When I ask a new client or acquaintance to tell me what they do, their answer usually falls into one of two categories. Either they give me their job function: I’m a teacher, a lawyer, a designer. Or they give me their job title: I’m an Equity Partner, a Senior Vice President, an Associate Professor.
Rarely does anyone ever tell me who they help or what kind of impact they make. We’re great at naming our jobs, but not so great at describing our actual work.
I was thinking about this kind of labeling recently while I listened to Dr. Nadia Lopez present a talk about purpose at the Art of Coaching Conference. Usually, Lopez reflects, we talk about our job and our purpose interchangeably, mistaking one for the other.
Your Purpose is Not Your Job
Lopez asks us to reframe our thinking. Our job, she says, is an assignment—one part of a larger scope and goal. An assignment leads us to understand and reach our purpose.
With this new frame, our purpose doesn’t get defined by paying the bills. We can start to look beyond our day-to-day and into what matters deeply to us, stepping back to discern whether our job is moving us toward our purpose.
Change Your Language
How do you discover and define your purpose? First and foremost, let go of being defined by your title or your role. Instead, articulate who you help and what impact you have.
So, instead of framing the reason you show up every day as “being a lawyer,” consider that you “advocate for clients who need help understanding their rights, provide fair and robust representation, and present a full account of their story to secure beneficial outcomes.”
My own purpose has evolved away from my job title of Executive Career Strategist and toward the real work that I do: I help ambitious women of color navigate workplace bias, compensation, and their trajectory to build careers with audacity, not apprehension. That right there is why I show up every day.
You can have both a job and a purpose. But knowing whether they are aligned or completely out of synch might require some attention and honesty.
Your purpose is grounded in your deepest values—what you hold to be true, what you’re committed to, what you believe in, what you’re drawn toward. Purpose statements can sound like any of the following:
I value the exposure, challenges, and growth of international travel.
I believe everyone is entitled to legal representation, even if they are unable to pay.
I value the practices and observations of my faith.
I believe I can be a fantastic mom and have a great career.
I value growing women’s opportunities in business and entrepreneurship.
Here’s another example, from a client who wanted to stop living and dying by billable hours. She transformed her career on the radical belief that I can build a practice my own way.
These values and beliefs serve as a north star for your purpose and the standard against which you hold up your job. When you see your job as just one part of your life’s bigger picture, you can take a step back and ask yourself, is my job moving me toward what I want? Is my job getting me toward fulfillment?
Consider yourself lucky if your answer is yes. But it’s quite possible that you discover your job and your purpose are not aligned. And maybe that’s okay with you. Maybe it’s okay for the moment. But if not, then it’s time to get curious and ask what else you can be doing.
Start Talking the Talk
We have to dispel the notion that making a career move requires a new degree. That we must be granted institutional approval and permission to pursue something new.
In reality, opportunities to move your career forward live within other people. People who see you honestly, grow your courage, and show you how to be flexible with new ideas.
So, if your current job doesn’t reflect your purpose, and you’re unsure of what other job might, create a new, value-aligned statement of purpose.
I want to help [specific people or groups] attain/improve/grow [other specific impact words] by using [your knowledge, skills, and talents].
Once you’ve shaped your new purpose, share it with your team. If you don’t have a team the next step is to build one. Giving language to your purpose brings it to life and gives you the ability to articulate it to others. And you need feedback, honesty, wisdom, and guidance from people who know you and can help you.
Then, keep talking. Share with others your desired impact and keep articulating what you have to offer. Because when people understand your purpose, they 1) validate or help you refine it; 2) bring you opportunities; or 3) help you see how to create something new.
Let it Evolve
Know this: by letting your purpose out into the world, you will see it grow and change. Too often, we think our purpose should come like a flash from the sky, filling us with clarity and certainty. But that’s the stuff of movies.
Your purpose is a journey, not a destination. It will evolve and you must let it. The more you connect with people and the more you get curious about yourself, the clearer and more refined your purpose will become.
Seeing Is Believing
It’s not uncommon for my clients to build their own business, leap into a new industry, or simply create a new kind of job for themselves. They say, I never imagined this was possible. It feels like a dream.
I say, you created something new by seeing things differently.
Think about it this way: your home can start to look and feel very different after your partner moves in, or after bringing home a child. What once worked fine suddenly doesn’t serve your needs. You start to see what rooms work, what rooms don’t, and what rooms you need to build. It’s much the same for the career you want to build: when you know your purpose, you can imagine a new reality you want to create.
Opportunity is not simply out there waiting to be discovered. It’s also waiting to be created.
Throughout my career, my own purpose has evolved at least five different times, even after I got clear about who I wanted to work with and how I wanted to help them.
One particular shift occurred after I first began helping women build more time for family and meals. Soon, the clients and the work revealed the real issue I hadn’t seen before: it wasn’t that women needed more time to manage their food and family, but that they had no sense of managing their careers. Their careers consumed them, they had no boundaries, they never said no, and performed work they shouldn’t have been doing. They were always afraid and never felt like enough.
When I leaned into the evolution, my new strategy became clear: if we are making choices based on apprehension and fear, then we needed to leverage our skills and our differences instead of hiding them. Our careers called for boldness—for audacity.
Doing the work allowed the work to evolve. All the while, my purpose remained unchanged: to impact how women have choices and control over their time.
If it Matters, You Will Find the Time
Finding the time for your purpose-driven work is where the rubber meets the road. But I’ve come to believe that the time is there. What needs to change is our perspective.
One striking realization came to me while working in a major law firm, surrounded by successful male partners, some of whom managed to advance their careers while remaining dedicated to their golf game. I found myself incredulous about their golfing for six hours at a stretch. Until it dawned on me that for them, a golf game is a form of work. It’s networking, relationship building, and hashing out issues. This was why the partners didn’t slink off to the greens with apologies or guilt. Their golf game was treated—by everyone—with legitimacy.
Professional women, especially those who are mothers, need to reframe how we treat our time. Having a clear purpose helps—if we’re guided by our deepest values, we no longer make a simple distinction between “work” and “not-work” items. You start to see that whatever helps propel you toward your purpose—coffee with your colleague, a class, exercise, mentoring, joining a community—gets valued appropriately.
In my next article, I’ll dig further into the idea of your value, which encompasses your skills, expertise, and how you’re compensated.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive my newsletter directly in your inbox, please sign up here.