“I’ve been on a fast track most of my life—great schools, top companies. I’ve done well. But I’m not happy. COVID-19 and the state of the world have made me question everything. Should I make a big change? Is my work meaningful enough?”
The constant volatility around us, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have made feelings like these almost universal. They can be unsettling, even scary: they signal that change is coming. And change is hard.
When our life direction is unclear, what we need most is an internal compass—a ‘true north’ that helps us navigate when the world around us no longer provides sufficient light. When you find that true north, your goals, dreams and plans emerge from deep inside you. They’re not just smart ideas your brain came up with or that grew out of your early family or societal expectations. Instead, your choices are fully grounded in who you are.
To discover your true north, you have to look within. As Jim Kouzes and Gary Posner put it in their classic book, The Leadership Challenge, “To find your voice, you have to explore your inner territory. You have to take a journey into those places in your heart and soul where you bury your treasures, so that you can carefully examine them and eventually bring them out for display.”
There are no short cuts to finding your true north, but here are some ways to get started.
Dig deep for your core values
Gain insight by asking yourself probing questions and considering your answers carefully.
Reflect on what’s truly important to you. What do I care about most deeply and why? What am I most passionate about? What keeps me up and night and why? If I could contribute anything to the world in my lifetime, what would it be? Journal about these important questions over weeks or months. Discuss your answers with family or friends.
Get advice from your future self. Imagine you’re 100 years old. You’ve led a wonderful life. What advice would your future self give your current self? Get into the act of imagination. Ask your future self specific questions like “What should I do next at work?” or “What’s my purpose in life?”
Get feedback from people who care about you
Most of us don’t start out life with a clear view of ourselves. Feedback helps us become more self-aware.
Ask for feedback from trusted friends, family and colleagues. What do they see as your strengths and weaknesses? What do they think about your purpose? Have conversations with them to explore these questions.
Have a coach collect 360 feedback on your behalf. By interviewing key stakeholders around you, a coach can gather powerful insights. You might be surprised how clearly others see you and what they’ll share with a third party that they’ve never said to you directly.
Clearly articulate your philosophy of life and leadership
Being specific about your core principles can reveal what you truly stand for.
Write your life lessons. Capture the most important things you’ve learned in your life. The audience can be your children, a niece or nephew, or just the next generation. What truths or practical wisdom do you have for them?
Write your leadership credo. This idea comes from The Leadership Challenge. Write guidelines as if someone were going to fill in for you for six months. What principles would you want them to operate with?
Explore your life story and frame it in a productive way
Purpose emerges from the hardest challenges in our lives. So reflect on your experiences and develop an understanding that inspires your direction. For example, Walt Disney’s painful childhood inspired him to make the world a better place for kids.
Draw a ‘lifeline.‘ On a blank sheet, draw a line from left to right, representing your life from birth until now. Draw the line high up on the page for the high points in your life and low for the low points. Label these, describing what happened. Share with a friend, family member, or colleague. Given these experiences, what strengths or passions do you have? What does this tell you about purpose?
Finally, make sure you take more time for self-reflection. Sit on a mountaintop. Take a long walk. Meditate. Work with a therapist or coach. Whatever you do to connect with your own inner territory—do more of it. And remember, these periods of uncertainty don’t last forever. When you’re established in your new direction, you’ll look back and feel grateful for all you’ve learned during the transition.