What am I going to do with my life? What really matters to me? How will I leave my mark?

Image of clock sitting on notepad

These questions can fill us with hope, inspiration, and direction when we have some sense of what the answers may be. If we don’t, they can fill us with confusion, frustration, and irritation.

Leading a life of purpose, or making an enduring commitment to contributing to the broader world in personally meaningful ways, is associated with a range of benefits, including better physical health, enhanced psychological well-being, superior academic achievement, and enriched social connections. Despite these advantages, leading a life of purpose is rare, as researcher William Damon describes in his 2009 book, The Path to Purpose: As many as two out of three young adults struggle to articulate a clear purpose for their lives.

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Before young people can identify a purpose, they need to engage in a process of self-exploration. Searching for a purpose in life is not often studied, but when it has been, scholars have found it to be a source of stress and anxiety, especially when it feels like everyone else has it all figured out. (Rest assured, others are likely still working it out, too!)

Members of my Adolescent Moral Development Lab and I became interested in how we could help young adults navigate the potentially distressing process of searching for a purpose in life. With the generous support of a grant from the Templeton Religion Trust, we conducted a two-year study, and our emerging findings suggest practicing patience may be a critical and often overlooked element of a productive and fulfilling search for purpose. 

How patience and purpose go hand in hand

Patience is the ability to stay actively engaged in working toward a goal without becoming frustrated. Patiently pursuing purpose does not mean sitting by and waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, it means engaging in the personal reflection and intentional conversations that help us figure out how we want to contribute to the broader world without feeling rushed or hurried. Accepting that the search is a long-term endeavor can help us cultivate our purpose in a more efficient and growth-supporting way.

Practicing patience may facilitate the search for purpose, and this is important because our research also suggests that searching for purpose is not a one-and-done kind of activity. It is unlikely to be the case that we search for a purpose once and then spend the rest of our lives pursuing that single purpose. Instead, we tend to pursue multiple purposes across our lifetimes. Purposes wax and wane with the other things going on in our lives.

For instance, we may find purpose in parenting, but that purpose may transform when we launch our adult children and reinvest in personally meaningful work-related aims. Others of us may find purpose in work, and upon retirement those purposes may recede as we find new ways of contributing to our communities. For young adults, purposes are likely to evolve as they navigate the many transitions associated with this stage of life (e.g., moving from high school into college and from college into the working world). Moves like these are often accompanied by evolutions in our purposes in life.

The point is that the search for purpose is an ongoing activity. Even when we know how we want to leave our mark, we are still likely to search for new ways of making progress toward our personally meaningful aims or for new ways of contributing to the broader world.

Given that the search for purpose is likely to represent a long-term, possibly even a lifelong, activity, it is worthwhile to understand how we can engage in the self-exploration process in the most productive and rewarding way possible. Emerging findings from our study suggest patience may help optimize the search process in at least five ways.

Practicing patience allows us to stand back and take in the full picture of the aim we are after. We can become so focused on figuring out what it is we want to accomplish that we lose the forest for the trees. Taking a broad perspective on the purpose development process may yield insights into progress made to date, and recognizing and even celebrating this progress can fuel our ongoing efforts. Allowing ourselves time to take in the bigger picture may reveal more efficient routes for making progress toward our purpose.

Patience may bolster resilience. Patient individuals take setbacks in stride; they continue making forward progress despite them. Rather than being derailed by challenges in the pursuit of purpose, patient individuals view hardships as inevitable and surmountable. Practicing patience is an important way of cultivating the resilience required to both search for and pursue a purpose in life, as Anne Colby suggests in her 2020 paper, “Purpose as a Unifying Goal for Higher Education.”

Practicing patience may encourage a more thoughtful approach to pursuing meaningful aims. Rather than moving forward in haste, patient individuals move ahead with intention and deliberation, and this may support more sustainable progress in the search for purpose. Compared to others, patient individuals may be more likely to take time to develop relationships with mentors and like-minded peers who can facilitate their progress toward purpose. Slowing down to connect with others along our path to purpose can help us make progress in figuring out how we want to leave our mark (and these relationships may also support our pursuit of purpose, once we have determined what it entails).

Patience in the pursuit of larger aims may foster personal growth. In addition to encouraging resilience and social connections, practicing patience builds self-regulation, self-discipline, and deferred-gratification skills. Developing these strengths of character is likely to benefit individuals in many life domains, including in future periods of self-exploration and subsequent purpose cultivation efforts.

Finally, patient individuals may be more likely than impatient individuals to enjoy the search. Patience enables us to savor the process of figuring out what matters most and how we want to meaningfully contribute to the broader world. It allows us time to celebrate the small successes and be present in the purpose cultivation process. The mindfulness that can accompany a patient pursuit of purpose is likely to enhance our well-being during the search process and in our lives more generally.

In each of these ways, patience may represent a critical component of a healthy and productive search for purpose.

The bottom line: Whether searching for our own purpose in life or supporting someone in their search, remember to practice patience. When we find ourselves becoming agitated and frustrated by the feeling that everyone else has it all figured out, we should remind ourselves to slow down. Take heart in knowing that the process requires time. Focus on the big picture, recall that setbacks are inevitable and surmountable, connect with others who can support your search, take stock of gains, and find the joy in the process, if you can. Before you know it, you might just have figured out how you want to use your skills and talents to contribute in meaningful ways to the world beyond yourself.

To read the published manuscripts from which these findings were drawn, please visit Kendall Cotton Bronk’s website. Upon publication, articles from this study will be posted there.

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