Perhaps the oldest and most elusive question of all time is, “Why am I here, what is my primary purpose?” Most people think this is a religious or spiritual question. This is a question about “you,” not a question about God or the universe. It can be answered from a secular perspective. Only you can answer it, not some book, prophet, or new-age guru. Answering this question and applying it to your professional endeavors is the key to your success.
To help you answer this question, it’s a good idea to read some of the popular literature on the subject and consider how others have tackled it. If the foundation of your professional life is driven by your religious faith, The Purpose Driven Life is a great place to start (over 30M copies sold). If your professional life is secular, Man’s Search for Meaning (over 10M copies sold) and The Road Less Traveled (over 5M copies sold) both offer wonderful insights. If your professional life is inextricably tied to your chosen career, or the thought of creating a lasting legacy, the books Bold and Exponential Organizations are recent good reads. They advocate the Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP).
Another excellent way to approach this important and highly personal question is by identifying Your Personal Aim. This approach was originally advocated by Michael Gerber in his best-selling book, The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It (over 1M copies sold). To identify your personal aim, Gerber advocates a five step process:
- List and describe what you don’t want to do/be in life.
- List and describe what you do want to do/be in life.
- List and describe the things that get in your way – identify your barriers and limitations.
- Write your eulogy – how you want to be remembered.
- After completing this exercise write a first draft, then continue to refine it until it describes your primary aim (purpose) perfectly.
(If you have a favorite book or methodology on this subject, please share it with readers in the Comments section below.)
Yet another interesting approach for tackling this question is the Highest and Best Use (HBU) method, for which the title of this article is adapted. It is a proven and fundamental economic principle, used primarily in appraising real estate and determining the ultimate worth of a business enterprise. I think this approach applies equally to determining our ‘highest and best’ professional purpose as well. It speaks to our maximum productivity and market value. Like it or not, we all have a professional value and our success is influenced by that perceived value in the marketplace.
An HBU analysis is driven by the economic concepts of utility and substitution. The highest and best use of a property (you) determines its utility (productivity) to a potential buyer (your employer, investors or customers). A buyer will pay no more for a property than a competing property with the same utility. A seller (you), would accept no less than another seller of a comparable property (those you are competing with in the marketplace who have a similar work ethic, network, experience, talent and skill set).
If the highest and best use of a current property zoned for commercial is not a car dealership, but a strip mall, the car dealership will be torn down and a strip mall will be built. Like a property being valued according to HBU, your highest and best use may not be what you are doing now, or how you are defined at the moment. Your highest and best use, once analyzed, may mean doing something and being someone (professionally) entirely different.
You are not a piece of property, after all, so simply substitute “use” for “purpose” to apply this method. Unlike the other approaches to determining your purpose, the ‘highest and best’ approach forces you to not just consider what you want to do or be. It also forces you to consider your ultimate value to others. Your highest and best purpose must be determined with clarity and conviction. Your maximum productivity, your income potential, your ability to have a significant impact on others…and your very happiness, depends upon it.
Having read and studied most of the approaches to determining ‘highest and best’ purpose, I can offer a few tips as you undertake the task of doing the same for yourself:
- Your highest and best purpose must be detailed and specific. It can not be general or vague. Writing something like “my purpose is to help people,” or “my purpose is to be wealthy” is not a purpose, it’s an outcome.
- Your highest and best purpose illuminates your innermost desires and leverages your innate talents.
- Your highest and best purpose is in alignment with your core values and beliefs.
- Your highest and best purpose provides meaning and direction. It gives you energy and motivates you to accomplish what must be done to fulfill your purpose.
- Your highest and best purpose is proactive not reactive. It is forward looking, it does not dwell on the past.
- Your highest and best purpose is not about money, power, fame, or competition. Those are distractions that prevent you from determining and fulfilling your true purpose. No one else can know it or own it but you.
- Your highest and best purpose should consider everything you are — your wants, needs, hopes, desires, habits, predispositions, talents, strengths, weaknesses, skills and experiences. It considers what your ultimate end game is and what value everything you are, and can be, does for others.
Determining your ‘highest and best’ purpose is the most important thing you can do to focus and accelerate your career. The answer can, of course, change over time. We are not the same people we were 10 years ago. Our talents are innate, but our skills, interests and priorities evolve. So it is important to revisit and re-answer this question every 5-10 years.
May you fulfill your highest and best purpose and may it guide you to changing the world!