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Purpose

An essay from Jim's new book - one of 48

You are here for a purpose. You just have to figure out what it is before you leave. And creating your own unique reason for being could be the greatest thing you will ever accomplish.

Joseph Campbell described purpose as “the rapture of being alive.” Carl Jung said, “The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Stanley Kubrick was of similar mind: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” The Chinese call it tao and, while there is no exact English translation, in the Hindu faith it is called swadharma.

Your purpose is to make possible the life you seek and then to live it to the fullest. You won’t find your reason for being, you have to create it. You forge it from your unique experiences and high aspirations. It crystallizes when you learn to trust your judgement about what matters, when you become comfortable taking risks, when you make no compromises on matters of principle and when you see the value of serving something beyond yourself.

Purpose is a process of self-discovery. It comes from trial and error, from persistence and from deep inquiry. It’s cultivating the ability to discern what gives life meaning. When we find our “light”, we stop conforming to the expectations and ideals of others and start connecting with our own. Only then do we begin to liberate our own thinking. Purpose helps us understand our experiences, enables a sense of control over chance events and gives birth to our values, hence our behaviours.

Purpose inspires us as well as those around us. It’s the fuel that feeds our passion and drives perseverance. It calms us when circumstances go haywire and electrifies us when we envision possibilities. It gives us focus – like a beacon, it keeps us heading in the right direction. With purpose, we live a life driven more by curiosity than by fear.

We cannot copy the purpose of others. In 2006, Steve Jobs told a group of Stanford University graduates, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” And Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) said, “Those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it.” The Gita warns strongly against attempting to live out the dharma of another, but discovering our own capabilities and using them in selfless service is described as the goal of life. We can be inspired by others and we can learn from them. But our purpose must be our own. It’s what makes us unique.

Purpose pulls us forward, drawing us to where we are most satisfied, personally as well as professionally. When we decide on our purpose, we liberate the courage to excel. That is what separates a mundane existence from a meaningful one. Without purpose, our behaviours have little direction and even less impact.

Purpose is not destiny as that would deny the reality of the choices we need to make. Rather it is a set of capabilities that, when fully developed, enable us to accomplish our mission. As we journey through life, our purpose evolves. Few if any have a single, compelling purpose that lasts a lifetime.

The inevitable hills, valleys and ensuing course corrections of our journey will be at times both subtle and radical. This is how our purpose alters and matures as we grow. In youth, purpose is largely inward focused; as we age, we focus beyond – more on others and on making a genuine difference in their lives. Picasso said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

In an issue of The Harvard Business Review, Nick Craig and Scott Snook claimed fewer than 20% of leaders today are able to identify their purpose and that even fewer can distill it into a concrete statement. They said, “Purpose is increasingly seen as the key to navigating the complex world we face today, where strategy is ever changing and few decisions are obviously right or wrong. At the same time, very few leaders have a strong sense of their own purpose or a clear plan for translating it into action. As a result, they often fail to achieve their most ambitious personal and professional goals.”

Your purpose makes you one of a kind. It’s not really what you do or how you do it that defines you. It’s why you do it. It isn’t our education, experience, position or the skills we gather along the way that make a difference; it’s our purpose. Discovering our reason for being gives us the confidence and motivation to achieve our destiny. It also inspires and encourages the loyalty of others whose help we need as we advance.

Passion can be unbridled naivete. Purpose is clarity of vision, mindfulness, methodical deliberation, self-restraint and perspective. Finding purpose isn’t easy. If it was, we’d all know why we’re here and we’d be confidently pursuing our mission. When we know our purpose, we take charge of our lives and understand the difference we were born to make.

The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.   – Mark Twain

Jim Murray
CEO, optimal solutions international
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