Much like developing your creative voice or building up confidence, defining your purpose can be a life-long pursuit that shifts and changes over the course of your career. Whether mired in writer’s block or tackling an ambitious project, naming and defining a sense of purpose can be the touchstone that gives you crucial momentum when you need it most. We asked creatives to reflect on what defines their intention and gives their work meaning.
Reveling in social connections and taking solace and inspiration from the community was a strong theme in our contributors’ responses. Feeling a sense of belonging, and making a positive impact that helps someone find the same feeling of kinship was the driving force of many creatives we spoke to.
Photographer Reggie Black says “My purposeful moments occur when I’m engaging in human interactions. Whether it’s through conversations, hosting creative experiences, or showcasing artwork at exhibitions, each of these opportunities offer chances to learn something from someone else.” Entering into a conversation with peers and strangers can open up your world and give you a valuable sense of perspective and compassion. As Black puts it, “Dialogue is an interesting way to live intentionally, it forces us to constantly recalibrate our thinking about ourselves and the world.”
For John S. Couch, VP of Product Design at Hulu, he thought about his role as a manager and leader. He feels a keen sense of responsibility for the kind of environment he is creating for his employees and colleagues. “For me, purpose derives from being positively impactful on others. In the workplace, a creative, non-fear-based culture is extremely important as it allows for engagement with the work and for the designer to express their true self. I remind [my team] that even though they get paid every two weeks and get health insurance (no minor thing), that in exchange, they are giving away eight to ten hours of their lives to the work: time they do not get back. So if they are not engaged, then I will help them become engaged or even find a more fitting job.”
He finds his own sense of direction and resolve when he is part of the process of self-discovery for others, recognizing the value of creativity in today’s world. “I feel most purposeful when I can help to alleviate suffering and empower others to create and express themselves to their fullest. The world needs creative thinkers more than ever.”
Illustrator and artist Michelle Rial takes joy from the meaningful connections her work sparks. Her witty charts have a tender, thoughtful quality that invites viewers to feel a kinship with her. Documenting the specificity of small human experiences strikes a chord, as her success has proved. “I feel purpose in putting something into the world that can help someone else. Even something as simple as laughter or a shared moment of understanding. Being able to express myself creatively gives me a deep feeling of purpose and fulfillment, and I feel an immense privilege to be able to do creative work.”
Sometimes, there is no single answer to such an encompassing question, as senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen will attest. “To feel purposeful is to have a clear understanding of purpose, and I don’t know if I have that. Sometimes it feels like my purpose is just trying to articulate something broadly for a lot of people, sometimes it feels like it’s adding nuance to an un-nuanced discussion.”
For Petersen, her career experienced a fundamental shift when she left the world of academia, where the objectives are clear and one’s trajectory is firmly rooted in tradition. “It was a lot easier when I was an academic, and the purpose was “imparting knowledge.” Now, as a journalist, it’s that, but also “maintaining the integrity of the fourth estate” and so much more.”
Leaving the confines of any structured environment is bound to stir up fundamental questions around what gives your work meaning and why you chose the path that you are on. For Petersen, the freedom of journalism allowed her to explore a personal issue that turned out to be a defining cultural moment. "Writing about my own burnout—and the burnout of the larger millennial generation—was a creative breakthrough for me, which allowed me to think through so many phenomena on the macro and micro level in a new way.”
CEO and Founder of Sylvain Labs, Alain Sylvain, has a pared-back approach. “In truth, I feel most purposeful when I’m alone. I know this might sound uninspiring or egocentric, but I believe that purpose, at its core, is a deeply individual, personal thing.”
Listening to your own voice when exploring the question of purpose can be the most useful guide available to you. While inspiration and influence are all around (sometimes too much), finding your own center often means bringing all the focus inward.
Sylvain notes the temptation to let others define this very personal notion for you, and how important it is to resist the lure. “We run the risk of losing that individuality when we’re influenced by the intoxicating stimuli of the everyday. And in this “purpose”-crazed moment, the term is beginning to lose meaning—abstract, lofty, and, increasingly exploited by brands, businesses, and celebrities. Exploring my purpose feels true only when I’m alone—either in a physical or more mental way.”
When reflecting on what has shaped her creative voice, Michelle Rial reflects on the multiple paths, starts and stops that her career has featured. ”Attempts (mostly failures) at careers in graphic design, photography, illustration, design, production, advertising, and the skills picked up along the way.” All these disparate pursuits are united in her “overanalysis and exploration of everyday things, which I suspect is a product of growing up in the American South with Latin American immigrant parents. To me it feels like what messy looks like when it’s haunted by perfectionism.”
Recognizing the personal roots of a professional path is a valuable tool when exploring the question of purpose. After all, for many creatives, it is near-impossible to make a clear distinction between their public output and a private creative journey.
Where some careers are defined by a singular drive, others derive their meaning from a mix of rewarding sources. For Nishat Akhtar, Creative Director at Instrument, her purpose is defined by what she calls “triangulation.” As she says, “community, creativity, education, and mentorship are where I feel my best. My roles as an artist, educator, creative manager, collaborator, and even just as a friend get satisfied by these pillars and are the core reason I do any of this.”
Echoing the sense of community that gives meaning to many of the creatives we spoke to, Akhtar finds joy and purpose in the “intentionality that enriches my life and work, by helping others in areas big and small.” Moreover, triangulating her sources of purpose means that there is a steady stream of inspiration and drive, and naming the central tenet to all of these grounds Akhtar’s focus on the essentials. “I care about people, creativity fuels me, and I am committed to a lifetime of learning. From hard life moments to working through creative blocks—the moments when conversations emulate finding sparkle in the dirt are my favorite. These are the times I exercise my two strongest and most inherent parts of self: curiosity and empathy.”
Mia is a writer based in New York.