By: Eloise Skinner an author, teacher and therapist
When it comes to thinking about questions of meaning and purpose, things can get overwhelming pretty quickly. These are the kinds of questions that go to the heart of our identities, and it can be intimidating to start unravelling them. And alongside the intimidation, there’s also confusion – what’s the difference between your purpose, your passions and your mission? And how can you start to answer these big existential questions for yourself?
Luckily, there are lots of ways you can break the questions down into easy, actionable exercises. This article will take you through the concepts of ‘purpose’, ‘mission’ and ‘passion’, and give you some simple ways to explore the topics for yourself.
Let’s start with ‘purpose’
Basic definition: ‘purpose is the intention, aim or function of something; the thing that something is supposed to achieve’.
Your purpose is often thought of as the ‘thing you’re here to do’. You’ll have heard people speak about ‘finding purpose’ or ‘searching for purpose’. But an individual’s sense of purpose doesn’t have to be one singular focus that lasts a lifetime. The concept of purpose is fluid, and will (and probably should) evolve throughout your life. At some points, your primary purpose might be to deliver exceptional value in a new role at work. At other times, your primary purpose might turn your attention to your close relationships, or to a self-development project. It’s okay to let your purpose shift as you develop and progress. The key is to become aware of it, without forcing yourself into a particular template.
Your purpose might be a long-term idea, or it might be something more immediate. Perhaps it’s an overarching goal (for example: giving back to your community) or something more tangible (for example: getting promoted within the next few months).
The specific formulation is less important than the process of figuring it out, since it will be the things you learn in the process that provide the insight into your own life and character. And, of course, the important side-effects: the clarity, focus and drive that the ‘figuring-out process’ will deliver.
Next up, ‘mission’
Basic definition: ‘a mission is an important goal, accompanied by strong conviction’.
Mission and purpose can seem like similar concepts, and they often overlap. Your ‘mission’, however, is normally a shorter-term project than your ‘life purpose’. Your mission might be specific to your particular situation – it might be a career ambition that you want to achieve within the next few months, or a particular mentoring relationship you want to develop. You might have more than one mission, and your mission might develop into a greater purpose over time.
To help clarify this idea, your mission can often be crystallized in the form of a ‘personal mission statement’. This statement can become a helpful guide as you move forwards in your life. A mission statement also carries the benefit of being fairly flexible – you can write and rewrite it as your life evolves, and you can have a couple of mission statements running in parallel (for example: one for work, one for personal projects, and one for family relationships).
You can create your personal mission statement using the following steps:
- Figure out what your main goal is (could be work-related, personal or relationship-based, depending on what you want to use this mission statement for).
- Note down how you want to achieve that goal – what kind of character you want to develop in the process; who you want to be on the journey towards your goal.
- Give yourself a rough estimate of how much time you want to dedicate to the mission.
Here’s a simple example, using a career-orientated goal:
- Main goal: promotion to next tier of leadership at work
- How to achieve: through growing a personal brand as someone who excels at their role
- Time estimate: six months
- Mission statement: to obtain career promotion over the next six months, using enhanced personal brand and reputation for excellence
And finally, ‘passion’
Basic definition: ‘passion is an intense desire or enthusiasm for something’.
This final definition is about your passion – and of course, you can (and probably do!) have more than one. The term can be used in all sorts of ways: sometimes you’ll hear it used to describe a lifelong love of something (‘music has always been my passion’), and sometimes you’ll hear it with reference to something recent (‘this new job has become my passion’). It’s probably fairly clear to you what your passions are, but you can use the following guiding questions to capture them with more accuracy:
- What do you most love to do? What are you doing when you feel most ‘in flow’, and lose track of time? When do you feel most focused, engaged and productive?
- If you had unlimited money, what would you do tomorrow?
- If your current job suddenly halved your salary, what would you do tomorrow? Would you still show up for work, or would you pursue another path?
- What did you love most growing up, or when you were younger? What were you best known for – did you have any special skills or talents that you loved to practise?
- What do you most look forward to during your week? Why do you look forward to it? Is it the nature of the activity, or the people you’re with, or the way you feel afterwards?
The answers to these questions should give you a sense of where your passions lie – and if you have a long list, you might begin to see similarities between them, or consistent themes that you can pick out. They’ll probably feed into, or overlap with, your purpose and your mission, too: that’s totally fine, and makes sense, when you think about it. The intention is for all of these pieces to fit together, giving you greater clarity about who you are and where your place is in the world.
Eloise Skinner is an author, teacher and therapist. She is also the founder of two businesses, The Purpose Workshop and One Typical Day. Eloise’s new book, The Purpose Handbook, was released in October 2021. Find Eloise on LinkedIn here, or on Instagram here.