I’m writing to you from New York, following a week in Miami at TWIN Impact 2022, where the first tropical storm of the season hurled down wind and rain, while a wide range of bright, curious and creative folks from around the world beavered away inside the New World Centre. I watched and listened with fascination, at the intersection of stories across innovation, creativity, the arts and music, science and politics, humanity and artificiality. Running through it all, and impacting all our lives at this time, is the question of purpose: why do we do what we do?
I repeatedly find people confuse the purpose of their life with the purpose of their work. That is a sad reflection on how much the world of work has overwhelmed our psyche, and how much we see ourselves in terms of production and output, of doing stuff, albeit quite noble.
The difficulty with seeing purpose exclusively in these terms is that when we have climbed the mountain, won the Olympic gold, explored the depths of space, built the next unicorn, been a successful CEO … what then? Why? What does it all mean? I have worked with Olympic athletes and CEOs at the pinnacle of success, and found they can be overwhelmed by meaninglessness soon after their greatest success. For while they have accomplished something great, and are greatly admired by others, inside they find meaninglessness and despair: because they now discover, too late, that what they thought was purpose was actually identity.
Often what we pursue is not purpose, but an image of ourselves: to be able to say, ‘I have won the gold, and so I am an Olympic champion.’ Or, ‘I have had a successful career, and so I am a success’.
But why? That is the existential question, and one that intrigues me greatly, and one that we set out to explore together in a workshop at the TWIN 2022 conference. Using a technique honed over two decades we walked through a process to help people discover their purpose, and how it relates to, and amplifies, their leadership effectiveness and action. How can you be an architect of your life if you don’t know why you are building your masterpiece?
Why are you on this planet?
This workshop, and so this exploration, is based on the premise that a human is fundamentally a meaning seeking entity. And yet, in a discovery process with hundreds of individual leaders, I have rarely found anyone who can easily articulate a precise answer to this question: why are you on this planet? It is a question that every person in every generation must answer for themselves.
Archimedes, upon inventing the lever, said ‘give me a firm place on which to stand and I will move the world’. Purpose is the key to that firm place, giving you a firm foundation for your life, leadership and legacy, providing you the foundation for leveraging your skills and talents to make your contribution, to do good in the world.
The world is purposeful
Everything in the world has a purpose. The laptop I am using to write this post. The pen I use to scribble my notes. The coffee I drink to turn cogitation into concepts. When we encounter something we don’t understand we ask, ‘what is this for … why does it exist?’ We try to attribute meaning to things in order to understand. This means we know a thing by knowing its purpose. In a like manner, everyone has a purpose. But do you ask ‘what is this‘ of a person? The very phrase jars in our mind, for we implicitly grasp a person is not a thing. Hence, we need to ask ‘who is this?’
In asking ‘who’ we are also asking ‘why’ this person exists. What is their reason for being? And to be clear: while a thing exists to serve some other reason, a person exists for themselves. You have your own purpose, and do not exist for your company, country or community.
To be clear: as persons, we freely choose how we will serve, and do so in pursuit of our purpose. The crucial point is that the company, country or community has no demands on us that we do not freely give. The company, country or community cannot say, ‘you exist so we can make money, or so we can be productive, or so we can get organised.’ This is completely antithetical to what it means to be a person.
How can you discover your purpose?
First, you can observe a person’s purpose at the end of a life well-lived. This person is one who has lived a full and fulfilling life, having grasped the nettle of responsibility, in pursuit of meaning and purpose, surrounded by a rich texture of deep relationships, having brought all their gifts and talents to fruition. Yes, they are the polar explorers and the lifelong creators. However, they are also found among the mothers and fathers, the quiet people who have gone about their lives in fulfilling service of others. The key point being made here is that one’s purpose can be revealed at the end of a life well-lived.
This invites the question about how you might discover that purpose now, rather than wait until the end. The answer lies in examining those eudaimonic, rather than hedonic, things that attract you.
What attracts you, and is fulfilling, beyond yourself, for others, giving deep intrinsic satisfaction, rather than those things that you do for yourself, your own ego and your own fleeting pleasure? Having considered and answered that question, I discovered in those hundreds of conversations that people are drawn to learn, to study, to develop themselves, toward the eudaimonic. toward learning what is intrinsically fulfilling.
You can observe this, for example, in those who are drawn toward care for others, and hence choose to study nursing or medicine, or those wanting to help others get along better, and so learning all they can about interpersonal dynamics and communication. Therefore, I suggest that what you are drawn to learn about, those areas in which you choose to grow and develop, can be an implicit indicator that shines light on your purpose, and so help you discern today what your purpose may be—rather than have to wait until the end of life when it may be revealed to others.
Four questions to discover your purpose
On that basis, here is an exercise you can do. Set aside a couple of undistracted hours and, with a pen and paper, consider carefully the following questions:
1. If time and money were not an issue, what will you do to learn, to grow and develop, over the next five years?
- Think big and think broadly. Think about your emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical dimensions. Consider your relationships, your responsibilities, and your talents. Don’t say something like ‘I will create a business’, since that’s an outcome, but rather say ‘I will learn how to scale an idea, or how to attract and lead a team, or how to innovate.’ Explain how you will grow through travel, or learning a musical instrument. Try and get at least fifteen ideas down on your paper. Dream on …
2. Imagine we are now having a coffee in five years’ time, and you are excitedly telling me everything you have done to learn, grow and develop, when I suddenly ask, ‘How do you feel?’
- Sit with that for a moment: How do you feel? Then, write down your feelings in detail. Imagine you truly have learnt, and grown, and developed, and you are feeling extraordinarily satisfied. What are the words you would use to convey that feeling? I feel …
3. As you are sharing the impact this experience has had on you, and having heard, and felt, your deep sense of fulfillment, I ask a further question: ‘what impact are you having on those close to you … your family and friends, your immediate colleagues?’
- Let us make an assumption that your example of growth and development, and your radiant joy for life, creates a desire for positive change in others. And so, because of the growth and development they see in you, they also are inspired to grow and develop. What then happens in them and their lives?
- Spend some time sitting with the answer. Write down five one sentence scenarios, sentences that go deeper than ‘it’s a better world’. Rather, in what way is it better? Is it more caring, more harmonious, more environmentally aware? Are the poor looked after, or the political system fixed? Write down the flow on effect of your impact on others, spreading out for positive impact on the world.
In that answer lies the clue to your purpose, to that thing to which you can devote your life. If you wrote, for example, the world is more caring, then consider whether the reason you are on this planet is to foster a more caring world.
Wherever your answer lies, sit with it for the next month. Let it roll around in the back of your mind. Let it occupy your dreaming and your waking.
And then surrender to it. While a vision is something you create, a purpose is something to which you surrender. You do this by letting your purpose influence your decisions: does turning left or right enable your purpose to come to fruition? Give your life to your purpose, and let it emerge in all its fullness.