Professional Development Personal Development Purpose

Revisiting Your Purpose in Hard Times

By Phil Harkins on January, 6 2021

In the current COVID-19 crisis, everyone is worried. The world seems upside down. Exploring this, I asked 200 leaders what they are feeling and what they most want. The leaders I spoke to represent fifty organizations: 10% government, 30% non-profits, and 60% for-profit companies.

These are the words that came up most frequently in answer to the question, “What are you feeling?”

  • Angry—many said they were mad that the world was so unprepared for something that scientists have been warning about for more than ten years.

  • Skeptical—confusing and conflicting information from governments and the press, and compounded by illegitimate sources and rumors online, means many people are unable to trust what they are hearing.

  • Sad—people are feeling a profound sense of grief for those who are experiencing illness and/or financial suffering.

  • Despondent—many admitted that through the course of a day, they have moments where they just feel down.

  • Lonely—being quarantined, separated from loved ones, and respecting social distancing leads to what is often an unfamiliar, but very real, loneliness.

  • Isolated—many who are in the “essential work” category, which may be as high as 30% of the workforce (healthcare alone is more than 20%), are advised not to touch their children and to live in separate parts of their home to avoid possibly infecting their families.

  • Grief—a profound sense of loss. David Kessler, an expert on grief, recently identified what he calls anticipation grief. He describes this as a mixture of helplessness and fear when a person’s mind goes to the worst possible case, and they feel there is nothing they can do.

  • Terror—people are feeling doomed. Many spoke of being sleep-deprived, waking up between 2 and 4 AM with their eyes wide open, feeling there may be no future.

  • Out of control—as more and more restrictions on work, school, and daily life have been enacted, these feelings were expressed as “My life has been stolen” or “I’m no longer in charge of what I can and cannot do.”
  • Helpless—people, especially leaders, hate this feeling.

The second question I asked is, “What is it that you want most?” Here are the four primary themes I heard:

1. Access to basic needs: food and supplies.
2. The right information and then the right medical care if their family is infected by the virus.
3. Clarity about a pathway forward to get through this.
4. A return to normalcy--“to get my life back”—was the most frequently stated want.

Maslow's Theory

Psychologist Abraham Maslow, author of Motivation and Personality Toward a Psychology (1954) and Toward a Psychology of Being (1962), argued that each one of us has a hierarchy of needs that must be satisfied, ranging from basic physiological requirements to love, esteem, and, finally, self-actualization. He called his theory the "hierarchy of Needs," which are often depicted as five levels in a pyramid. 

maslow's hierarchy of needs, self-fulfillment needs, basic needs, psychological needs

Maslow argued that needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

The Father of Purpose 

My survey results mirror Maslow's theory. The COVID-19 crisis is creating disruption on each of the first four levels of the hierarchy, making many of us feel attacked, out of control, and directionless. This loss of control can result in a profound assault on the highest level--- our sense of self-actualization or purpose.

With this conclusion in mind, I interviewed Richard Leider, the “father of purpose,” to get his insight on what we can do to fortify and keep our sense of purpose intact. In our discussion, Richard commented that a sense of purpose is not a trend or a luxury for good times; he says it is fundamental and refers to it as “old as humankind.” No matter what adversity we face, having a reason to exist that is greater than ourselves is a universal need and crucial to surviving and thriving.

Here are four questions I asked and Richard’s responses.

1. How does your concept of unlocking the power of purpose help people who are feeling lost and, in some cases, terrified?

Your purpose is not WHAT you do; it is the CONTRIBUTION you make through what you do. Realizing this distinction, new possibilities can show up in ordinary, daily life. Purposeful people focus on the contribution they can make now and not on the things they used to do [and may not be able to do anymore.] Try to identify areas in your personal life where you feel a deep sense of meaning that is bigger and more important than yourself. Ask yourself: “What’s life asking of me right now?” When one asks that question, it generates energy, better mood, better health, and, ultimately, more resilience in a crisis like this pandemic. The result can be a great feeling: “I am stronger than I thought I was.”

2. In your book Life Reimagined, you write that sometimes we have to go through hard times to appreciate life. What is your advice in these hard times?

Focus on developing a purposeful mindset. What you pay attention to is what you think about; what you think about is ultimately who you are. In psychology, this is called self-efficacy. Purposeful people choose to see the “purpose moments” in ordinary life, regardless of the adversity being faced, and act on them. Every morning is an opportunity to renew your connection to your soul. Ask yourself: “How can I make a difference in just one person’s life today?” or “Who might be relying on me?” Take stock every evening. Ask yourself: “What mattered to me today?” “What small difference did I make?” “When did I feel a sense of purpose today?” You’ll feel stronger.

3. So much of your research leaves one feeling you are a proponent of not going through life alone. Yet, many are alone. How do your teachings on purpose relate to those who have no choice?

Humans are tribal beings. We need to interact with others daily, and those connections deepen our resilience. As David Brooks writes in The Social Animal, we are wired with the “urge to merge.” Our brains have been programmed by evolution to understand that isolation is fatal. Loneliness is not just a feeling--it’s a biological warning signal to seek out connection with others, much as hunger is a signal to eat. There is a big difference, however, between being alone and loneliness.

Whether someone is alone or in a community, a happy life requires a self-transcending purpose. Purposeful people strengthen their self-transcending purpose through regular acts of compassion toward others. This has been shown to increase the strength of our immune systems (which is important in a pandemic!)

The best means to survive and thrive is to compassionately connect with others by whatever means available. First, look inward. Take time to reflect on how you feel when you are at your best, and then take one action step to make that happen today. What have you done to connect with or help others during COVID-19? What if life right now is about helping others cope with the new challenges they face?

Small things you can do will have a bigger positive effect than you know. Connect with someone on-the-fly whenever the thought crosses your mind. Create a “Pandemic Sounding Board” and schedule weekly virtual gatherings. Throw the “Ultimate Virtual Dinner Party” or happy hour or virtual coffee break. Change your priorities about what matters most.

4. From your work in Life Reimagined and Work Reimagined, could you offer a few practical suggestions for getting ready for the new world ahead?

We’ve been forced to pause, quarantined to reflect. Suddenly we feel empty. The true value of something in our lives is often revealed when we lose it. When our job or roles disappear, our sense of self often goes with it. We feel stressed, anxious, and unsuccessful.

Purposeful people take time to reimagine “success.” Ask yourself WHY before making any decisions about HOW or WHAT. When we focus on WHY—which is purpose--- success follows.

If this is the end of life as we knew it, then what is the “good life” ahead? Complete “The Good Life Inventory” (free download on website) and discuss your vision of the good life ahead with your Pandemic Sounding Board or a “Purpose Partner.” You can uncover a new purpose for your life.

Activating Your Purpose

Over the last few years, I’ve also been working with Leider on a simple tool, which we call Work/Life Mapping. It is based on the premise that purpose is the center of life. Under extraordinary stress, like now, there is a tendency to put purpose on the back burner and focus on the crisis head-on. Yet, the secret sauce in a crisis is to revisit your purpose because it gives you courage and provides meaning. What is often forgotten in a crisis is that there is a distinct human need to have a plan—a roadmap that will lead you to a better future state.

By following the steps below, Richard and I strongly believe that people can diminish their worry by staying focused on a path forward. This planning tool helps activate the power of one’s purpose.

purpose statement, steps to finding your purpose, how to find your purpose

This mapping exercise is useful for many reasons. Spending time on it in a crisis takes focus, and that focus is often calming. Examining what really matters to you can be a looking glass into what is working and not working. Perhaps most importantly, mapping allows one to recommit to a new sense of purpose. This gives us the strength to say to ourselves every day: “Remember my objectives.” Norman Lear, the legendary American television writer, and producer, was asked on his 97th birthday what were the most important words that described how he had navigated the ups and downs of his life. He said, “Over, and next.” He believed that you could get over anything—there is always a “next.”


Life is full of twists and turns, and a crisis like COVID-19 is a period of unforeseen, unprecedented, and uninvited change. While we are in it, we may not be able to see what it means. When crises like this arise, we are inclined to forget to revisit our purpose. Yet, when one does, it can be an adventure that provides new directions, peace of mind, and serenity at the moment. The roadmap described in the five steps above will provide the necessary grit to stay on course.

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