How do I find my purpose?

Brita Fernandez Schmidt, author of Fears to Fierce, shares the story of how she worked out her own purpose – and both work and life – and offers tips for finding yours…

More often than not, we define ourselves by the jobs we have. They are the public definition of our worth. What is your job? What position do you hold in your company? What salary are you on? What is your career plan? 

Before I had defined my purpose, I didn’t like it when people asked me these questions. At the time, I didn’t know exactly why I didn’t like it. I think it was partly because I didn’t have a career plan, so I felt I was failing, and partly because I felt they were really pointless questions. My job title is not the most important piece of information I want people to have about me. 

If I am asked now, I talk about my purpose. I say that no matter where I work or live or what job title I might have, I will always focus on my purpose. 

I think about my purpose as an articulation of my fierce. Fulfilling my purpose might include wanting to become a director, because I believe it can accelerate my ability to achieve my purpose, but I am clear that being a director is not the aim. It is the means to fulfilling my purpose. 

Shift your thinking towards purpose, not career! It’s revolutionary. For example, take childcare as performed by stay-at-home parents: there is a lack of value placed on it, clearly signalled by the non-existent pay, because raising a family isn’t seen as important or as a job or career. If your purpose is to create a loving, supportive environment for those around you and you do this by focusing on your family, then that is what matters to you and it is of great value. By owning our decisions in life outside the existing dominant value system and instead focusing on what we believe our personal purpose to be, we will feel more confident in them. That does not mean we shouldn’t put pressure on governments to acknowledge the service stay-at-home parents are providing to society. 

Living by your purpose frees you from the constraints of being defined by a job title or role. Formulating my purpose liberated me because I knew that no matter what I did – whether in this role or another – I was always going to focus on inspiring other women to find their fierce. Your job or job title becomes a means to an end, and that end is fulfilling your purpose.  

But how to discover your purpose, when you’ve been conditioned all along to believe climbing a metaphorical career ladder is the most important thing? The answer is surprisingly simple, and lies within you: it is the moments you believe have shaped you as a person that will tell you who you are and what you want to stand for. Those life-defining episodes are often likely to be challenges or adversity that you have encountered and that have shaped you.  

One of those moments in my own life was meeting a young woman called Beatrice. Let me tell you about her …

Beatrice’s story

Beatrice was 13 when I met her on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. It was 2004 and I was director of programmes for Womankind Worldwide, an organisation that works in solidarity with women’s movements and local women’s groups to advance women’s rights worldwide. I was working on a project on early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, supporting young girls along with another local organisation. 

This was my first time in Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa. More than 80 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and relies on small farm plots for their livelihood. Disasters including droughts, floods, disease and conflict mean that many live in extreme poverty, especially women and children.

On my third day in the city, we drove for an hour down dusty roads to one of the villages just outside Addis Ababa, to visit communities where a local organisation was working with young girls.

When we arrived at the school, we went straight to one of the classrooms, where around 50 girls of all ages were being taught basic numeracy and literacy skills. When I say classroom, it was a room in a half-built structure that at one point was going to be a school but had never been finished. There was no glass in the windows, no paint on the walls. The girls did not have desks and shared basic wooden benches, crammed together in this relatively small room. But I could sense how excited and happy each girl was to be there.

Standing at the front of the class, I looked around at the faces of all these girls looking back at me. I felt moved and grateful to be there and to meet them. We connected without speaking. One thing I have learned through doing this work is that you can recognise and acknowledge each other just by seeing another person. I saw so many girls, all different, all with a different story. 

But there was one who made me stop and look again. It was Beatrice. I could feel there was something very special about her. Everything about her screamed out that she had lived far beyond her years and had experienced more than any 13-year-old girl should ever have to. I asked whether she would be willing to talk to me. After class, with the help of a translator, we spoke. All the other girls had left and we were standing next to each other in front of one of the windows, overlooking the courtyard. And she told me her story.

Beatrice had her genitals cut when she was three. She remembered how painful it had been and how much she bled. The cutter had used a rusty razor blade, which had given her an infection. Due to complications, she leaked urine. The smell meant that Beatrice was shunned by others in the community.  

When she was 11, Beatrice’s family married her off to a 40-year-old man. She didn’t want to get married, but her family was poor and needed the dowry they received – a cow. Beatrice’s husband was violent towards her every day. He would drink, come home and rape her. She told me that she tried to escape early on and even once ran home to her family, but they sent her back, telling her that she no longer belonged to them, but instead was now the property of her husband. She would have had nowhere to go if it hadn’t been for a woman in the village who took her in and allowed her to stay. This woman connected Beatrice to the organisation that I was working with. They found her a home and enrolled her in their programme, teaching her basic numeracy and literacy skills. 

When Beatrice finished her story, I could see the pain in her face. She had experienced unspeakable things that no one should ever have to. 

For a split second, I lost all hope in humanity. 

But there was Beatrice, standing next to me, aged 13, with the saddest story I had ever heard. I could not allow myself to sink into despair. I felt an urge to find a light in this darkness. Beatrice had entrusted her story to me and now I had to play my part. But I didn’t know what that part was – none of this was happening in my rational mind, I was following my instincts. I found myself looking at Beatrice and asking her: ‘What are your dreams, Beatrice, what are you hoping for?’ 

The minute the question came out of my mouth I felt silly. How could I ask her such a stupid question, when she had been through so much? But as I was silently scolding myself, and the translator repeated my words, I saw Beatrice’s face light up. 

It was like a miracle. 

Her face, which had carried deep sadness from the very moment I first saw her and all through her story, suddenly came alive and she smiled. I felt I was witnessing something impossible. 

‘I want to learn English.’

 She wanted to learn English. 

After all she had been through, her answer was so unexpected. It seemed so simple. I could not believe it. She wanted to learn English. 

Beatrice showed me that what happens to us, no matter how horrendous the atrocities, does not have to define us or mean that we are victims. Not as long as we can find hope. 

A year later, my colleague visited Beatrice and she was going to school regularly, living with the same woman, who had become like a family to her, and she was speaking English. 

Beatrice inspired me deeply. Meeting her changed me in an intense, fundamental way. She strengthened my resolve to be true to my fierce and believe in myself and what I see as my role in life. Meeting her strengthened my purpose.

Of course, I was already passionate about helping women, but I knew from then on that I was always going to find hope – however deeply it was buried – and I was going to invest in it, because no matter what we might experience, as long as we have hope, we can move from fears to fierce. 

The importance of formulating your purpose

Beatrice strengthened my resolve to be true to my fierce and trust myself. It wasn’t until several years later, however, that I found myself formulating my purpose statement during a workshop and realised that meeting Beatrice had given me such meaning. Often, it’s only with hindsight that we can see the impact someone or something has had on us.

She had helped me find my purpose.  

Here’s the key: a purpose shouldn’t be some nebulous thing you hold inside your head. I learned the power of writing down my purpose over a decade ago, during a seminar about leadership run by Aspire and Dr Sam Collins. In that session, we each had to put our ‘leadership purpose’ down on paper.

My first thought was, ‘That’s ridiculous. There is no way I can do this for myself. How would that even work? And why? Anyway, I just can’t see how it is going to change anything.’ Even though I had a strong sense of purpose, I did not think of myself has having ‘a purpose’ and it had not occurred to me to write down what that purpose was.

I was worried I was simply not going to be able to do it, that I would make a fool of myself. I was fearful that I wasn’t important enough to have a purpose and trying to write a purpose statement would make that really clear. This happens to us all: we are fearful to even try, because we worry that it will confirm that we are not good enough. Not trying somehow seems safer. The problem, of course, is that we will never know if we don’t try.

Reading this, you might be feeling a similar sense of incredulity. Maybe you, like me, think you can’t just sit down and create a purpose out of thin air. But what I learned through the workshop and my work since then is that it’s not coming out of thin air, but you – your life, your experience. At the end of this chapter, I show you how to formulate your own purpose statement but, first, I’ll tell you how I found mine. 

I can honestly say that writing my purpose down all those years ago shifted something significant inside me. I remember the first time I told someone what my purpose was, using the phrase I had crafted at the seminar. As I listened to myself speak, I could hear a new resolve and certainty in my voice. And I noticed two things: firstly, I took myself more seriously and felt more sure of myself; and, secondly, the person I was speaking to was moved and inspired by my clarity and commitment. 

Until then, I had been following my fierce, but I hadn’t fully articulated it. But saying, ‘Here is my purpose, this is what I am going to do with my life’ is a brave, bold and hugely empowering thing to do. It gives your life and your actions meaning and clarity. You start to hold yourself accountable to your purpose. It’s no longer someone else who evaluates and assesses you and determines your worth – it’s you! You start to take full responsibility.

Here’s the thing: only you can do this for yourself. No one can give you your purpose. There are no ready-made purposes for sale or one-size-fits-all – you have to define it. That, though, is a wonderful thing, because if you create it, you own it. You’ll be able to make decisions in your life informed by your purpose. Your decision and actions cease to be random; they become part of fulfilling your purpose and the impact you will have in the world.

The biggest shift for me? My purpose was a validation of me – and my fierce – and it helped me see the road to living a different way. Your purpose needs you to lead yourself for it to be fulfilled. 

How I define my purpose 

1. Reflect on life-changing moments and write them down

Looking back on moments in your life that have had an impact on you is a revealing exercise. It is often childhood memories that are particularly powerful and reveal a lot about your fierce. As you know, moving to Venezuela and witnessing inequality set my fierce on fire. 

I mentioned earlier that it’s the moments you believe have shaped you as a person that will tell you so much about who you are and what is important in your life. Those things will help you define your purpose. Here are the ones I identified and wrote down when I first did this.

The birth of my daughters

My parents’ divorce

Receiving support and inspiration from a mentor 

My father asking me and not my brother to tidy the table

Meeting Beatrice

2. Consider what you have learned about yourself from each of those moments 

This is not an easy exercise. When you do it yourself, give yourself time, because you will need to tune in to the pain you will inevitably uncover here. When I spoke about Beatrice, I said that where there is darkness, there is also light. Where there is pain, there is also the seed of happiness. That is what we are doing here.

I thought about why I remembered each moment and what I felt when I thought back to it, and wrote those feelings down too. Some questions I thought about were: who am I as a result? What did I learn from that experience? What are the values I formed as a result of the experience?

The moments I wrote down were all deeply challenging in a life-changing way. As I looked at them, I asked myself what I had taken from them that I carry with me now – other than the sense of them having been challenging. That is when I discovered that these experiences had shaped me in a profound way and defined my values. 

3. Organise the words into two lists 

On one side I put the words that described the experience and on the other I wrote the words that described who I am as a result. Sometimes the opposite meaning of a word can clarify your values. For example, insensitivity is something that makes me sad; I don’t understand it. The opposite of insensitivity is compassion, which is close to my purpose.

Next, I circled the words that resonated with me the most.

4. Writing your purpose statement

Using the words I had identified throughout this process, I wrote a sentence that summed up what I’d learned about myself. My first version read like this:

I am a leader who is strong, loyal and committed to equality and passionate about enabling/allowing everyone to live their life to the full for the sake of a happier organisation helping more women, ending war and building peace.

I then redrafted this statement at least TEN times and ended up with this:

I am a leader who believes in her convictions. I am strong, loyal and committed to equality and justice. I am passionate about enabling people to reach their potential for the sake of empowering more women, ending war and building peace.

About a year ago, I redrafted it:

My purpose is to inspire other women to fulfil their dreams and their potential in order to create a more just and happy world filled with love.

Remember, your purpose statement does not have to be perfect. It can evolve over time and it is just for you! Only you get to determine your purpose statement and whether it is serving you.

Now it’s time to formulate your own purpose statement. It doesn’t have to be perfect – mine certainly wasn’t at first, and I still change it whenever I want!

Brita Fernandez Schmidt is the author of Fears to Fierce: A woman’s guide to owning her power, a speaker and certified transformational coach. She runs a programme called ‘Step into your power‘ .