3 Questions to Discover What Makes You Come Alive

One of the most important pieces of living a life of purpose and meaning is knowing what you love.

The recent uptick in articles, books, and coaching services about purpose-driven work has sometimes been criticized by some progressive commentators as an elitist endeavor. Critics will say that only those with certain means, education, and class status can afford to immerse themselves in living out their unique purpose.

While there is truth to the argument that only people with a resource cushion can forgo a paycheck to live out their wildest professional dreams, I would venture to say that living a life a purpose is about much more than how you pay the bills. In our consumption of the success narratives of the select few billionaires and geniuses who made their ways by doing what they love, we can get stuck on the idea that purpose equals a crystal clear, marketable, and unchanging set of activities that we offer to others. We forget that purpose is an interior unfolding of life that is present within each and every one of us.

Living a life of purpose is about understanding and aligning to that inner experience of why you are here in this life, on this earth.

Living a life of purpose is about understanding and aligning to that inner experience of why you are here in this life, on this earth. There are many people all around us that show us the way to live with purpose regardless of their job title (or lack there-of). The most essential quality that these people possess is: They know and share their loves. It costs no money to develop this self-knowledge and expression. Reflection is free.

Are you able to respond to questions like, “What do you love?” or “What makes you come alive?” with glowing detail and sheer joy? I hope you can, but if not, I hope you want to tap into your loves. As Dr. Howard Thurman is often quoted saying, “what the world needs is people who have come alive.” When people come alive from within, they organically create the meaning in their work, relationships, and the hours of their days, whether they are in a job of their own creation or just getting by.

Here are some reflection questions to help you strengthen or discover your loves in a way that just might help you come alive:

1. What were your childhood joys?

Reflect back on what made you giddy as a child or teen. Consider what you spent your free hours doing or what projects, hobbies, or activities made you feel most proud and accomplished. What might this mean about what naturally springs up within you as a source of love?

If you’re like me, there is not an entirely clear answer. My childhood feels cluttered with expectations that I put on myself, or perhaps that were put on me. I remember the hard times of self-judgment and failure more than the times of pure unbounded joy and love.

That said, the pain that I felt in not being a “good enough” artist in comparison to friends was countered by the joy that I experienced in being creative, often with stories and words. There’s the strangely joy-filled memory from the second grade of writing and illustrating a little book, Noisy in the Subway, about a mouse living in Boston’s MBTA tunnels. There is the recollection of the drive I experienced in my high school English and history classes to write essays that captured some unique perspective from my inner thoughts. There is the romanticized reflection of what developing film and printing photos in the darkroom meant to me—a series of portraits that gave some voice to the complexity of my inner life.

So, ask yourself, “What were my childhood joys?” Even if you can only remember one or two, there is insight there about what you love.

2. What relationships have inspired you?

Maybe it was a teacher or a family member or a friend. Maybe it was someone you hardly even knew or perhaps a public figure. Consider the people from whom you have learned the most and your relationship with them. What insight can you glean from these connections about your loves?

Unlike considering my childhood joys, which is a task that to me feels like looking for a needle in a haystack, considering the relationships that have most inspired me is easy. I can think of countless numbers of people who have taught me more about who I am than I ever thought possible. I have always learned best through relationship and connection with people.

As I recall the relationships that have mattered most to me, a few themes stand out:

  1. I am inspired by people who speak their truth with whatever means or in whatever circumstance they find themselves. 
  2. I am moved by people who take the time to see me in all of my complexity.
  3. I am convinced by people who live out their values on a person-to-person, moment-to-moment basis.

So, ask yourself, “What relationships have inspired me?” Track the themes that emerge across those people and relationships. See what comes up.

3. What stretches you?

When have you felt afraid about opening up or sharing something meaningful about yourself? When have you felt butterflies in your stomach? When have you wondered about failing or being judged for an idea? When have you felt the need for someone to say, “That was courageous. Well done.”

None of us (I hope) want people walking around tortured by excruciating vulnerability. But with practice, I believe that we can all discover that we grow more fully alive as we expand our comfort zone by cultivating mindful self-awareness and by vulnerably stretching ourselves into living in more full alignment to our sense of purpose, values, and wholeness.

Dr. Brene Brown, a leading researcher and voice on the topic of vulnerability, writes in her book, Daring Greatly, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Think of the artist that chooses to paint and then reveals her work for the first time. Consider the father who loves his child unconditionally and asks for an additional day of vacation time to spend extra time with his son. Reflect upon the community member who speaks up for the first time at a neighborhood meeting. These are moments in which some deep inner knowing and experience is made manifest or externalized for the world to see. What is within you that you want to share with others?

I feel stretched (and therefore vulnerable) when I put my writing or poetry out for others to read, when I ask for what I need from my loved ones, as I navigate my instincts, gifts, and mistakes as a mother, and when I try to promote myself professionally. Grappling gently with the experience of these (and other) inner challenges has been and continues to be core to living more fully into my sense of purpose.

So, ask yourself, “What stretches you?” As you respond, treat yourself as kindly and gently as you would any other person you love. Be patient as meaning emerges and consider what it would mean to live in a way that allows you to lean into the emerging parts of yourself.

What to do with the reflections and insights?

As you reflect upon these questions, don’t expect that magical bursts of lightning insight will propel you into a life of purpose. There is a slow process of noticing and unfolding that will gradually lead you to greater alignment with that which you love. As I have contemplated these questions over time, my love for all people and things that relate to storytelling, truth-speaking, deep connection, presence, and voice has emerged.

I see the power of knowing these loves of mine play out in the relationships I choose to nurture, in the work that I seek out, in the way that I parent, in how I spend my free time, in how I choose to respond to others, and in my vision for the future. I bear inner witness to the ways that knowing my loves helps shape my path. I know in my heart that these are the loves that propel me forward into areas of personal and professional discovery that I could have never imagined for myself.

Today, I have the privilege of spending my days serving the world in ways that relate to these loves, but the loves themselves do not pay my bills. Knowing my loves has helped me align with people and places that resonate deeply with who I am, and, in doing so, I have had unexpected opportunities to come alive as I put my purpose to work throughout the activities of my days.

What were your childhood joys? What relationships have inspired you? What stretches you?

Perry Dougherty serves as a facilitator, spiritual director, and writer in her role as Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation & Society of Still Harbor. She has a background working with non-profit social justice organizations. Perry tailors her programs, workshops, and efforts to explore how spiritual practice, creative expression, and narrative can enrich spiritual leadership for social justice. Perry is an ordained Interfaith Minister by One Spirit Interfaith Seminary and editor of Anchor magazine.