Six stages to finding purpose

On a recent episode of the Mind Body Green podcast, entrepreneur and Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa, Ph.D., author of Inner Mastery, Outer Impact, outlined six stages people follow to cultivate purpose in their lives.

Stage 0 — Cruising

In this stage, Dr. Wadhwa said people are often simply cruising through life without stopping to wonder if they should even be striving to do more. It’s almost as though people are on auto-pilot going about their day being comfortable, pleased and satisfied.

Personally, I see this happening frequently during what I call the “chaos years” between age 30 and 50. At that stage, we are often caught up in:

  • Trying to raise a family. Kids can suck all the time and life-force out of parents to the point they don’t have time or energy to contemplate anything else.
  • Partying hearty. For people who don’t have the responsibilities of a family, life can seem like a non-stop party where they can hang out with friends or pursue their own interests without being accountable to anyone else.

Stage 1 — Stirring

Dr. Wadhwa describes this stage as an “awakening from within.” Sometimes it takes place after a shock to the system, such as a personal loss or setback. Perhaps it was a broken relationship or job loss.

At this stage, I think boredom can also be a problem as we settle into the same predictable routines that involve being in the same places with the same people doing the same things day after day. I suspect not liking a job or feeling trapped in an unhealthy relationship often accelerates this stage.

Gradually, we recognize a gnawing feeling inside of us that causes us to wonder whether there really is something more to life than the route we are traveling. 

Stage 2 — Searching

Now we try to connect the dots to make sense of what we are thinking and feeling. Perhaps we seek advice from friends, trusted mentors, pastors or professionals. We may engage in Bible study, read books or start researching available options.

This stage often involves a series of inner introspections and outer explorations that can ultimately take us to a place where more texture is coming to bear, said Dr. Wadhwa.

It’s also the point when you begin to question your core beliefs and why you think the way you do. You may be shocked to discover something wasn’t what you imagined because of an incorrect perceptual bias.

That happened to me at age 35 and the journey ultimately ended with me becoming a Christian after being a staunch agnostic for 20 years. I also came to the conclusion that I was being selfish and recommitted my life to my family, which defined my purpose until my youngest daughter graduated from high school.

Stage 3 — Defining

“As the search starts to yield benefits, we start to actually codify for ourselves the things we stand for,” Dr. Wadhwa explained

This is the stage where you may be fortunate enough to identify a purpose. But, if my life is any indication, it is the stage were you firmly decide what you don’t want.

I hated driving 30 minutes just to get to work before 8:30 a.m. every day just to sit in a cubicle working on a my employer’s computer. I knew I could easily do my job most days by working three hours a day, if that — and I could do it from home or anywhere else I wanted to be.

It’s when I came up with the concept of “face time,” in that employers don’t think you’re working unless they can see your face. So, I could surf the Internet all day as long as I got up from my desk every hour, walked past my boss’ office and shouted a greeting or made a comment so he would know I was “working.”

After playing that game for a while, I knew I did not want to be an employee ever again. But, I was still searching for the “what to do” aspect of discovering my new purpose.

Stage 4 — Focusing

Here is where you critically analyze all your options and then select those that will give you more joy, fulfillment, energy, excitement or overall enthusiasm for life. What’s funny is that you might wind up working harder than you ever have, but it’s on something you enjoy because it fires you up.

“This is often a very soul-searching phase of trying to understand your relationship with your family, community, organization and the world beyond,” said Dr. Wadhwa. “You’re going to have to make some trade-offs. You’re going to have to ignore lots of things in the service of your purpose. What are you willing to put on the back burner in order to dedicate more of yourself toward your purpose?”

For me, I was willing to trade off the security of a bi-weekly paycheck for the ability to call my own shots as a self-employed writer. I truly did wind up working far more than 40 hours a week, but I had more flexibility over my schedule and I could work anywhere. For many years, it was a lot of fun and rewarding in many ways.

At that point in my life, my purpose was to be a self-employed journalist.

Stage 5 — Fusion

This is the stage where everything you do is being informed, guided and inspired by your purpose, Dr. Wadhwa explained.

“You progress from the base of a triangle, where you are fairly unstructured and undirected, until, very gradually, you move upward to the very tip of the triangle, where you are completely fused,” he added.

By now, your identity is wrapped up in your purpose. You know you are making a difference in your own life and the lives of others. Everything starts to click once again — just as though you are cruising on autopilot. You can’t imagine doing anything else because the rewards are both internal and external. You begin to believe you were literally born to do this.

Keep in mind, I’m convinced someone’s purpose can change several times over the course of a lifetime. I know mine did.

But, once you are living and working in that sweet spot of ideal purpose, you’ll experience lots of joy and satisfaction.

The podcast can be viewed below or at

Dr. Wadhwa’s book, Inner Mastery, Outer Impact, is available on If you click on the link and purchase the book, Forward From 50 may receive a small commission.