Did you inherit your sense of purpose from others? Or have you cultivated a purpose in your life that is uniquely your own? Here’s a very simple litmus test to figure it out and a way to bring more purpose to your life.

There are many ways to formulate a sense of purpose in your life. There are top-down ways and bottom-up ways to do it. I think most people don’t consciously do either. When folks actually do end up working with purpose, it tends to be from the top-down. They might say: what would my religion want me to do? Or, what would my extended family want me to do?

To some extent, all of us inherit some aspects of our purpose. Tweet This Quote

One thing to notice about this type of default, though, is that these types of purpose originate in another person’s framework. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, per se. You might work with a different person’s framework and be extremely excited and feel called to live it fully because it feels right. To some extent, all of us inherit some aspects of our purpose. But I think really defining your purpose in life requires examining our inherited frameworks in order to question how much it truly speaks to us, instead of simply living it by default.

In my case, I’m out here building products and inventing various technologies, but at times I’ll notice an underlying thought: “Hey, you want/need to make money.” Why is that? Why is that in there? After all, while I wouldn’t consider myself fabulously rich, I’ve been relatively fortunate to work in an industry that has done well. Why do I even have a money-related drive?

If I investigate it a level deeper, I remember my parents were immigrants and worked long hours just to survive. Money became a fixture, and when there wasn’t enough, there was strife. So even in a situation where I know on a logical level if I didn’t work, I could support myself for a couple of years, I still have this impulse: “No—I’ve got to do it; I’ve got to keep pushing.”

When folks actually do end up working with purpose, it tends to be from the top-down. Tweet This Quote

So that’s a personal example of an inherited element of purpose. It motivates me, I live it, but I didn’t choose it. So the really interesting process is looking at it and asking, “Do I continue to agree with it or not?” Many of us never examine our inherited elements of purpose, so it shapes their lives unconsciously. Or, if they are aware of it, they’re afraid to investigate or question it with any depth. The result is that they never challenge it, and they miss out on a chance to make the purpose their own.

This gives you a sense of what it looks like to work with top-down purpose you’ve inherited from family, religion, country, or really any ideas of purpose we have inherited from others.

However, there is a bottom-up formula, which is what I call the A, B, and C Levels of Energy. I’ve referenced this formula before in an article about managing energy, not time. Here’s a quick way for you to use this formula to create more purpose in your life:

  • Level A is energizing. You finish an activity with even more energy than you started. For me, doing a painting, writing a song or working on an interesting technological problem makes me feel that way. I do it and make progress and it’s “Yes!” It’s amazing. It’s buzzing. You are excited, continue thinking about it, and want to build off it. That’s Level A.
  • Level B is neutral. Imagine being in the ‘Zone Out’ zone. You are sitting on the couch with a beer, kicking back, watching some TV, relaxing. That’s a situation that’s not giving you a ton of energy, so you don’t leave the couch totally energized, but it doesn’t drain you much, either.
  • Level C is draining. Level C types of activities are where every time that you do them, you feel drained. Often times, you feel it even within the first 15 minutes—the sense of drudgery and dread. You leave these activities drained, exhausted. This sounds simple, but often, we so deeply habitualize the things we do that we can’t see ourselves clearly. There’s a simple litmus test to figure out how our day’s going; how our life is going.

To define our purpose in life is to examine our inherited frameworks and question how much it truly speaks to us. Tweet This Quote

If you look at your relationship to Level B activities, how do you feel about sitting on the couch, watching some TV? How do you feel about surfing aimlessly on the Web? These are Level B activities. If you get home from work and can’t wait to do those things, then you are probably living mostly a Level C life. It feels better to go back to neutral than it does to keep engaging in what’s draining.

Similarly, if your life is filled with more Level A activities, your relationship to Level B activities is, “This is a freaking waste of time. I can’t believe I just watched three sitcoms in a row. Two hours have just gone by. That’s nuts. I’ve got to stop.”

I don’t think anyone’s life becomes completely Level A activities or even Level C activities. Although admittedly, some people have really tough lives. But in all cases, your relationship to Level B activities gives you that quick sense of whether you are relatively well aligned or not.

Many of us never examine our inherited elements of purpose, so it shapes our lives unconsciously. Tweet This Quote

The more you have a sense that you’re getting into better alignment, the more you can begin asking yourself, “What exactly is it that I’m doing throughout the day that puts me at Level A?” Then, you can start breaking things down and understanding what the intrinsic motivations are that make your life meaningful. That is categorically different from the top-down purpose. I feel like nobody can define this other than you. It’s something that can only be discovered through a conscious process that includes a dash of mindfulness and honesty.

So my overall sense of how somebody develops a purpose in life is to bring a conscious process to bottom-up meaning—by using A, B, C evaluation or other reflection techniques.

As for the top-down stuff that you inherit (because you can’t help but inherit some things), you can look at them and say, “Here is some of the purpose I’ve inherited from how my country works. Here is some of the purpose I’ve inherited from how my family works. Here’s some of the purpose I’ve inherited from how the Silicon Valley technology culture works.” Be conscious about it so you know exactly what you’ve inherited, and then ask yourself the questions, “Do I want to keep these ideas or not? Do I want to consciously depart from it, or do I want to consciously say I’m into that?” This is in contrast to just chugging along and not knowing twenty years from now why you did what you did.

This is just one technique of many that can help you establish a sense of purpose in your life. What I like about it is how quickly the litmus test cuts through ambiguity and rationalizations. Try it out for yourself, and let me know how it turns out for you—or share a technique that’s worked well for you.


This post originally published in January 2014. It has been updated and republished to inspire further conversation.

About the author

Tom Chi

Tom Chi

Tom is the CPO and Head of X at Factory building teams that can build anything in the world. He is an entrepreneur, teacher, rapid prototyping enthusiast and part of the founding team of Google X.