologies you've already been exposed to (perhaps this is a religion you were raised to believe) but also seek out different schools of thought (this could be a philosophy that inspires you) and try to learn about them with an open mind. Additionally, think about your personal interests and affinities.
Taking inventory of all the different things (ideas, interests, philosophies, etc.) you naturally gravitate to can give you a good sense of what matters to you most.
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In Stanford’s d.school we were taught that the define phase is about creating a perspective based on insights gathered about your audience by asking the question, what are their needs?
You can apply this to your purpose-finding efforts by synthesizing all of the information you’ve gathered in the Empathize phase and shaping your point of view.
Of the different schools of thought, interests, and principles that resonate most, ask yourself: how might I use one or more of these ideas to improve myself? Which of these meet my most pressing needs as it pertains to personal growth? Can I actually live my life by any of these ideas?
The ideate phase tends to be the most fun. This is where you take your notes from the Define phase and come up with as many potential creative solutions as possible, even wild ideas.
In this step you want to brainstorm how you could build a purpose around the specific principles and interests that you resonate with.
For example, when I went through this exercise Stoicism was one of the concepts that I really gravitated to because I felt it was a good fit with my personality. So I started reflecting on how I could build a purpose rooted in Stoicism and brainstormed dozens of ways I could potentially build a purpose around this.
One of these ideas was to become a modern day Stoic philosopher which was outright silly! In fact, many of the ideas I generated were weak or just plain terrible. However, the act of brainstorming expanded my perspective about what was possible.
Run this exercise on the different schools of thought that resonate with you until you have a laundry list of ideas. Some you may be very excited about and others not so much. But jot everything down because this phase is more about quantity than quality.
Prototyping is when you develop a representation of one of your most promising ideas to better visualize how it can be a potential solution.
Go back to your notes from the Ideate phase and select one or two of the ideas you feel most inspired by and motivated to start building on. Now you are ready to write a draft of your purpose.
Using myself as an example, by the time I got to the prototype phase there were three concepts that I found to be the most powerful to me: Aestheticism (beauty in life), Minimalism (simplicity in life), and Stoicism (strategy in life).
So my initial purpose was: I will build brands that help people live a good life by simplifying complexities and focusing on the beauty in the world.
It was a bit wonky (and a bit cheesy) and definitely needed to be refined, but it was a significant step towards defining my life’s work.
After the Ideate session you should have a core set of principles that you really believe in and be able to summarize them into a succinct statement of purpose. That statement is your prototype.
According to the Stanford design thinking method, the Test phase is when you share your prototype with your original audience and get feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
You can get feedback on your draft statement of purpose by seeking outside counsel on it (from trusted friends and family, your life coach, etc.)
You can also start to apply it to real life situations just to get a sense of how this statement translates in a practical way.
In my case, I started thinking long and hard about how this could translate into an actual career. I even started a couple of different business ideas over the course of a year to figure out how this could work.
Ultimately I was able to refine my purpose to a simple and succinct statement: my purpose is to help others find theirs.
Then I created a mission that specified how to live with purpose: I will develop and maintain a personal brand that inspires others — through beauty, simplicity, and creativity — to design their life and live on their own terms.
It took me a while to get to this point, but I live by this purpose and mission almost verbatim. They are manifested through this website as well as all of my other personal and professional interests, projects, relationships, and so on.
Finding purpose in your life may not happen overnight. Your design thinking process could take a couple of months to work through or a couple of years (as it took me).
But what’s most valuable about this process is that each phase enriches and enlightens. As you advance towards the main goal you are also developing yourself along the way.
I incorporate this design thinking method into the personal development plans that I create for my life coaching clients. Having someone to partner with and a dedicated supporter helps them speed up the process of finding purpose in life.