Thinking about death can produce a passion for life. Early in my career, I was introduced to the idea of clarifying my life’s purpose through contemplating my death by Charlie Jones, a personal effectiveness and leadership development author and speaker. In his book, Life is Tremendous, he wrote, “You’re not ready to live your life until you know what you want written on your tombstone.” That’s a powerful thought! It forces you to boil away all your goals, plans, and activities to get at the core reason you exist.

What kind of account would you like to be able to give for your life? What would you want your family, friends, community or church members to say about you upon your death? How about the team members, business associates, people in the organizations you’ve led, customers you’ve served, or other external partners you’ve worked with? In the end, did you contribute to or take from society?

Around the time I got thinking about what I would like to look back on in my life, I heard someone repeat Oliver Wendall Holmes’ comment that “Most of us die with our music still in us.” What a tragedy! How many people go to their graves with the songs or poems they were going to compose still in them? How many people die with the book they were always going to write buried in their head? Or the love they always meant to express still in their hearts? How many innovations and businesses that might have made a real difference went to a grave and perished? Just how many unrealized dreams have died with their dreamers?

Developing a personal purpose statement is a discovery and learning process, not a problem to be solved. It takes a lot of time and thoughtful reflection to sort out what’s most important to you. Your purpose is intertwined with your vision and values. Defining it is part of that same process. Here are some questions to ask yourself of ways to approach developing your personal purpose:

  • Who are the key people in all aspects (work, family, community, church, friends, etc.) of my life? If each one were giving a eulogy at my funeral about how I had affected their lives, what would I want them to say?
  • What does my “dream list” reveal about my inner desires and purpose? Is there some “music” in me that might be buried with me never to be played?
  • If I had only two more years to live, what are the most important things I would make sure I did?
  • What sort of work or activities really excite and energize me? When do I feel the most vibrant and alive?
  • What special talents or strengths do I have?
  • What does my “blessings and brag list” tell me about some of these questions? .

The determination to live out my purpose and dreams has been a strong personal motivator. When I need a push to counteract my lazy, sloppy, or “that’s good enough” tendencies, the picture of my preferred future and my purpose has been a powerful energy source. My biggest struggle has been how to articulate my purpose. Reducing deeply felt inner convictions and thoughts to mere words has been a difficult and somewhat frustrating experience. But the struggle of wordsmithing is well worth the effort.