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How can you know the difference between purpose vs. objective?

August 3, 2022 - 15 min read

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What is purpose?

What is an objective?

The main differences between purpose and objective

6 tips for setting objectives in your life

Setting your sights

You probably have a basic idea of what an objective is. 

Perhaps your boss gave you a project with a deadline, so you broke it down into smaller tasks and finished each of them. Done! You completed your objective.

Meeting these milestones takes skill, time, and discipline. Doing so is commendable. 

But after a while, you might feel like you’re missing something. Maybe those victories don’t ring as loudly anymore. Those accomplishments are now underwhelming. 

These feelings can easily lead to an existential crisis and feelings of anxiety or vulnerability. But before you fall into a panic, remember: you obviously care about the direction of your life. That’s a good thing. With a bit of work, you can find a purpose that will do wonders for your spiritual wellness and motivation.

The purpose might feel like an elusive concept, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s get into what it is, consider the differences between purpose vs. objective, and what they can both do for you.

What is purpose?

You might define “purpose” as a “life objective,” and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But it doesn’t fully capture what a “purpose” can do for you. 

Here’s what you should know about purpose:

  1. It’s external to you. It’s your contribution to the world. Your purpose comes down to the impact you hope to make on others.
  2. It’s an idealized image of who you want to be or what you want to accomplish. And, because it’s ideal, you’re always striving for it — even if you never quite reach it.
  3. It’s a broad concept. A purpose encompasses all activities in your life, so it is broad and malleable to any given situation.
  4. It’s a long-term goal. Your purpose defines your life's work. It's a general statement of intent that drives you. It can take years to accomplish your ideal — if you ever do. 
  5. It’s your North star. It gives direction to everything you do and your life a sense of meaning.

Having a purpose is the key to self-improvement. It gives you a reason to set goals, leverage your passions, develop stronger skills, and work toward something more significant. 

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Discover your purpose

To find your calling, start by taking stock of your skills. Then ask yourself:

  • Why do I have the skills I have?
  • Who can I help with my skills? 

Then consider what causes you’re attracted to. Ask yourself:

  • Why do I care about this cause more than others?
  • How can my skills help contribute to the cause?

These questions can help you find a purpose and zero in on what you care about.

Example purposes

There are no rules for what your life purpose can be. They’re as unique as the individual who conjures them. Here are some examples of what a purpose statement looks like:

  • “I want to be the best possible parent for my kids.”
  • “I want to help people feel good about themselves.”
  • “I want to help build a more compassionate community.”
  • “I want to bring people joy.”
  • “I want to share knowledge with others.”

Each of these focuses on building an idealized version of something external. Once you make your own, the challenge is to start working on it.

A purpose points you in the right direction, but a clear plan with your ultimate goals and specific objectives will move you in that direction. If you’re having trouble naming your purpose, BetterUp can work with you to find your own North star. 

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What is an objective?

Objectives are your purpose in motion. They consist of specific actions that bring you closer to the goals dictated by your purpose.

You might wonder: what’s the purpose of aims and objectives? Why do you need them if you already know your purpose?

Objectives lead you to your end result. You need to move forward to fulfill your purpose by setting clear expectations for yourself. 

But don’t worry, you’re not locked in. You’re in it for the long haul, and minor setbacks are to be expected. It’s ok, as long as you’re still moving in the right direction. Just be ready to adapt when life throws you obstacles.

How is a goal different from an objective?

Objectives help you meet a goal, and goals help you fulfill a purpose. Goals have shorter deadlines than purposes, and an objective is one step or several steps to reach an overall goal. Let’s look at an example:

Purpose: to help native speakers and newcomers master the English language

Goal: to have regular work as a language teacher

Short-term objective: graduate from a college-level linguistics program

You can see how each level is more specific than the last; your objective serves to meet the goal, which serves to meet your purpose. There’s no set number of goals or objectives required to meet your purpose, but it's probably more than one. 

How to set an objective

Think of your objectives as the goal-setting strategy you'll use. Once you know the objective, you can decide how to pursue it best. The key to setting good objectives is to use the SMART method:

  1. Specific: Your objective should have a clear desired outcome in mind. Paint a picture. What does success look like?
  2. Measurable: How will you know that you’ve reached your objective? You should be able to measure and define it easily.
  3. Achievable: You should be able to achieve your desired results with the skills you have now. If not, you may need to add extra steps to your plan.
  4. Realistic: Good objectives are also within reach. Don’t aim to be CEO of a Fortune 500 in two years if you’re currently working in the mailroom. 
  5. Time-bound. Set clear deadlines and timeframes for all of your tasks.

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Examples of objectives

Let’s apply the SMART elements with some examples. Here are some to consider: 

Example 1: Your purpose is to provide a stable home for your children. Your current job pays you $80,000 per year. So, you set an objective to save enough for a down payment on a house in five years.

  • S: Owning a house.
  • M: Buying that house.
  • A: You’re making enough money to save a substantial amount each year.
  • R: You’ve left yourself enough time to save up a down payment.
  • T: Five years is a clear timeframe. 

Example 2: Your purpose is to help others reach their full potential. You’re currently a mid-level employee at a company. Your objective is to become a manager and lead a team within four years. 

  • S: Manage a team.
  • M: If you receive your promotion, you’ve succeeded.
  • A: You’re already a mid-level employee, so promotion is within reach.
  • R: Working for promotion will show the dedication required to achieve it.
  • T: Four years is a clear timeframe. 

The main differences between purpose and objective

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So are purpose and objective the same thing? They’re similar in that they provide guidance. But that’s where the similarities end. Let’s review the key differences:

  1. Purposes are long-term, meaningful goals. Objectives are short-term goals.
  2. You pursue a purpose because it makes you happy. You pursue an objective because it helps you fulfill your purpose.
  3. The purposes are broad and abstract. Objectives are concrete, focused, and measurable.
  4. It’s challenging to achieve your purpose. Objectives are designed to be achievable.
  5. People typically only have one purpose, whereas achieving a purpose requires many objectives.
  6. Purposes are rigid — they’re a single thing guiding your life. You can adapt objectives to overcome obstacles. 
  7. Purpose takes a long time to achieve — maybe even an entire lifetime. Objectives are focused on tasks due within the day, week, or month.

Where purpose and objectives overlap

While purpose and objectives are markedly different, they do have some similarities:

  1. Provide direction in life
  2. Give you something to aspire to
  3. Act as important tools for mental health and wellbeing
  4. Make you more productive
  5. Increase your job satisfaction
  6. Help you measure your success
  7. Keep you on the right track

Why is it important to know the difference?

Purpose and objectives are essential tools for life planning. Together they can help you find meaning in your work, increase your job satisfaction, and set appropriate priorities. 

When you complete objectives in line with your purpose — like pursuing a fulfilling career that leads you toward your purpose —  you’ll feel a deep sense of satisfaction that you’re doing what you were meant to do.

6 tips for setting objectives in your life

If you're struggling to set your first objectives, first, make sure you've identified your purpose. Then, use these few tips to set your first goals and start moving toward your purpose:

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Setting your sights

Life is an ocean of possibilities, but sometimes the abundance of choice is overwhelming. That’s why we need a purpose — a guiding star to give us direction. And once we do, we can set sail with clear objectives. You’ll feel like you have more power and control over your life with your purpose and objectives in mind.

Now that you understand purpose vs. objective, you can implement them in your life. If you hit troubled waters, you can always count on us. BetterUp is here to give the career advice you need to maximize your potential. 

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Published August 3, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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