What’s the purpose of Purpose?

Speakers at The Purposeful Enterprise Summit

One of the interesting side discussions that has emerged from curating a series of expert interviews for The Purposeful Enterprise Summit is whether we all have an individual ‘purpose’ or not? Whether everyone can embrace a sense of purpose to the same degree and if not, why not? It may not be directly about purposeful enterprise as such but then all businesses are made up of people, so it gets space in the conversations.

Purpose comes in and out of fashion in business.  But having a personal purpose is a subject of huge discussion. What is purpose and what isn’t it?  Do we really all have a special ‘purpose’ to fulfil here on Earth? Something that remains mysteriously hidden to us a lot of the time – or at least it does to me? Is there really an infinite possibility for each individual in discovering their ‘why’?

Is finding purpose part of self-actualising?

In my experience, a deliberation around whether or not we have a personal purpose is an inevitable question in our psychological development when we reach the self-actualising stage of growth. It arises when we start to engage with who we fully are and begin seeking a sense of purpose or find a desire to live a values-led life. Often it comes out of a personal crisis such as ill-health or redundancy or divorce. There are many studies which suggest this happens somewhere around mid forties to fifties, but may be starting to occur earlier in life.  As the collective intelligence and wisdom in the human race grows with each human generation that succeeds the next, we may be seeing purpose and meaning becoming more important to younger people.  That’s certainly confirmed by research from organisations like Nielsen about Millennials.

I have a feeling that where it gets complicated, is when we interpret that search for a sense of purpose as meaning we have a ‘mission’ in life, a calling to fulfil, something vitally important to do – that somehow sets off a pressure cooker and a pile of resistance inside your head because we somehow immediately assume that’s something on a global scale. Like stop climate change. Or save the rainforests. Or bring back Elvis. Ok – joking with the last one! And panic sets in that we feel overwhelmed and unworthy and unable to tackle and complete such a task. Well, not everyone does – some people grab such challenges with the verve and enthusiasm of a starving man in front of a banquet!

Who says what about Purpose?

Let’s just take a peak (and confuse ourselves even more) at just some of the different views and perspectives on personal purpose out there.

In the Barrett Model, designed by Richard Barrett, founder of The Barrett Values Centre over 20 years ago, we can see that this period of development is described as finding a ‘sense of purpose’ rather than a special personal purpose. This works for me. It is inextricably linked with recognising and understanding your beliefs and values, and finding a way to live (and work) according to those values.  If you are living life still at the ‘survival’ stage of development, such as having to take a job that pays the bills because you aren’t financially stable for example, it becomes harder to consider purpose, although you may still be feeling the pull.  Cue resentment, dissatisfaction, depression – all sorts of things.  But this isn’t an article about psychology so let’s just note that purpose and self-actualisation seem to have a relationship.

The Barrett Model

Stages of Psychological Development, The Barrett Model

One of my favourite TED Talks is Emilie Wapnick on purpose. Her ultimate view is that there are some people who never mind a strong sense of purpose but are ‘multipotentialite’ and have a wide variety of different things they can do in life.  That ties in well with something Nick Haines of Five Institute discusses in the Summit. He shares insights into why different ‘energy’ profiles may be more or less motivated by purpose in their life. This was one of the most surprising views of purpose that popped out during my interviews and may explain why some people get so perplexed and frustrated with the ‘find your purpose’ industry. Perhaps it feels more of a burden than an inspiration to those personality types.

Conversely Rick Warren best-selling author of The Purpose-Driven Life takes a more spiritual view of purpose. He believes that what we are seeing emerge on a more global basis is part of a deep spiritual yearning for a life experience that is rich with meaning, significance and purpose that is linked to the concept of God.

The relationship between Purpose and Flow

There’s certainly a current phenomenon in some parts of the coaching world that is focused on finding your personal purpose, often described as finding your ‘flow’ or your zone of genius. If you can sit through his videos, international coach Kyle Cease describes purpose as a way of getting comfortable with uncertainty and fall in love with ‘not knowing’. I certainly think that would be a helpful role of purpose in these times of rapid-paced constant change. He also describes purpose as a way of helping us turn away from a ‘medicated life of constant compensation’ through shopping, eating, drinking, drugs, or just simply ‘doing’.

As does the wonderful Brene Brown who said ‘connection is why we’re here’ which I believe has something significant to say about purpose. Humans deeply desire a connection to other humans and to life – whether we know it or not. Her wisdom comes from deep research into the causes and effects of shame, disconnection and vulnerability. The disconnection shows up as ‘numbing’ – one more banana nut muffin, one more Prada handbag, one more bottle of vodka, one more hit, busyness.

Is our struggle with Purpose about shifting from doing to being?

I wonder if the shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ may be at the fundamental root of our struggle with purpose? I think this may be a key ‘trick’ around purpose and one of the reasons why some people and even organisations find it very hard to embrace. We have lived through a cognitive era of ‘doing’ and taking action. We are the product of years of systemic responses, thinking and framing patterns which inextricably link purpose with action. I must do something purposeful. If I have a purpose, that means I must have something to do. We get fundamentally locked in a Groundhog Day response of panic and pressure about taking action. Richard Barrett suggested to me after our interview that it might be worth just working on ‘being’ and I feel he’s right.

Being ‘purposeful’ is enough

If I do have a ‘purpose’, it’s being uncommonly shy in revealing itself to me because I’ve been looking for it for two years now! But what I do have is a deep faith in being purposeful which stems for me from caring about something enough to take action and do something about it but is even more about an equally deep belief that when I take my last breath, I will want to feel I have made a positive contribution whilst I have been here and not just frittered away my precious days without doing something meaningful.  It’s about making a contribution.  But I also know that many people in my life, particularly my parents, died without experiencing that thought at all. They were born, survived the second world war, grew up, got married, had children, worked, socialised, retired, did a bit of gardening, died. That’s the difference in just a generation, and it’s fuelled by an exponential increase in possibilities but also of consciousness.

When what’s meaningful to me is knitted together with things I am naturally good at, interested in and can’t get enough of – that’s when I find I am living purposefully, with intention, and will be having an impact. That doesn’t mean I will be changing the entire face of planet earth. It might be just making my home town a better place to live. It might be fundraising for endangered species. It might be ensuring my elderly neighbours have somewhere to stay when the electricity goes off. And it might be by creating an invention that removes plastic from the oceans although that’s unlikely as I have the technical competence of a knat.

That’s what having a sense of purpose means to me. It’s a choice to be looking for a contribution I can make that makes a difference, however small or large, that’s not driven by my ego but by bringing together a set of factors – natural talent, affinity, interest, skills, beliefs – that all go into the soup and come out with clear action. Hopefully. So in a way my current purpose IS sharing knowledge about Purpose!

How about you?  What is Purpose to you?


If you would like to hear more from our amazing collection of speakers on The Purposeful Enterprise Summit 2016, it’s completely FREE to register and runs from 11-13 April 2016. We’re talking about the role of purpose in business and whether or not all business should be purposeful in some way, but inevitably that involves a discussion about personal purpose. So do feel free to join us. You can find out more HERE.

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