In Pursuit of Purpose

In my line of work the buzzword for the past few years has been ‘purpose’. Whether its large companies re-framing their sustainability strategy around purpose, recruiters looking for a “purpose fit” for graduates or individuals stepping forward to declare their ‘reason for being’ –  the word purpose is everywhere. Purpose and happiness have been presented as inextricably intertwined. It is supported by the rise of positive psychology, by research on millennial’s that states “young people want more than a pay check and a job title”. Its importance has been further reinforced by leading thinkers like Victor Frankl and the seminal book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ and popular writers like Simon Sinek and his “Start with why”.

I work with leaders for positive social and environmental transformation. Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that this need for purpose is creating considerable anxiety. “But what am I here for…?” one person asked. Another said, “I love my work, but it is not aligned to my purpose in the world – how do I change this” and still another bemoaned her “lack of a clear purpose”. All these people feel guilty, restless, disappointed or lost for not having a clear purpose to direct their lives.

I support the overall societal goal to contribute and believe we all have a role as citizens to work towards a better society. And yes, people can be happier when they are able to see the relevance of their life and work with the context of a grander design. However, I’m starting to question the centrality of the ‘purpose’ conversation. Let’s scratch beneath this ubiquitous word…

purposeSometimes the need to find a purpose is an inner cry to find a reason to exist. It’s a sneaky cover-up for that old, rough feeling of ‘not being enough’. In this case it’s often a way of externalising inner need instead of addressing the root cause. Yet, anyone who has truly found purpose understands that it can only come from a deep sense of and understanding of ‘self’. Perhaps Socrates had it right when he said that to ‘Know Thyself’ is the route to all wisdom. So, start with who you are not why you exist.

At its worst this push to find purpose can play into the idea that we are only on this planet to serve and that our value is measured solely by our value to others. It’s a mirror of the current socio-economic systems that measures the value of humans against contribution to GDP, sets meaning top-down and sees people as homogenous, interchangeable units. This is a nasty trap both because it erodes the basis of our humanity and because it sets the value of a human life as extrinsic. A healthier alternative is to believe that the only thing we are compelled to do is live each day fully and gracefully, in gratitude for our place here on earth and with no pressure to focus our energy on finding any additional meaning. Surely people can be happy and feel satisfied with their life simply by getting up each day and going for a walk, hugging someone they care about, being kind and watching the clouds go by? The catch-all umbrella of ‘purpose’ mimics the existing system of control by creating a collective aspiration that is outside of individual needs, aspirations, talents and, therefore, humanity. Tom Mansfield, a fascinating thinker, comments “Perhaps we cannot reconcile our present individual fulfilment with systems level purpose until we have an economic paradigm that forces the system to work for individuals not the other way around to value the quality of our subjective, sensorial present. A collective purpose may emerge from a society predicated on the enrichment of each individuals sensorial present rather and the pursuit of extrinsic goals.” Perhaps he is right.

The idea of a single purpose may also be misleading. As we journey through life new vistas are revealed and, with that, our purpose may shift and expand. Trying too hard to cling to an outmoded world-view may stop us from growing and learning. Perhaps the ‘purpose’ of life is only to grow and learn our way through and into different ways of unfolding our unique talents against emergent positive societal needs.

Lastly, the idea of purpose sets a longer time frame on our happiness. It shifts our focus from enjoying the present to a loftier future time. Yet, it is precisely in the moment that we create meaning for ourselves. By being truly present in the moment we connect better with ourselves and others – two potential sources of joy!

Perhaps then, for those millions who can’t state their purpose, there is a softer way to move toward it. They can start by asking themselves what gives them meaning and then each day noticing those things that make them feel more fulfilled.  By doing more of the things that deepen their experience of being, they are consciously building a life that grows around both knowing themselves and, ultimately, serving a higher collective purpose.


With gratitude to Tom Mansfield and Gita Parihar for their thoughts on this topic.

What do you think…? 

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