Do You Know the “Five Ws” and How They Can Help You Find Your Purpose?


As you grow in your career, you need to be clear on your sense of purpose. Yes, you have skills and experience, but your purpose drives your success. Use the five well-known questions journalists use to find your purpose and deepen your commitment to your career.

Who, What, Why, Where, and When are the “Five Ws.” These questions can be turned into an exercise to help you find your purpose if it isn’t as clear as you’d like it to be. Maybe it’s ironic, but many of us are more uncertain about our purpose the older and the more experienced we get. This may be because with greater knowledge and experience come new questions about how our work is making a difference or building our legacy. 

Questions come up now that we didn’t think about 20 or more years ago when we were young and starting out. We must find the answers to these questions now in order to successfully continue to work and make an impact. And it is never too late to reflect and find the answers that will give us that purpose and resolve as we face the future. 

How To Use This Article

Each heading below explores one of the “Five W’s” and gives you suggestions on how to reflect and develop your answers to each question. Engage with each of these questions separately, as a standalone exercise. Take some time — once a day or once a week — to figure out each question.

Use a notebook or a note-taking app to record your thoughts and answers. Keep it handy to capture your ideas as they come up and on the fly. Make this activity part of your daily flow. If you think you’ll remember your ideas and insights later — you’ll likely forget them. So write everything down and then set an undisturbed time window when you’ll be able to work from your notes.

What Does it Mean to ‘Find Your Purpose?”

The answer varies for each one of us. Some perceive this notion as more philosophical — they need to feel connected to some deeper aspect of life. Others are more practical; they view their purpose as successfully supporting themselves and their family, building wealth, or self-sustainability. Google this question and you’ll be barreling down a deep rabbit hole!

As a way of getting more motivated in your career, and addressing a certain malaise that can set in mid-career, it can be helpful to start by identifying the values that move you the most. These values and priorities resonate deeply within you and fulfilling them gives you a feeling of connection to something higher or to our shared human experience. Your purpose is the force that drives you to do what you do – at work and in life. 

That awareness guides your actions and decisions in your own life. It is a deeply personal process. As you engage from that awareness, you’re able to better identify opportunities that serve you, situations that don’t serve you, and other signposts to help you stay on an increasingly fulfilling track.

Having a clear sense of purpose sustains you, even when you have setbacks. It is also a constant reminder of what’s motivating you and can help you become more resilient and fulfilled in your personal and professional endeavors.

Finding your purpose is not an easy quest, but it failing to address it, especially as you age, could leave you feeling disconnected and rudderless in your work and in your relationships.

1. Who Are You?

Reflect on your convictions

What do you believe in? What do you stand for? Where are your personal and professional boundaries? What compromises are you willing to make? What are your “must haves” and your dealbreakers?

This is the first and most important question. The remaining “W’s” in this process hinge on your sense of self. Who you are is the context for everything else you’re going to examine in this exercise. 

Think about how who you are has helped or hindered you in your career.

Has your career path been compatible with your personality? Are there new roles or areas of expertise that you would find more fulfilling? Is it time to address any resistance or fear you’ve had about making career changes? If you’re feeling blocked from advancement or promotion, is there anything you could do differently to change that situation?

Reflect on your personality traits

You may share many aspects with others, but your personality is unique. If you’ve been burying yourself behind your office persona for a long time, maybe it’s time to re-emerge. For example, are you an introvert or extrovert, more open-minded or conservative, curious or cautious, realist or visionary, proactive or reactive? Do you want to work on a particular trait? Have you outgrown certain behavior patterns that no longer serve you?

Find out how you are perceived

Ask some trusted friends or colleagues for their honest and constructive feedback. This can be a list of characteristics or an example of a specific moment that, from their perspective, defined you best. Don’t be afraid to find out how people see you. Take that feedback as an opportunity to improve yourself.

These are just four prompts to help you do some introspection. Keep thinking about them as you collect your notes, and explore other aspects of yourself as they come up. You can gain a better understanding of who you are, what is important to you, and what makes you unique. This can help you make more intentional choices and decisions that align with your personal and professional goals and purpose.

2. What Do You Do?

Treat this question like you’re drafting your resume. List all the things you do, whether you like doing them or not, and whether you’re good at doing them or not. (NOTE: when you’re done with this step, you may find some takeaways to update your actual resume). Here are a few steps you can take to assess what you do and determine if it aligns with your purpose:

What’s on your list? If you had to give yourself a score, would you say that you’re mostly doing things that you enjoy doing and do well? Don’t judge yourself: this is an opportunity to evaluate your situation and consider if you need or want to make changes. Perhaps you want to rebalance your tasks, drop certain roles and responsibilities – and take on new ones. Perhaps you want to give more of yourself to the community or help your coworkers achieve their maximum potential.

What are your greatest assets?

What do you do that makes the biggest impact Maybe it’s your technical skill. Maybe it’s your ability to work with people and communicate how things need to get done. Maybe it’s your innovation or strategic abilities. What are you naturally good at? What are your top achievements? Consolidating all of this information will give you more clarity on what you do best, and help you discover your unique value proposition.

What do your passions reflect?

Your interests and hobbies may give you clues to the underlying drivers that fulfill you. We tend to gravitate towards the pursuits that we are naturally good at, where we are most successful. These are the activities where we experience the “flow” state and get totally immersed in what we’re doing. Look for ways that the satisfaction you get from these activities can also be applied to your work roles. Perhaps you could find the same fulfillment at work if you migrated to a different role or worked on a different team. Small changes can have an uplifting effect. You may also be in a position to start a side gig/side hustle as an outlet for this pursuit, which could lift your spirits and make the compromises you’re making in your primary job more acceptable.

Answer the four Ikigai questions.

These are based on the Japanese concept of what it takes to create purpose in your life:

  1. What do you do best? This is based on your own sense of excellence as well as the feedback you’ve received.
  2. What do you like to do most? Regardless of what anyone else thinks, if you had to pick the top 3-5 tasks, roles, or routines, what would they be?
  3. What does the world need? What can (or do) you do that moves the needle for others? Is there a way that your work can fulfill a specific initiative or goal that will make a difference for others? 
  4. What can you get paid for? Here’s the bottom line: the first three questions are all well and good, but in the end, you need to make a living. One way to look at this question is to think about it in terms of what is useful about what you do. If it’s useful, then there’s a market for it.

3. Where Are You?

This question is not about your physical location but about where you are in your career progression. Are you where you imagined being at this stage of your life? Assess your current situation:

Review your goals and ambitions

Juxtapose your achieved goals versus those you haven’t achieved yet. How are you doing? If you still have goals to cross off your list, what can you do to get yourself in a better place than you are today?

Reflect on your career so far

Are you working at a level that meets or exceeds your expectations in terms of rank, responsibility, or compensation? If not, do you feel stuck, or has your thinking evolved on this question? 

How’s your mood or your attitude about your work?

Does what you do make you feel satisfied, frustrated, or anxious? Are you enduring a toxic environment or unsatisfying relationships with your manager or coworkers? Have you been in that situation for a long time – and if so, what’s been preventing you from changing it?

4. When Are You?

If you’re not where you want to be, can you develop a timeline to get you there? If you are experiencing a certain amount of satisfaction and a sense of achievement, where do you go from here? 

Establishing time-based goals (an important aspect of the SMART goal methodology) is critical to keeping your career going and avoiding a loss of momentum. Be critical but realistic about creating milestones to get where you want to go. To become more self-directed and more fulfilled in your career, you’re going to need to rely more on your own initiative as there will be fewer “hoops” to jump through. It’s up to you to state your intentions and take responsibility for realizing them.

This is the perfect opportunity to double down on your time management skills. How do you use your time? Do you manage it well, or do you need improvement? Do you get distracted easily? Are you procrastinating more than working toward your goals?

This is a more challenging phase of your career. You’ll need to be as productive and proactive as possible if you’re going to succeed.

5. Why Do You Do What You Do?

Knowing your “Why” is what will result once you’re wrestled with – and answered at least to some extent – the first four “Ws.”. Knowing our “Why” is necessary, as Simon Sinek says, “If we want to feel an undying passion for our work or if we want to feel we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves.”

The first four “Ws” are somewhat pragmatic. Answering them helps us get focused and centered and ready to engage with our lives and careers moving forward. But our “Why” is that which sustains us day after day, and through every crisis, setback, or doubt.

As such, our “Why” has to be about how we serve something greater than ourselves. It’s the aspirational aspect of the five “Ws” and the one that is going to bring us into contact with the people who will inspire us, support us, and endure with us.

Here are four “windows” through which we can build our “Why.” You may have others.

  • Service: Focus on helping others, and serving a mission to improve conditions, right wrongs, or repair/restore damages.
  • Excellence: Focus on achievement as inspiration, supporting and/or modeling best practices, skills, and talents; overcoming obstacles and personal challenges, and proving your value.
  • Knowledge: Focus on the value of discovery and curiosity as a way of lifting others, empowering them to do more, and promoting greater understanding.
  • Vision: Focus on the value of creativity, innovation, and following a dream; fulfilling a tangible goal, whether as an artist/creator, inventor, or someone driven primarily by making imagination real.

There are other windows of focus to explore your “Why.” They all share what is unique about the human condition: that spark to move beyond the status quo and to expand and grow to some greater state. Remember: your life’s purpose is a long game, not a short-term goal, so it’s always going to be evolving as you evolve and continue to engage with your world. 

Get Started on Your Mission

This is a lot to digest in a single sitting. As I said at the beginning, take these questions one at a time and gradually your purpose will emerge or become more clear.

A corollary exercise you might want to try is to create a mission statement where you describe what your professional life would be like if you were living up to your fullest potential. It’s another way into this process and could get you thinking about your larger sense of purpose.

Finding your purpose calls for some courage.  It might pose some questions and ideas that can make you uncomfortable.  But it is worthwhile. Your sense of purpose gives you an inner compass that directs all of your actions and choices and steers you toward life-affirming experiences.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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