Book Review by Barbara Kammerlohr

Most religious and spiritual traditions speak of an essence at the center of ourselves. It is what most call God and some call the Higher Power, the Soul, the Divine, the Sacred, the Spirit or the Essence, and it represents who we are at the core. People who know how to live and work on purpose know how to express this essence consistently.” (Leider, p.21)

For over ten years, books about finding and living one’s purpose have topped the best-seller lists as the number of such books on the market continues to grow. Increasingly, young people choose careers and jobs based on an understanding of their own unique purpose. Colleges, universities, and secondary schools require service learning to help students identify purpose and understand how it can be put to use for the good of society. This tendency has clearly inalterably changed the work force; but what about those of us who have ended our careers and retired from the nine-to-five routine? In this edition of Itineraries we explore four books on the subject, focusing on: definitions of purpose, new research about the need to know one’s purpose, how to discover that purpose, and the part played by purpose in conscious aging.

These books being reviewed were written by a life coach, a Christian minister, and two psychologists from different schools of thought. Given their disparate perspectives, it is surprising they all say basically the same thing.

What is purpose?

“Purpose is your reason for being, your reason for getting up in the morning” (Leider, p.1). It is “the reason you were placed on this planet (Warren, p. 17).

“Purpose is that deepest dimension within us — our central core or essence — where we have a profound sense of who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Purpose is the quality we choose to shape our lives around…Purpose defines our contribution to life” (Leider, p.1).

Generally speaking, purpose is one’s own unique mission of service to God, a higher power, a compelling cause, or a specific service to others. It arises from our talents, our inclinations, our life experiences, and our sense of what we want to commit to as the purpose of our life.

The need for purpose

Purpose is inextricably linked to meaning, and the quest to understand the meaning of life is hardly new. “Why am I on this earth?” has been THE question humans have asked since time began. And even though the world’s most renowned philosophers and major spiritual traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have all proposed the answer, those of us living in this 21st century continue to ask, “Why am I here?”

It is commitment to something larger than ourselves that gives our lives meaning. In identifying that greater force to which we will commit our energies and actions, we also identify our purpose. Until we identify this purpose, our lives are not whole or satisfied. Deep satisfaction with life eludes us until we begin the quest for purpose and live in accordance with that purpose.

Richard Leider, in The Power of Purpose, expressed it most succinctly by quoting Victor Frankl: 

“For too long, we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if you just improve the socio-economic status of people, everything will be okay—people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged, survival for what. Ever more people have the means to live, but no meaning to live for” (p. 34).

Discovering your purpose

Although those who write about purpose approach the task from their own unique world view and use vocabulary suited to their own philosophies, they outline the same steps we all must take in the search for purpose:


    Ellen Langer publishes new book on 'Purpose and Health'

    If we could turn back the clock psychologically, could we also turn it back physically?

    For more than thirty years, award-winning social psychologist Ellen Langer has studied this provocative question, and now has a conclusive answer: opening our minds to what’s possible, instead of clinging to accepted notions about what’s not, can lead to better health at any age. Langer's latest book Counterclockwise shows how we can actively challenge these ingrained behaviors by making subtle changes in our everyday lives.

    Scientifically riveting and practically empowering, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books, 2009) holds enormously exciting implications for our general health—including vision, old age, cancer, weight, and heart health—as well as for our fundamental happiness.

    See Summer 2008 Itineraries article by Ellen Langer, "Mindfulness and Mindlessness."

    An attitude of surrender to a power or cause greater than one’s self is prerequisite to finding purpose. Without this attitude, fear, greed, anger, or other negative emotions masquerade as true purpose. Purpose is related to providing a service to something that transcends one’s self, not to alleviating one’s own negative feelings.

  2. Do a self-assessment. Learn about your talents, abilities, and inclinations. What do you find joy in doing?  The ways to accomplish this task vary—prayer, introspection, meditation, standardized testsbut learning about talent and the activities that bring joy is at the core of discovering purpose. If it does not make use of our talents and is not something we enjoy doing, it is not our life’s purpose.

  3. Spend time in solitude and integrate what you have discovered about your talents, inclinations, and joy into a purpose statement—a statement of what you can do for the world. Warren called this identifying your ministry.

  4. State what you think is your mission to the world. Pick something.
          Consider everything in steps one, two, and three. Then, do your best. Your answer may not be perfect—or even accurate—but you must begin the search somewhere. This is the place, and your best answer is all you have.

  5. Act on your purpose statement.  Do something. Waiting to act until you are sure will not be helpful. When we act with intention, the Universe (or God) responds by opening doors that lead to the next step. Most authors call this synchronicity, and it leads to amazing places and events.

  6. Know that the search for purpose is a continuous process. Purpose is different at different stages of life. This struggle for self-knowledge will continue throughout life, because, as long as we live, there is a purpose in our lives.

Purpose and Conscious Aging

Most who have thought about the longevity revolution and the extra years our generation enjoys claim that there must be a purpose for those extra years. While this flies in the face of the promise of leisure in old age that most of us came to view as our right, research into what makes us happy confirms that, as long as we have talents and life, we are subject to the law that says a life without meaning is no life at all. We must not only embrace a life of purpose, the evidence concludes, but the “golden years” may require a more sustained and unique approach to purpose than the earlier stages of life.

Dychtwald and Kadlec (in With Purpose: Going From Success to Significance in Work and Life ) pondered the issue enough to feel that the extra years signal another stage of development in man’s evolution. They refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and point out that the hierarchy is no longer sufficient to encompass man’s psychological needs. At this point in history, it is time to add another level. They label the level “legacy” and advocated their position with the following words:

“Maslow’s model did not go far enough. Longevity has changed the game. More is demanded of us if we are going to live into our nineties.

“I’ve come to believe there are elements of psychological development where you go beyond self-awareness and are primed and driven to leave a legacy by sharing your skills, wisdom and resources with those who are less fortunate. Seen from this perspective, interdependence might be a higher level of aspiration than independence. So I would add a sixth rung to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and call it legacy. At this level, rather than retreat and retire, you go beyond self-actualization to a state of rich engagement where you take the best of who you are and the best of what you’ve cultivated over your life, and bring some meaningful involvement in activities and pursuits that light the sky for others—as well as for yourself. It’s  about being involved with people and situations where you can make a difference and reap the satisfactions that derive from those kinds of self transcendent connections” (p. 53).

Most of the information about living a life of purpose and meaning comes from the following books which readers may find helpful.

Books about Purpose

The Purpose of Your Life: Finding Your Place in the World Using Synchronicity, Intuition and Common Sense by Carol Adrienne (New York: Eagle Brook, 1998).

Adrienne’s philosophy is that our own intuition and circumstances teach us about purpose. “Sometimes,” she says, “circumstances force us into taking a stand and that can affect the rest of our life. Circumstances may clarify who we are and what is important for this life and how we are going to live with integrity.”  The book is full of inspiring stories and statements of her principles. She reports that her goal is to help the reader clarify his or her own purpose by using the right side of the brain to respond to the stories and suggestions of the book. It is this focus on use of the right (intuitive) side of the brain to discover meaning that sets this book apart from others that use logical steps and the brain’s left side.

With Purpose: Going From Success to Significance in Work and Life by Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D. and Daniel J. Kadlec (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).

More than the other three, With Purpose addresses purpose in later life. Dychtwald himself is close to his second journey and shares his thoughts on aging. He writes from the point of view of a psychologist and includes research from the relatively new field of positive psychology. His message is that old age is not the time to retire or retreat. It is the time to rediscover the purpose of life and to begin living that purpose. Furthermore, longevity may have given humans a new stage of development that requires more engagement, not less, as we age.

The Power of Purpose: Creating Meaning in Your Life and Work by Richard Leider (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).

This is a “how to” book for anyone wanting to create meaning in their life and work. Regular readers of this column will recognize Leider as the author of Claiming Your Place at the Fire. Leider is known internationally as an expert in helping individuals, leaders, and teams discover the power of purpose in their lives. The Power of Purpose is written for everyone—not just elders; the short book (147 pages) has just about all the information you need to live a life of purpose.

The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For by Rick Warren (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002).

The Purpose Driven Life was a best seller several years ago and is probably the most familiar of the titles we discuss in this issue. It too tells you everything you need to know to live a life of purpose. The advice is straightforward, practical, and comprehensive. Many of the principles are the same as in other publications about living a life of purpose. Warren’s premise, however, is slightly different. As pastor and founder of Saddleback Church in California, one of the nation’s mega churches, he is firm in his assertion that purpose is given by God. While others counsel looking within to discover purpose, Warren believes that God reveals His purpose to those who seek to understand it in their lives. The practical steps he suggests, however, seem to be the same as the steps recommended by other authors.