Turn in any direction these days, and you’ll trip over people talking about their purpose. This is not a bad thing; it’s essential to individual and group endeavours. Yet, when I look past the virtue signals of purpose-led this and purposeful that, I struggle to see how people put it to work.
Purpose’s history begins well before recent talks and books about ‘why’.
Rewind 2000 years to 60 AD when Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “As often as you with to know what is to be sought, consider its relation to the supreme good, to the purpose of your whole life.”1
Jump to 1759, and in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, economic theorist Adam Smith talks about the “great purpose of human life”, saying:
Man was made for action, and to promote by the exertion of his faculties, such changes in the external circumstances of both himself and others, as may seem most favorable to the happiness of all.2
Skip forward a few more millennia to 2018, and in Great at Work, author Morten Hansen observes,
Many people conceive of purpose as social contributions alone and not as ‘value-added,’ but they should reconsider. When you create value for your organisation, you contribute, and your work has purpose.3
From Seneca to Hansen, the descriptions pull purpose out of motherhood and platitudes and put it to work. Oriented by shared motivation and pointed towards a well-understood end. Where purpose moves beyond grand gestures and is evident in everyday unheroic work.
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Your purpose might more usefully live as mission, vision, or what’s most important. I don’t care what you call it. What matters is its meaning for you and those you work alongside.
An active purpose is more than the words you use. A limp statement fully realised in people’s day-to-day work can galvanise great strides. And an ambitious but fanciful idea will fall flat and corrode endeavour.
The proof sits not in words but in how well they are understood and when they get used.
Pick any work activity. Now, do as Seneca suggests and “consider the relationship” to your purpose. Look at what you’re doing and how and where you do it. Who’s alongside you?
If there’s no relationship, look for one of the following missteps.
First up, don’t mention purpose in your marketing. Sure, a few (very, very few) organisations can get away with it. And that’s because they poke and push their purpose into every place across what, how, where and who.
Others shouting purpose from their platform of choice take an enormous risk. Because unless purpose motivates promises, the chance it will show up in people’s experiences is slim. And the mismatch between purpose and what happens in the moment undermines confidence, erodes value and quagmires progress.
Another mistake is sequestering purpose, so it only plays into strategy and significant decisions. And when I ask clients to share stories of how their purpose shows up in everyday unheroic work, I often get blank, uncomprehending silence.
Plenty of what you do is non-negotiable. So, no matter your products and services, you’ll likely have to answer customer questions, crunch data, and work with others.
Every choice about how you do those things is an opportunity to show your purpose. You may opt for how everyone else does things. You can let happenstance rule how something happens. Or you can use purpose so the thing reflects what you stand for.
Or put more simply. It really matters that you choose a purpose. It matters more that you put it to work.
- Letters from a Stoic, Seneca,
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith,
Chapter 3, Of the final cause of this irregularity of sentiments
- Great at Work, Morten Hansen, Chapter 5, P-squared