The Inside-Out Approach to Finding Your Purpose

When you’re not sure what your purpose is, it’s tempting to look outward at the problems in the world, and see what you can do to solve them. 

I’m not saying this doesn’t work… 

But it’s only one half of the equation. 

Theologian Frederick Buechner suggests vocation is found where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

In a similar way, finding purpose is about solving your own problems and then sharing your solutions with the world. 

It’s about scratching your own itch first.

The origin story of my company (The Weekend University) provides a cautionary tale and example of the importance of taking this approach.

There are very few things that the first version of The Weekend University has in common with the current version.

Not many know this, but it got off to a kind of “false start”. 

Although it is now established as a psychology education platform with over 100,000 subscribers, it wasn’t always like this. 

When I first started, I was willing to try anything

A route that I thought could be lucrative was one day “immersions” (i.e. crash courses) on specific subjects. 

If you look back through our event archives, you’ll find events like: 

A Crash Course on Jung

Personal Branding for Helping Professionals

A Crash Course in Podcasting

Data Visualisation for Analytics Professionals

A Crash Course in Cryptocurrencies

There was no rhyme or reason to the choice of topics. 

I was simply choosing courses that I thought would be popular and make money. 

However, no matter how well I picked, and no matter how much effort I put into promoting them, tickets weren’t selling. 

The turning point came when my Dad sent me a link to a company that was organising university lecture events for the general public in America. 

Around this time, my interest in psychology was growing, and I was spending my spare time reading books and watching online lectures on the subject. So much so, that before I started The Weekend University, I considered going back and doing a degree and eventually training as a psychologist. 

The only problem was that it would cost £27,000 and 3 years — both of which were unrealistic for me at this point in my life. 

So I put further education on hold and thought: 

I’ll build my business first and then use the money I earn to fund my education

But when this link landed in my inbox, I suddenly thought: 

Why don’t I combine my interest in psychology with my entrepreneurial efforts, and organise psychology lecture days for the general public? 

This would allow me to explore my own curiosity about the subject, build relationships with people in the field, earn a living, and help others improve their lives at the same time. 

It would allow me to create my own education… 

Furthermore, these lecture days were something that I knew for certain that I would pay my own hard earned money to attend. 

So maybe others would too.

Sensing I was onto something, I took a gamble, and organised our first psychology lecture day at the University of London in December 2017.

156 people attended and most of our monthly lecture days events sold out — right up until Covid struck in 2020, at which point we moved everything online. 

 
 

I tell this story because it provides a clue into how we should approach the problem of finding our purpose.

My original strategy was flawed because I was ignoring my own interests and innate curiosities, only considering what I thought would be popular and sell well. 

wasn’t scratching my own itch.

Everything changed though when I took an “inside-out” approach and focused on creating something that I was aligned with, that I actually wished existed in the world. 

Paradoxically, when that was my intention, it tapped into a deep desire in others, and the events were wildly popular. 

There’s a saying that’s sort of stuck in my head: 

Money goes where energy flows. 

And if you look at some of the most successful people and companies in our society, you see the same pattern: 

1. Individual has a problem in their life. 

2. They struggle with the problem until they find a solution. 

3. They share the solution with others, whose lives improve as a result. 

4. Individual finds purpose by creating a scalable version of the solution.

5. This allows them to earn a living and society improves as a result. 

A good example of this process in action is the story of entrepreneur Tim Ferriss. 

After careful planning, execution, and a tonne of hard graft, Ferriss launched a supplement company that appeared to be a roaring success. At one point, he was earning around 70K per month and distributing internationally.

However, he also found himself working 14 hour plus days, 7 days per week, and completely miserable. 

He was depending on stimulants to get up in the morning and depressants to get to sleep at night.

A low point came during a family vacation to Florence, Italy, where he spent 10 hours a day “freaking out” in an internet cafe, and another came when his girlfriend — who he was hoping to marry — walked out on him, leaving a note that said: “Business hours are over at five o’clock.” 

After realising he had created a prison, he focused on re-engineering his business so that it gave him as much freedom of time and travel as possible, while still earning a substantial income. After sharing his solutions at a lecture series for business students at Princeton, Ferriss decided to chronicle them in a book, which later became The 4 Hour Work Week — a #1 New York Times Bestseller which has helped thousands reimagine and reinvent their working lives. 

Another example is the story of Kamal Ravikant. 

Kamal had been working tirelessly for years on his software company, but suddenly found it imploding and doomed to failure. 

This led to a crippling depression, with Kamal describing himself as suicidal at the time. 

On one particularly dark night, he realised that he had to do something before it was too late. 

So, in his journal, he made a vow to himself: 

This day, I vow to myself to love myself, to treat myself as someone I love truly and deeply – in my thoughts, my actions, the choices I make, the experiences I have, each moment I am conscious, I make the decision I LOVE MYSELF.” 

After that, Kamal began an experiment in radical self love and watched every aspect of his life transform as a result. He documented his story and process in a book titled: Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It, which became a bestseller that has since helped thousands improve their lives. 

A third case is Derek Sivers. As an independent musician in 1997, it was almost impossible to sell your music online. 

(This was before the time of Paypal and other merchant sites like it.) 

So, in order to be able to sell his band’s CDs, he created CDBaby.com

This involved 3 months of learning programming to add a “buy now” button to his website, setting up a bank account, and about $1,000 dollars in fees. 

After finally getting the “Buy Now” button up and running, some of Sivers’ fellow musician friends asked him if they could sell their music through his site too. 

Sivers said: “Sure, why not!” 

CDbaby was born, eventually growing to a 22 million company which he sold in 2008. 

A final example is Sara Blakely. 

While selling fax machines door-to-door in the 90s, Blakely wanted to eliminate the panty lines appearing through her slacks. So she cut the feet from a pair of pantyhose and wore them underneath her pants to smooth out the lines. 

This idea eventually led to: (1.) The foundation of Spanx as an organisation, (2.) Blakely becoming the world’s first female self-made billionaire, and (3.) an international company which employs more than 750 people. 

I could keep going with examples, but I think you get the point… 

In all cases, the pattern is the same:

Person has problem – > Person finds solution – > Person shares solution – > Person finds purpose, gets rewarded, and society improves.

What these examples all illustrate is that purpose is a concentric circle phenomenon: 

 

In the diagram above, imagine yourself at the centre with your unique problems and challenges. 

If you can successfully solve them, and then find a way to share the solution(s) with others, your work ripples outwards, improving the lives of others, and providing you with a deep sense of purpose in the process. 

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Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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