What a massive topic this is. I’m a recent addition to the Congregation unconference, but it has been so thought-provoking for me, and this year’s theme is no exception. It is a bit daunting to take on such a broad subject. Do I write about corporate purposes? The broader meaning of life? About porpoise, through a Monty-Pythonesque misunderstanding? (That would probably constitute a cross-purpose.)
To narrow the scope, I’ve been thinking about the articulated purpose of my life. And how long it has taken me to arrive at what I want to achieve with my time.
“Purpose” is one of those words that often gets conflated with other concepts when it comes to people. When we think of an object’s purpose, it’s much more straightforward. For example, a claw hammer has limited functions – to drive nails in or pull them out. You can use a claw hammer for other reasons, but it won’t emplace screws very well or help you cut wood.
People are a whole different matter – we are multi-purpose creatures with an almost unlimited ability to adapt to changing circumstances. It is one of the reasons why when you ask someone what their mission in life is (forgive the conflation), they will often give you a blank look. So many of us go through life myopically focussed on the few steps in front of us. Thoughts about grander themes seem frivolous when you don’t know how to pay the bills or feed your family. Maslow’s hierarchy writ large.
When we’re younger, we may be advised to “find our purpose” or “pursue our passions”. Both of these are challenging pieces of advice for any young person to follow, in my opinion. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, my passions were definitely not focussed on my work life. As to conversations about anything grander? Best of luck with a partially formed pre-frontal cortex. I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what I wanted from my college experience other than an antidote to my school years.
It took me until my early forties to clearly state for myself what my purpose in life is. I recognised early on that I would never be someone who transformed the world in a macro way. I am not wired like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk (for which I am thankful). I am content to change the world in a more localised manner – although I did realise that I do want to change the world.
My purpose is to improve the lives of the people I interact with. That’s it. That is what drives my management and leadership practices. It is why I act as an individual and group mentor. It’s the reason why I am a certified and practising NeuroLeadership Institute coach. And it is why one of my (purpose-driven) goals is to be the best dad I can be. I believe that if I can help other people be better versions of themselves through these different avenues in my life, I will have an incrementally improving impact on the world in a series of expanding ripples. It is why when new managers ask me for advice, my first response is often “treat people as people”.
The opposite of this also holds. When I fail to follow the goals derived from my purpose, I act out of character. I forget to smile and greet the security guard who lets me into the building at 6:15 am. I lose patience with the person queueing ahead of me who can’t produce the correct change at the till. I don’t take the time to acknowledge the person in the lift with me and ask them how their day is going. All missed opportunities to improve someone’s day (and potentially make it worse instead) – thereby creating a different set of ripples. An anti-pattern to my purpose.
Like everyone on their life’s journey, I stumble, dust myself off, and try again. But, by having purposefully-driven goals and by continuing to look for opportunities to improve, I continuously serve my purpose. And by serving it, I serve others. This way, I become more like a human Swiss Army knife than a hammer.