Inner and outer purpose

The two dimensions of purpose

We often associate purpose with outward contribution and impact. We can think of purpose as the intentional, ongoing path through which we contribute to the greater good and infuse our lives with meaning. To be purpose-driven is to have our lives and careers be propelled forward, in part, by a desire to serve something beyond ourselves.

But while this outward-facing dimension of purpose is essential, purpose also has an inward-facing counterpart.

Our outer, or social, purpose is how in which we contribute beyond ourselves. We might help foster improved drinking water and sanitation in the Global South. Or we might look to catalyze greater racial equity within the education system in our community. Or we might look to protect endangered species in our bioregion. Outer purpose is how our purpose work connects and commits us to the world around us. It’s how we enact contribution and social impact. It’s endeavoring on a mission.

Our inner, or personal, purpose is how we each uniquely find fulfillment through knowing and revealing our essential nature. We might use our innate charisma to catalyze collaborative networks. Or we might powerfully express our sorrows through art so that others can grieve more fully. Or we might leverage our brilliance to design new technologies. Inner purpose is how our purpose work connects and commits us to the callings that bring us most alive. It’s how we enact our passions, strengths, and values. It’s tapping into our innate, unique genius. (More on this in articles to come.)

Pursuing inner and outer purpose separately

Like with profit and purpose more generally, many of us often privilege our inner or outer purpose work over the other. 

You can focus on outer purpose at the expense of the inner. You might, for example, spend your life working at an organization that genuinely serves the greater good, but in a role that doesn’t resonate deeply with your passions and strengths. You do something that you know is “good” or “right,” but doesn’t afford you the best opportunity to feel your most authentic and alive. It’s service and definitely important and helpful, but it’s not really purpose in the fullest sense because it doesn’t reveal the most authentic you to yourself and the world. 

But you can also focus on inner purpose at the expense of outer purpose. You might, for example, focus on making art “just for me.” You do something that ignites your passions, but doesn’t necessarily connect powerfully to the world around you. While it expresses your unique essential nature and may very well be worth doing, it’s not really purpose in its fullest sense because it doesn’t offer anything to anyone beyond you. 

For your purpose work to truly blossom to its fullest extent, both the inner and outer are required. Without the outer, you can’t contribute. Without the inner, you can’t see, know, and share yourself. 

Peanut butter and jelly

For it to be true purpose, we need both the inner and outer dimensions. But perhaps more than that, purpose blossoms most fully when the inner and outer are joined together, pursued in concert with one another, as one act. You make art that brings you alive and awakens insight in others. You have a job where you get to use your innate gifts and passions in order to contribute to something meaningful in the world. In the same endeavor, you do what brings you alive and offers the world something it yearns for.

Peanut butter toast and jelly toast side by side

Yes, you can eat just peanut butter toast or just jelly toast. And sometimes that might be what you really want or simply the only thing available to you. But something magical happens when you put the two together. 

That’s the inner and outer of purpose.

The gift of purpose

When inner and outer purpose are married together, something magical happens both within us and out in the world. Why?

I like to think of purpose as giving a gift. 

A gift bag with a heart on it

The best gifts are just as much about the giver as they are about the recipient. The gift reveals the heart of the giver. It demonstrates their greatest gifts and qualities. And the process of finding and making the gift brings the giver alive and offers them fulfillment. 

But the gift is not complete until we give it away. We finish it, wrap it up, and send it off to someone for whom it really means something. Just as the best gift reflects the heart of the giver, the best gift is also deeply attuned to and aligned with the recipient’s needs and wants. There’s a natural fit between what the giver is offering and what makes the receiver feel seen, honored, and provided for.

Yes, you can just get someone a Starbucks gift card for their birthday. They’ll probably enjoy it and put it to good use. But it won’t ever mean as much as something that you made or that comes from your heart. 

And you can make art just for yourself. In fact, you probably should sometimes. But you’ll usually find the most meaning and fulfillment when you share your creation, when someone else can experience its wisdom and beauty and can see you more fully through it.

A graphic showing how inner purpose offers your heart to where the world needs it

That’s purpose. It’s opening up your wild, beating heart and letting it sing out freely and be heard. But more than that, it’s lending your voice to whatever chorus yearns for that special tone and timbre only you can offer. It’s creating a resonant harmony between you and the world more beautiful than anything you could ever have conjured on your own or could ever have been conjured without you.

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