How Do You Know When You’re Living On Purpose?

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I remember a distinct phase of my career when I thought “wow, I’ve made it!” while at the same time feeling the horror of “what the hell am I doing here?”

It was my first taste of discerning what purpose felt like. I should’ve felt proud and satisfied with my position and direction, yet instead I had this inexplicable anxiety and discomfort.

I’d had 5 years of rigorous scientific training even before completing my Master’s, working with a handful of notable investigators on various research topics at a private public health research firm. I’d been invited to guide an exciting consortium between several research institutions associated with the University of Colorado, was among CU’s youngest faculty, and enrolled in my doctoral program.

I had an all-but-guaranteed inside track to success.
At the ripe age of 33, I was contemplating “how did I get here?” from the perspective of how lucky I should feel for the opportunity. But really what I noticed were the severe constrictions in my body as I imagined fulfilling all those obligations.

I was grateful for the opportunities, don’t get me wrong.

But when I closed my eyes I felt the terrifying reality that this was not the avenue for my own work in the world. As I imagined carrying out the tasks, I could feel my heart straining under the machine-like effort that would be required to complete what I’d begun building. And it might just destroy my passion for life in the process.

What was being asked of me was important and valuable work, it just wasn’t MY work.

When I told the administrators and senior faculty about my decision to leave, they were stunned. Speechless. Nobody ever leaves academia when put in a position like mine.

And all I felt was relief.

The constrictions released. My energy flowed. The new role that magically appeared pursuing work that mattered to me would allow me to move in the direction of my dreams. I even reoriented my doctoral focus to align with my purpose (before I even knew what it was).

Somehow, without prompting and against all “good” judgment, I’d had the dignity to listen to the provocations of my soul and a backbone to follow my own audacious dreams.

It was miraculous, and terrifying.

When I escaped the seduction of stability and intoxication of power to listen instead to the magic of my soul and pursue what I was meant to do, the world began to align around that.

That exercise in self-determination and sovereignty was the first of many experiments I would conduct that helped me to uncover how to design a life-on-purpose.

How Do You Know?


People often ask me how to tell when you’re aligned with purpose.

While it’s not a simple answer, my most common responses include:

  • Are you living the one-of-a-kind version of you, that’s different than everyone else?
  • How often do you feel alive as your unique self, and then…
  • What are you doing when you feel that?
  • Do you regularly experience “magic” or the small miracles of synchronicity?
  • Do you sense the aliveness literally moving in you?

There are no “sure” rules that guarantee someone is living a purpose-led life.

It’s mostly a lifetime of trial-and-error, and as with most things the error is just a feedback loop to help us get back on track.

Our efforts at listening to the feedback either help to develop a Virtuous Cycle, a chain of positive events that reinforces itself, or a Vicious one, as most anyone who’s ever experienced the travails of failing (and not learning from their failure) can attest.

The data to help us choose virtuous or vicious cycles, in order to find and live on purpose, are always there.

It’s just that we CHOOSE to listen to these data, or not.

Creating Space to Listen, Explore, Reflect

Living on purpose with clarity is like trying to distinguish the “trivial many from the vital few,” a concept put forth by Greg McKeown in Essentialism (2020.)

McKeown suggests that we’re much more likely to respond to the signals of what matters to us if we create space to hear it.

I usually walk my clients through a process of creating space to listen for, explore and reflect upon these many signals of our physical, emotional, mental, energetic, psychic and subtle structures.

As I call them, these “imprints” are our inherent data systems or “metrics” about whether we are aligning our internal operating systems with purpose or not.

The signals of these imprints are our Purpose KPIs, or key performance indicators. They tell us if we’re leveraging the Virtuous Cycle, or the Vicious one. If it’s the latter, we’d better listen more closely so we know what new strategy or tactic to employ in our life or business to get back on track with our purpose.

Learning to attune to your own signals of living-on-purpose helps you keep tabs on what keeps you in alignment, or not.

What are the Purpose KPIs that Signal Your Aliveness?


Your personal Purpose KPIs can be measured by your physical, emotional, mental, energetic/subtle, and psychic experiences.

Here are some tips to help you listen to the indicators of a life-on-purpose.

Physical Indicators

Your body is a complex sensory awareness organism that responds moment to moment at the cellular, molecular, atomic and quark level. You may easily notice the bone-chilling, hair-raising, or heart palpating moments. But getting intimate with your somatic responses (beyond the tears, fears and goosebumps) helps to discern when you’re truly being your authentic self or when you’re out of alignment.

Begin to notice:

  • Changes internally: heart rate, respiration, temperature, pressure, motion, constriction
  • Changes in your skin: hot, cold, clammy, sweaty
  • Changes in your “countenance”: tight, loose, open, closed, clenched, constricted, relaxed

Any of these shifts indicate that you’re responding somatically to an internal or external experience.

Emotional Indicators

While emotions live “inside” us, they are a cognitive interpretation of our biologic response to the world, evidence of our gut brain’s reaction. While emotions are an evolved interpretation to the world around us, that interpretation of a “negative” emotion can sometimes take us back to a childlike state. Emotions, in fact, are just telling us that something has happened, and maybe we should seek more, or less, of that experience.

Begin to notice:

  • What brings you: joy, delight, wonder, awe, curiosity, enthusiasm, inspiration, humor
  • What evokes in you: fear, trepidation, anger, rejection, timidity, frustration
  • What provokes a sense of: numbness, dissociation, isolation, running away

Any of these shifts indicate that you’re responding somatically to an internal or external experience.

Mental Indicators

Our head brain is also a pretty complex organism, and governs many of our physiologic reactions to the world. And yet, most of those reactions were laid down in neural grooves early in life, so that we’re mostly unconscious to our automated responses. How we react now to life was often instigated during childhood, unless we’ve done some major clean-up work to create new neural pathways. These mental responses can tell us what something feels “right in our world” or not.

Begin to notice:

  • The events or experiences that help you see yourself in a positive light, when you may be affirming your talents, skills, uniquenesses or special attributes.
  • The experiences that set-off the alarms and the litany of limiting beliefs about not being good enough in a myriad of ways.
  • The events that provoke an automatic “no way” versus those that prompt a “hell yes.”

These expressions indicate that you’re mentally available to or interested in that experience, or not.

Energetic/Subtle Indicators

Because the “energy” of our human experience is mostly comprised of “subtle” energies (that we can’t see), I lump the two types of indicators (energetic, subtle) together here for simplicity. Energy can also include the biochemical reactions inside our physical body, but mostly those create the types of indicators you’d experience in the Physical descriptions above (in addition to shifts in organ, endocrine, hormonal and other less-than-visual functions).

The subtle energies that are within and surround us are distinct from the physical experience of our bodies. Most people only know about the chakra system, a component of a much larger human energy structure in which our physical bodies are housed. You may have heard of the “aura”, which is the human electromagnetic field that sits just outside the physical body and serves as your storehouse for energy [BTW, the aura is not the same thing as the chakras, or even the same organ system in your energy structure]. These energies function distinctly and specifically to support our human experience beyond the physical experience. While most people can’t see subtle energies, they surround us and can greatly affect your experience of being human.

Begin to notice what you experience in the non-visible space inside and outside your body.

  • What people or experiences encourage you to feel: light, open, spacious, relaxed, comfortable, safe, calm, steady?
  • What people or experiences provoke you to feel: closed, constricted, unsafe, tense, anxious, agitated or feel manipulated?

These expressions indicate that you are supported energetically, or not, by the experience. Most often, until we are fully aware of our own subtle energy structures, we either “give away” our energy to others, or conversely, we “manipulate” others with our own energy. Learning to be sovereign beings requires us to clear and manage our own subtle energies.

Psychic Indicators

While you may not have had an experience of getting a “download” or believe you have clairvoyant or psychic capacity, more people than ever are capable of perceiving information beyond their physical five senses. What used to be called ESP (extra-sensory perception) is now known as transpersonal awareness, and is associated with the subtle capacities discussed above, but also extends beyond the primary human energy structure.

When someone reaches a level of expansion or perceptual awareness that extends their consciousness “out” into the quantum field (imagining an “out there” vs. an “in here”, since we know it’s all kinda one and the same,) they begin to pick up the information or data that exists in the quantum field, as if it were a conversation in the other room (but with an undisclosed communicator and not necessarily speaking the same language as them.)

While this may seem inconceivable, psychic information allows you to have an even greater perceptual awareness of the field and what’s available to you, letting you calibrate to an even greater harmony with the universe to be aligned as yourself.

If you have psychic capacity (or even if you don’t know if you do), begin to notice:

  • What insights, messages, phrases, images, visualizations or other data emerge that may support your awareness of being in or out of alignment with your truest self.
  • Especially in the early stages of receiving these kind of data, listen carefully and cautiously (as our ego likes to hear what it wants) and don’t make big decisions based on what you hear (or see, feel or know, as the psychic information can come in many forms.

The inputs from these transpersonal experiences can ultimately guide you to more informed decisions, actions and inspire you to take action you may not have conceived on your own.

An Intentional Life


And you may be thinking that all this is way over the top in terms of time and effort, and it would be so much easier to just listen and do things the way you’ve always done.

All so true.

And, we’ll end up further down this same path with no place else to go, soon enough. We’ve reached the end of the road with the shoes we’ve been walking in.

How about if you try it a different way, now, while there may still be time?
Besides, everything you ever wanted in a life can be amplified and made better if you live on purpose.


About the Author

Dr. Holly Woods is the Author of the #1 Bestseller, The Golden Thread: Where to Find Purpose in the Stages of Your Life. Read it, you’ll never again think your life doesn’t matter.

Holly is a purpose activator. She believes that touching the spark of your soul lights you up so much that you alter the world just by being in it.

Learn about Holly’s work at Emergence Institute. You can schedule a 30 minute Strategy session with Holly.

Better yet, join the Purpose Creators Collective, a home for you to grow your purposeful life, work and business with mentoring, courses and the company of aligned peers. It will be a laboratory, incubator, sacred container and support network for those of us emerging into our next expression.

Holly’s spent nearly 4 decades helping visionaries build products and businesses that change the world, as a coach, mentor, consultant and entrepreneur. She’s younger than she’s ever been because her purpose inspires her to keep making a difference. That’s what she wants for you, too. Holly helps her clients uncover their nuanced purpose, gain capacities and mindset to attain their unreasonable goals, and align decisions, products, strategies and systems around what matters most.

Get a free copy of the tried-and-true Purpose to Impact Roadmap she uses to create that alignment and amplification in the world.

Holly earned a PhD in Human & Organizational Development, is certified as an Integral Master Coach®, Purpose Guide®, Professional Mediator and Facilitator, Master Energy Practitioner, and is a Stages of Consciousness developmental practitioner.

Emergence Institute

Holly Woods, PhD

ⓒ 2020 Emergence Institute