Finding Purpose

Finding Purpose

Having clarity of purpose and leading with it top of mind is crucial to being a smart leader. Knowing who you are, what you can and cannot do, which battles are worth fighting and which ones should be avoided is the sine qua non of leadership. Purpose comes from within – a calling to which we feel intimately connected because it’s ours. It gives us a sense of urgency around what needs to be done and a tolerance for the stresses that often accompany our chosen path. Those who have a vision to pursue or a cause to fight occasionally feed on their insecurities for motivation when the going gets tough. Nietzsche once said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” (I’m sure he also meant she.) And, as Victor Frankl wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of purpose.”

Humans crave a sense of both uniqueness and direction – a map to follow that utilizes our talents and engages our intellect. With this energy source, we understand what skills are required and what opportunities merit deeper exploration. We feel the pull of enquiry and adventure and are more willing to take calculated risks. Our purpose provides an internal guidance system that neutralizes avoidance and discourages aimlessness. The tediousness that sometimes accompanies the learning of necessary things is replaced by curiosity and excitement. We become absorbed with flow – a state of mind where we are highly energized, productive and creative. Ideas are everywhere but now we see them. Because they serve our purpose.

Purpose is multi-directional. It can be good or bad. It can take one to a higher station by emphasizing the common good or a lower place by satisfying evil ends. Some psychologists contend there are basically three types of people in the world – they are either wise, foolish or evil. Each has a different purpose they seek to fulfill. (The primary purpose of the evil is to destroy what matters to you.) Wise leaders have a more noble calling. They are change makers – they know how to enable followers to achieve their full potential. They do this by giving them a reason to find genuine value in their work. This motivates extraordinary effort, enables cohesion and collaboration, and builds a platform for greatness.

Purpose enables a sense of direction by giving us the ability to make deliberate choices with greater precision and confidence. It’s an inner voice and resolve that brings greater focus amidst the failures and confusion. When we figure out what it is we intend to do with our evolving roles in life, at least for the moment, we then have a responsibility to discover that purpose with all the conviction we can muster. When we know what we want to accomplish, we become more confident, adaptive and resilient. That alone increases the likelihood of positive things happening.

Without clarity of purpose, we cannot discern the skills, strategies or relationships we must nurture to achieve success. We become unengaged and allow unproductive distractions to occupy our restless minds. Without purpose, boredom festers and we feel increasingly insecure and indecisive. We focus on what we’ve not accomplished rather than what we have. We become fragile in the face of criticism and start questioning what we should have done, instead of feeling comfortable with what we did. We walk away from challenges we believe might result in failure. These are the feelings that fuel even more anxiety and rumination about the unfulfilled promises we made to ourselves.

Finding purpose doesn’t occur naturally or have an expiry date – it takes effort, experimentation and continual introspection. Its magnetic force can come into sharper focus at any time. For many, it happens later in life. After taking one of my courses, a student emailed me and said “I’m 60 years old and I don’t know who I am.” She’s not alone. To paraphrase Carl Jung, everything we do before middle age is just research. In truth, building a life that maximizes one’s potential often begins around that time. And if you really don’t know where you want to go by then, it’s time to start answering some life-defining questions.

Here are the ones worth contemplating: What fascinates me and makes me happy? How do I define success? What’s my core motivation – what energizes or inspires me the most? Is there someone I want to be like … who I can measure myself against? Are these real people or just models of desirable behaviour I’ve concocted in my head? What things am I really good at and what do I abhor doing? What would I like to say about my life by the time I reach my seventies? Does my work give me what I want out of life – what specific aspects of it are the most meaningful? What’s missing? What might my “perfect job” look or feel like? Have I considered what it will take to get where I want to go and am I prepared to do that? Since the easiest person to deceive is yourself, make this internal monologue as honest as you possibly can.

Purpose comes more easily into focus when we develop the requisite skills that support it. Our personality is the sum of our skills. Purpose aligns with those intellectual strengths and commands us to want to learn more. That’s what sharpens our minds and elevates our humanity. Acknowledging a lack of skills can be discouraging; thinking it will be easy to acquire them is delusional. You start by confessing your limitations and accepting that frustration is a sign you’re progressing. It you can’t strengthen your skills, you can’t master your purpose. Everything is hard before it becomes easy.

Set realistic deadlines for measuring progress. Develop a thick skin for criticism – not everything they say is valid and some of it is motivated by envy. Criticism is just a lousy form of feedback from cynics. Yet it’s data nonetheless. Be the arbiter of its validity. Find coaches or mentors who are pragmatic visionaries and very good at what they do. Since anyone can call themselves one today, few are. Purpose may be inspired by others but it cannot be imposed. Plot your own course in small steps; quantum leaps invariably fail. Know that you can’t find purpose on the cheap – every experience is a form of tuition. And if you think education is expensive, then try ignorance.

See the value of serving something beyond yourself. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.” Giving back is a noble purpose that gives us authenticity. When we have purpose, we listen more intently to an inner voice that speaks with wisdom and simplicity. One that reasons beyond cleverness. We have a responsibility to embrace and cultivate our uniqueness – to create something that reflects what makes us different – and to share it with others. We must allow ourselves the luxury of exploring and adhering to the highest standards in our work and striving to make something that resonates in a meaningful way for others. And we must do that with a sense or urgency to make the most of our limited time. Because life is simply too short.

Purpose must be summed in a precious few but accurate words. Mine is to liberate genius and change lives. I’ve been privileged over the course of my career to touch thousands through my courses, books, blogs, performance coaching and strategic counsel. The objective is not to be a conduit of knowledge but rather to encourage women and men to ask good questions and think for themselves. Every day I discover how little I know and how much better I can become. I do this daily through relentless curiosity and hours of research. I can only achieve what I stand for by modeling the behaviour I ask of others. That’s my purpose – what’s yours?