Everywhere we look, read, or listen we are called upon to find our purpose. We are told that when we finally do locate a sense of purpose, its power will restore or create newfound life-balance, happiness, and career success. And yet, finding our purpose is a little like finding love. Oftentimes the harder we look, the more elusive it becomes. Ironically, as with love, purpose surfaces in surprising ways, and often when we stop looking for it.

Consider the counter-cultural notion that purpose isn’t actually the product of exploration or discovery, but a place of being – and, specifically, a state of mind. My colleague from Claremont, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, defined this state of mind as “flow” – the full presence we experience when we are absorbed in an activity. In flow state, we are not striving, stressing, or even intensely fixated. We are simply fully present, and attendant to whatever it is we are doing. We are absorbed by the present. Some might call this experience a sense of “alive-ness.” We feel these moments deep in our bones and because they are so striking, we can recall them throughout our lives. Imagine if we could experience them consistently.

Getting into a flow state is simple and also not easy. How do we actually get there?

Csikszentmihalyi characterized several pre-conditions for flow state, including engagement in activities with clear objectives and clear feedback, with a level of task-related concentration, and with a degree of challenge that is engaging but not overwhelming.

If we dig deeper into these experiences, we encounter an additional pre-requisite: the need for a sense of control and competence. Ironically, we may have competence in an activity without even knowing it. For example, I once experienced flow state when washing dishes, something I’ve done at home thousands of times. To say I have competence in washing dishes is an understatement!

Where does control and competence come from? Need we be expert violin-makers, or professional athletes with decades of training? No. But we do begin to populate more of these moments when we are conscious of – and intentional with – the deployment and cultivation of our strengths. Herein lies the modern confusion with purpose: We’ve conflated discovering purpose (perceived as an extrinsic activity, something we get “out there”) with uncovering our strengths (an intrinsic activity, something we connect with “in here”). In truth, they’re different activities. Flow state, or purpose, arises only after our strengths are deployed. It follows, then, that when we’re conscious of our strengths, we can more intentionally deploy them.

And it makes sense. When we experience flow state, our contributions are in sync with the requirements of the task at hand, giving rise to what Csikszentmihalyi calls an “autotelic” experience in which the activity becomes the end in itself. As the cliché goes, “The journey is the destination.”

Thus, if we’re really after a more consistent state of flow (which we might errantly label as purpose), our developmental journey must include the cultivation and deployment of our strengths.

To be blunt, what could be more fun than that? Discovering our strengths is a developmental pursuit, and requires consistent, persistent effort – no, not struggle – but effort. This journey is filled with twists, turns, peaks, and valleys and it is here that many of us get lost and revert to an “either/or” modality of seeking, which implies a terminus: either we find it, or we don’t, and when we don’t find it, we keep on seeking. Seeking mode, like binge watching and binge eating, is fantastic until it isn’t! Seeking is not altogether bad, but beyond a certain level it is counterproductive. Instead, we might ask: how do I discover what I’m good at? And what are best practices for cultivating new strengths?
One of the distinct benefits of working with leaders and teams over the last 25 years has been to see first-hand how people from every imaginable background discover, build, and start to fully value their strengths. Three things set these folks apart.

  1. They possess a strong action orientation: Even if self-esteem is low, as mine often is, action is critical. All this takes is a willingness to try something new. Trying is a form of experimentation where we can discover early signs of a skill. For most of us, our strengths won’t jump off the page. In some cases, they may be obvious to others or so glaringly obvious to us that we undervalue them. So, we need to get out there, try things, and see what happens. The intersection between our attempts to try new things and the feedback received is extraordinary data.
  2. They have a desire to learn, specifically to learn from others. In short, they have a growth mindset. Learning through action and experimentation is excellent, but most of us can accelerate our journey by learning through others. Counterintuitively, I often find that those who could benefit most from the lessons and insights of others do precisely the opposite and learn only through their own mistakes and failure. These same people also regularly confuse individual success with the circumstances they inhabit.
  3. They are persistent and committed. Sometimes strengths are revealed only after continuous engagement. For example, when we start to learn a new language, none of us has mastery, even if some of us pick up new languages faster than others. But after years of studying, reading, and speaking, and perhaps even living in a new culture, does mastery emerge? Can we stay persistent enough with the joy of the learning itself to cultivate a strength? Finding, valuing, and building our strengths is a lifelong journey that can be both hard work and tons of fun. It is a continuous process. Some would say that these activities are the essence of life – and I agree.

In short, leaders with strong purpose try new things, learn from others, and are persistent in the learning journey. When we engage in these behaviors, a final element helps us connect the dots. Finding our strengths requires feedback – we need to listen for the early footprints of potential. Teachers, friends, coaches, and leaders might say, “Wow you are picking this up quickly,” or “Have you considered…?” or “You’re a natural.” These are the seedlings of our strengths as viewed by others. Equally, our own sense of possibility and joy around what brings a flow state, even if fleeting, can help guide us to what we might be good at. These early assessments can sprout wings in young children and inspire us to stay with the learning as adults.

As it turns out, being good or even great, at something – anything – brings purpose. When our strengths are deployed, the seeking stops, and the experience of purpose – the state of flow – brings us to new depths of engagement and presence. In these moments, the search for purpose ceases, and the experience of purpose is at hand.