Why we should stop using the word “purpose” to find direction in life

Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless

Bertrand Russell

A friend once told me, “God has a special purpose for you”. I was feeling a bit lost at the time, and I suppose he thought it was a helpful thing to say. However, it immediately made things worse.

The statement made me anxious. Don’t get me wrong, my problem was nothing to do with religion. To my friend, these were serious words of wisdom. To me it seemed like one of those quick-fix platitudes (along with the likes of “just be yourself”) and badly thought through, because it raised so many more questions.

I wondered why, if God had this special purpose in a sealed golden envelope with my name on it, why it was being kept from me. Or was I being challenged to work out the answer? Would that be a waste of effort if God was going to reveal my special mission at any moment? And after being handed my purpose, would I feel obliged to carry it out? What if I didn’t like it?

The danger of purpose

If you’re into self-development or like reading about self-help, you may have experienced something similar. Finding one’s purpose seems to be the key to happiness, so we had better bloody-well work out what it is!

When people ask themselves “What is my life’s purpose”, it can spawn a bunch of other questions that are impossible to answer, put pressure on you and make you feel rubbish.

The popular concept of finding your ‘life’s purpose’ implies that your purpose has to be found (or else!), that life is pointless without it and that only one exists for you – like finding your ‘one true love’. I’ve found the question of purpose to be unhelpful, for myself and in the coaching I do.

I’m a big fan of clarity – which is great because that’s what most coaching clients come for. I’ve discovered that simply clarifying the terminology around this stuff can lift a huge weight off shoulders and help clients see a clear way forward.

So here’s a list of woolly terms used frequently in self-help, personal development and coaching which I’ve attempted to separate and define.

My coaching vocabulary

(Not in alphabetical order.)


You don’t need to find it and I won’t ask you to look for it. It’s a waste of time because your very existence means you already have it.

Your purpose is your utility, which is the same for all humans: to add value and either improve things, or at least not allow them to get worse. Let’s take this as a given and move on.


I try to avoid using this word as a noun in the singular. “Your passion” implies that there is only one that you have to find. Nope. You can be passionate about many things. So I might ask “What are you passionate about?” which could be one or more things. That doesn’t always produce an answer, in which case, let’s call them “things that you are really interested in or love doing”, which is what they actually are.

Your income doesn’t have to come from your passions. In fact sometimes that’s a really bad idea. Sometimes passions work better as hobbies.


Some people use the word purpose when they’re really talking about mission. A mission is when you’re consistently taking action to change something in the world. It’s something you have the urge to do, it can’t be contrived. By not doing it you feel like you’re cheating yourself. A mission doesn’t have to be ‘big, hairy and audacious’ – it can be simple:

“My mission is to change fast fashion culture by setting an example and only wearing recycled clothes.”

A mission doesn’t have to be one-for-life either. If you feel like you’ve accomplished a mission, you can start on a new one. But it’s probably best to stick to one at a time.


A goal is something specific that you’re actively trying to achieve within a specified time frame.


We all want to get into our Groove, where we feel our day-to-day work adds value, where we have some autonomy, can be authentic and feel connected to others.

It’s the work that will sustain our interest over a long period of time, where we can experience mastery of something.

If you can create a Groove that includes passions or your mission, that’s great, but it’s not mandatory nor necessary.

There’s more than one way to cut this. If you’re stuck trying ‘work it all out’, why not book a free consultation with a life coach?

Gabrielle Collard
Verified Coach
Verified for professional standards and commitment to clients. Read more Close

I’m a business and marketing coach from London with a passion for personal growth. If you're looking for support in developing a business, email me at gabrielle@thecoachspace.com

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