The Purpose Problem
It seems that purpose is the word on everybody’s lips at the moment. You’ll find it very prominently on this website that we do PR on Purpose and, being part of the Conscious Capitalism community I’m officially a card-carrying member of the purpose club.
The other day I read an article that suggested our current focus on seeking our purpose is causing unnecessary stress, especially when applied to 20-somethings who begin to feel less than perfect if they can’t articulate their raison d'être in 10 words or less.
This is something I’ve felt for some time. When I first started in business my primary reason was to have flexibility to raise my sons, earn a living and still contribute to the world using my brain. Now that my children are more or less all adults, my purpose in business is quite different and has morphed into something much bigger than my own personal needs.
There are so many quotes on the internet about life being too short – to live someone else’s dream, to live with regret, and the list goes on – all leading to the conclusion that you should spend every day living your purpose and avoid doing anything that doesn’t lead to this.
But, I think this is fundamentally flawed thinking. I’ve spent many years trying to work out my purpose and I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t just one purpose for everyone, apart from being human and all the mistakes, joys, successes, love and sadness that entails. When it comes to purpose in life and work, to expect someone to live and breathe it 100% every day is completely unrealistic.
My lovely friend Julia Bickerstaff talked about ‘enough’ in her weekly business tips newsletter last week –being tidy enough or having a good enough rule for managing your inbox – and I’m proposing purposeful enough. It’s okay to have your lofty goal (for me, that’s changing corporate culture) and a few other why’s (I want to create a great place to work, I want to help champion companies that are aligned with my values, I love to write and connect people and create amazing communication strategies). These are all things that give my working life purpose.
Isn’t it okay to occasionally do things that are not ‘on purpose'? As I’ve built up my business there have been many times that I have struggled with tasks because they either aren’t my core skill, or they have less meaning to them. But they have been necessary to progress ever forward towards those lofty, purposeful goals. And, now, as I marvel at the combined set of skills that my team displays, and the results that they achieve, it makes pushing forward through the hard, non-purposeful times justified and worthwhile.
I’m reasonably certain that nobody in my team would list changing corporate culture as their purpose in life. And that is okay. Our different passions combined is what makes the organisation work and helps drive us towards the end goal.
Expecting everyone to have a higher purpose in life is like expecting everyone to have the desire or ability to run a country. We can’t all be the same, do the same and achieve the same. And, questioning someone else’s purpose because it doesn’t meet my ideals or align with my values seems completely incongruous with the admirable push towards diversity. Whether your purpose is to change the world or to teach your children to be decent human beings, it’s yours to own and nobody’s to question.