How to live your purpose–even when you don’t know yourself

by | August 4, 2014

Tell me if you can relate to this: You want to make a difference in the world. You’re willing to do hard work and persist through thick and thin.

In short, you have the desire and willingness to live a great purpose — if you only knew what to do.

You hear people talking about living their “Soul Purpose” or fulfilling their “Life’s Task.”

But you don’t feel like you know yourself enough to know what your true purpose is. You’re still trying to figure out what your talents and gifts are.

Knowing ourselves, we’ve been taught since the times of ancient Greece (“Gnothi Seauton”), is the path to wisdom, enlightenment, and purpose.

If you were to know yourself better, you think, you’d know your purpose and you could commit to it.

Carl Jung tells you:

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart…Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

Tests and tools for helping you know yourself abound: the Color Code, the Enneagram, the StrengthsFinder, Personality Plus, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Kolbe A Index, the Fascination Advantage Assessment.

But here’s the problem: You can spend your entire life taking these tests, trying to figure yourself out, and never come alive with purpose.

In the right context, “knowing yourself” can be a telescope pinpointing your mission through the fog. But it can also be an anchor keeping you stuck in the stagnant harbor of introspection.

A Zen proverb explains why:

“As long as we look obsessively at ourselves we find problems. When we look outwards we find useful things to do.”

Whoa. How’s that for a wallop upside the head of ol’ Gnothi Seauton?

The truth is, the people who wallow around inside their own heads are far less likely to live a meaningful purpose than those who get outside of themselves.

An experiment performed by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University in 1990 documented a phenomenon that provides insight into why.

Ms. Newton devised a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” and “listeners.”

Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs and were asked to pick one and tap the song’s rhythm by knocking on a table. The listeners were asked to guess the song based on the tapped rhythm.

Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out.

The interesting twist to the experiment was that Newton asked tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that listeners would guess the correct song 50 percent of the time.

But astoundingly, listeners only guessed 2.5 percent of the songs — 3 out of 120.

When a tapper taps, he hears the song in his head. But listeners cannot hear the tune. They just hear a bunch of disconnected, seemingly random taps.

In their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, brothers Chip and Dan Heath refer to this as the “Curse of Knowledge”:

“In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious?

“The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge…

“This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

Trying to live purpose from the perspective of “Know Thyself” is like being one of those tappers. You’re stuck inside yourself. You’re focused on your gifts, your talents, your interests.

Your Curse of Knowledge makes it difficult for you to share your value with others. You’re tapping your tune and wondering why the world doesn’t care.

There’s only one way to get listeners to hear your tune and care — and that is to get outside your own head and into theirs. It is to tap a tune that they care about, that makes a difference in their lives.

Your life’s mission is defined less by what you want to do, and more by what other people want you to do for them.

Knowing yourself is far less important than knowing what you can do to create value for other people.

As Steve Farber puts it in his great leadership parable, The Radical Leap:

“Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.”

(For tools to learn how to create value for others doing what you love, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

Here’s the fascinating thing: You don’t even need to know yourself or know what you love to start living on purpose and creating value for others.

The first step to finding your true purpose isn’t to focus on yourself. It’s to find problems to be solved, pain felt by other people.

In short, it’s to find something that needs doing and do it.

You can have ultimate confidence that whatever you choose to do will be the right thing to do — because you will only notice things that coincide with your values, gifts, passions, and purpose.

The problems you identify in the world are far better clues into your true purpose than the strengths you see in yourself.

Want to be more than a lonely tapper stuck inside your own head? Want to live a purpose that really matters to other people?

Spend less time exploring your interests and strengths and more time documenting the problems and complaints of other people. Look outside yourself and find something useful to do for others.

“Know Thyself” can be valuable advice. But sometimes, what we really need to hear is, “Get Over Thyself.”

(For more tools to find and live your purpose, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

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