Is Having a Sense of Purpose Overrated?

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Members of the 138th Fighter Wing render a salute at the Tulsa Air National Guard Base
Members of the 138th Fighter Wing render a salute during a Purple Heart ceremony at the Tulsa Air National Guard Base, Okla., March 7, 2021. (AB Alyssa Smalley/Oklahoma Air National Guard)

As you readied to exit the military, you may have felt that it's important to seek your purpose -- to find a career that's meaningful and fulfilling in ways that make you feel you were fulfilling your destiny and living your potential. But is that true? Can work be a paycheck and nothing more and still be valuable? Or should a sense of purpose be your primary driver in finding a post-military career?

Just Google the term "purpose," and you'll find definitions ranging from "the object which one strives for or for which something exists ..." to "your personally-derived set of life aims" that drive every decision, behavior and which gives your life meaning. Quite a spectrum of responses!

For the sake of our discussion, let's simplify "purpose" as what you feel called to do, and for which you feel most authentic when connected to it. With that understanding, then it's no wonder that seeking this feeling after the military is something many veterans feel compelled toward. Your military service served a tremendous purpose -- ensuring the safety of your nation and upholding the values of honor, courage and duty in which you believe. Being called to serve in this way felt like your purpose.

Having a direction, a goal and pursuing personal growth toward that goal keeps us feeling alive, useful and fulfilled. Research shows that when adults feel pulled toward a sense of purpose in their lives they live longer. Our purpose drives our desire to remain relevant, to thrive and to be part of a world that has meaning.

How do you find a sense of purpose?

Following are suggestions for finding your purpose after the military. 

  • Adopt a growth mindset. As I've written about, a growth mindset sees possibilities, options and conceives of new choices. (By contrast, a fixed mindset only sees obstacles and limiting outcomes.) Catch yourself when pessimism creeps in and reframe your perspective to focus on what's possible ahead.
  • Explore your passions. During your time in the military, maybe you did work you truly enjoyed. Maybe not. Now, explore things that make you happy -- things you could spend all day researching, talking about and doing, and feel pleasure from. 
  • Think outside the box. Like having a growth mindset, get creative. Love sports? What about writing for a football blog, working as a personal trainer for collegiate athletes, or pursuing a career in sports journalism? Each industry and field has many job possibilities if you think outside the box.
  • Ask around. There are likely many jobs and experiences you're not aware of. Talk to people in your network, on LinkedIn and who you'll meet at events about their work. What do they like about what they do? How did they get into that kind of work? How are the low points? These conversations might spark ideas that draw you closer to something you'd truly enjoy.
  • Think back to your past. If being in the military was your last sense of purpose, what specifically gave you that feeling? Was it the sense of service, your clarity around your role and responsibilities, the camaraderie of your fellow troops, the mission ... What? The clearer you can get about what gave you that feeling before, the more you can seek a similar experience outside of the uniform.
  • Practice gratitude. After the military, you might have more questions than answers, and this can be very unsettling. Amid the frustration, anxiety and challenges of transitioning to the civilian sector, take time to appreciate what you have and how far you've come. Write down what you're grateful for -- your health, family, skills, whatever. Then read and reflect on your list periodically. Focusing on gratitude empowers us to achieve and do more.
  • Stay connected. While you seek your sense of purpose, bring others closer. Find people who know their purpose and learn from them. Connect with others who might be seeking their next calling and work through the process together. Being connected to others is a vital human need we have and is exponentially important when you're searching for meaning in life and work.

Having a sense of purpose is not overrated -- by contrast, it gives you clarity, compassion and patience to weather storms life throws at you. But for some, purpose doesn't come from work. Be open to the fact that your skills might lead you to a career that pays well, allows you to care for your family and yourself, and your purpose is found outside of your job. For many, that's how life works.

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