Written in 2019, migrated from previous blog
The word of 2020.
The word of the next decade.
The word of Davos.
Likely to be the Oxford dictionary word of the year (you heard it here first). A word now a key part of many of the world’s largest and most influential organisations' brand, vision and mission.
The word of entrepreneurs, of small business owners, of individuals. A word which is, in some ways becoming more a religion; the pursuit of an interest followed with great devotion.
The collective goal of humanity. The pursuit of meaning... you get it.
But do we actually know what it means?
Over the past 5 years finding meaning and purpose in our careers and our personal lives has come to the forefront of conversations among peers, with parents, and now, in the C-suite boardroom. All with the same noble and wise collective mission to help those around us find more meaning in our lives. The end of 2019 and the start of 2020 has confirmed that it is going to be a major part of the narrative over the next decade, even making its way into the Queens Christmas day speech.
As much as I am supportive of the intent behind it, and the important changes organisations are making to their goals and values, I have some thoughts and indeed cautions, on its use. These thoughts are not in any way against a single person, organisation, thinker, but rather my perception of some of the negative, unintended consequences of placing so much importance on this word and its widely undefined association. In this piece I am focusing on purpose in the context of its application to the individual, as opposed to the way this term is being used for organisations to define their place and reason for existing.
So, purpose and me, you, us…
My journey and relationship with ‘purpose’
Last year when trying to figure a little bit more out about myself, in a time I’d say I was in an overly introspective period, or quarter life crisis (I’ll share thoughts on this another day) I got some flip-chart paper, sharpies, and some post-it notes (yes as awfully cliché as this sounds to any consultants reading this), and began trying to trace back the various interests I’ve had over the recent years of my life.
Inspired by the famous Steve Jobs quote “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots looking back”, I thought, or to be honest assumed, that if I trace back and subsequently try connect my dots, I’ll be able to make sense of what I should go ‘all in on’ with my career and life; or in other words what I thought would be my ‘purpose’. The connecting of these dots to me meant discovering my purpose, my ‘why’, or whatever else you may have heard this being called.
I tried tracking my interests, hobbies, essays at university, unique meetings and chance encounters, best moments whilst abroad, books, films, and anything else that came to mind. I looked at what set me alight as a child; what made me excited at school; my pursuit of a career in acting, friends, memorable conversations and so on.
In doing so I felt that perhaps, if I note down all these things, I’d be able to connect the dots and see the synergies before me. A sudden ‘Limitless’ like moment where I’d see things in an entirely fresh light and know with total clarity what I ‘should’ be doing and what my sole purpose must be.
Interesting idea…perhaps. Done before, yes. Revealing and totally life changing… not so much.
I maintained this idea without any real action, my wall still a peculiar-colourful display of my ‘fads’ and passions over the years, and kept digging to find and reveal my purpose. And this is where my challenge with the word comes in.
In my quest to find these links and synergies across my interests, I have realised my own failings of understanding what Steve jobs said in that quote, and why we may all seem to be in such a rush to find our ‘purpose’.
Do we actually know what it means? To have one purpose. One unique, each our own?
I have found very little that really defines what this word means, and, as much as I have come across a huge amount of pseudo-profound definitions out there, I am at a loss. You’re probably now about to google it – I’ll save you the time: “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”; essentially the meaning of somethings existence, so, for us humans, the meaning of life... quite a feat.
The trouble with the quest for ‘purpose’
When searching for some greater meaning for our lives, what I believe often happens is that we move into more introspective states of mind, struggling to focus on our day and instead looking into the distant future - how will what I do now enable a me to have more meaning? Does what I am doing at this moment demonstrate that I am having ‘impact’? Is this really the best thing for the person I feel I am or am meant to be? These questions are not wrong to have, by no means, yet we have to question their value.
I found an interesting article, inspired by Tasha Eurich’s ‘Insight’, which looked at the difference between introspection and insight. Introspection can be thought of as the act of looking in or ‘soul searching’, and asking ourselves all too often ‘why?’. On the other side insight, synonymous with self-awareness, is the intuitive understanding of ourselves and our ability to see ourselves clearly – to understand who we are, how we are, how others see us and how we fit into the world around us.
The study found that those that are more introspective, constantly searching for their purpose, were more stressed, depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed, and they felt less in control of their lives. What’s more, these negative consequences seemed to increase the more they reflected. Quite damning – sorry if this is you. I am not looking to put a dampener on your thoughts, more to show that you are not alone.
On the opposite end, those that reflected less and held greater ‘insight’, enjoyed stronger relationships, greater well-being, self-acceptance and happiness. It showed that the act of thinking about ourselves isn’t necessarily correlated with knowing ourselves.
Essentially, we can spend endless amounts of time in self-reflection but emerge with no more self-insight than when we started.
The meaning of life vs. the meaning of my life
Another point I’ve considered when thinking about this is our more recent obsession with focus on self; our individual purpose and unique place. Now I for certain strongly believe that each person, in being themselves and finding what makes them come alive is vital, yet this does not mean to say we need to know our purpose.
When we give this heightened focus on our own meaning, we are emphasising the individual so much so that each of us feels a need to know not what the collective meaning of life is for us as humanity or a species, as we have done through human history, but what the meaning of our life is.
I'm sure we can all agree that trying to find the meaning of life has been one of, or the most discussed and debated, aspects of being human (I won’t dare to go too far down this rabbit hole). It has created hundreds of religions, thousands of philosophers, now millions of tweeters and pseudo-profound experts who can ‘help’ with this…but still we are searching.
I want purpose now!
I read an FT article last week which explored the sadness and lack of motivation so many of my generation are struggling with as they strive to work with more meaning, and, fundamentally aren’t finding this meaning in what they are doing. The article highlighted a few individuals who were having a difficult time working with clients they personally felt at odds with as their values and the values or the company did not match.
Although I empathise with these difficulties, and their desire to work for companies more in line with their values, there is also a part of me which sees these roles, the skills, and the lessons learnt as a key part in our careers and lives as they unfold. If I were to ask anyone 15 or 20 years ahead of me in their careers, now in a job they see as more in line with their values, whether they have loved every second, I am certain that they will have had moments where they did not love every role they did, and company they worked with, but knew that they are and were important steps, and looking back were all incredibly valuable.
In many ways it is an impatience because of the apparent pressure to live with meaning, find fulfilment and have impact. Rather than realising that life evolves gradually, we are eager to find it immediately; whether straight out of university in a job, or elsewhere. I know too well from my own challenges that this is a major contributor to the continual rise in my generation’s challenges with their mental health; and this deeply concerns me.
Like a lot of things in our lives, we have grown up during a time that impatience was almost encouraged. MSN, BBM, instant deliveries, swipe for a date, ride railing and so on. And this is not me blaming my generation. As much as I take responsibility for the way I feel, I know that this impatience is being caused by a number of external factors (if it sounds like I am repeating something from a Simon Sinek video here, I am).
Many of you reading this may spend time listening to inspiring podcasts, watching YouTube videos, reading books, articles and more all putting purpose as the pinnacle of success and happiness – as our greatest ambition. Yet is in many ways is even more complex than any the life goals of other generations, where making money, and climbing the ladder was more the measurement (I appreciate this point is a risky one as I am 25, but I have checked this thinking with others).
Of course, I don’t for one second think this way was better, but it certainly offers a reason for our increasing discontentment and confusion – the ‘job-hopping generation’, dissatisfied with jobs which may well offer a huge amount of learnings and opportunities. I also should say I believe that the pursuit of meaning over money is a good thing, and an exciting step my generation, supported by the previous, is doing. However, it is fundamentally less tangible, harder to measure and not something that can truly ever be found or held.
Excellent Ross, I’ve heard your rambles… how does this help me in any way?
Re-framing purpose; a new definition
I’m guessing if you’ve got this far you have found aspects that align to some of your own ponderings and questions. Although by no means do I think I have it all figured out, I do believe there is merit in exploring a different way to view our lives, supported by the ideas around insight I mentioned previously.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once stated:
“It is quite true what Philosophy says: that Life must be understood backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying: that it must be lived—forwards. The more one ponders this, the more it comes to mean that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible, precisely because at no moment can I find complete quiet to take the backward- looking position”.
This sentiment is echo’d the Steve Job speech I mentioned above and many of you will recognise, that has always stuck with me (perhaps he too had the questions I have outlined). In his Stanford Commencement speech, he shared to a group of graduates his view on the need to have faith and trust in the journey:
“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever”
This is something I’d like us to emphasise and consider when questioning our meaning and asking ourselves ‘why’.
As much as we do as people, purpose too evolves, grows and ages. It flexes and adapts to where you are in your life now and crucially who and how you are.
The pursuit of a meaningful life to me is less in the way they might connect in the future, and more the manner that which you collect them.
You’ve already collected dots of all sorts, and you’re collect more each day. Learnings from studying, personal experiences and tragedies, ups and downs, work joys and struggles, films and documentaries, strange articles you randomly stumble across… and so on.
If our motive to 'discover' this undiscoverable sense of purpose is in fact to live a happier, more fulfilled life, full of contribute and service to other does this really need to be defined?
As the act of doing and searching is ultimately the goal in itself.
In my own search I have learnt that joy, happiness and contribution comes from insight and self-awareness; which in turn is awarded to those who can find peace in the surrender to life’s journey.
I have learnt that rather than looking at why I am, instead question who I am, how I am and subsequently try to live as authentic and true to that I can.
And finally, I have learnt to think more about where we have come from, where we are today, and where we might be going, rather than why we are. We are all a messy-work in progress with many perfectly imperfect dots...
To me to let go, surrender and embrace the unknown is the meaning of our lives; whether you want to label this as purpose or something else altogether.