What’s the Purpose?

What’s the Purpose?

I am always glad to hear people talk about their ‘purpose’ and their ‘why’. It’s just that sometimes, I’m not sure whether they’re selling snake oil?

I know that more often than not, they mean their motivation in life. It’s always great hear about people who know where their life and their business are going. This said, I’d like to take a few moments to invite some thought about this word ‘purpose’. It’s a word that is used a good deal in the world of soft skills and business development. It’s often presented by good and engaging presenters who tell us we should work harder to identify and live out our purpose. They’re always very convincing.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I have not a single doubt, it’s good to be clear about our sense of purpose.  I am all for what Simon Sinek calls his Golden Circle around his ‘why’.  In fact, here is a link to his brilliant TED Talk -https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en).  Truly I’m all for it.

It’s just that I wonder if some who advocate identifying and following our ‘purpose’ are maybe only regurgitating what they’ve read in a motivational speaker’s book and are chucking out soundbites with no real understanding, suppose that by identifying our purpose somehow life might be alright and everything will be smashing and they’ll have a brilliant life and business.

I hope all those seeking to be ‘purpose-driven’, as the saying goes will enjoy all the success they envisage and that they will indeed find happiness, truly I do.  It’s just that I want to dig behind the words and the thinking.  I want to take a few moments to explore this idea of purpose.

The root of the word and the idea of purpose come from the Greek, telos which means, something like, ‘reason for being’, ‘goal’ or ‘end point’.  That Greek word is a clue to our source for thinking about purpose, which really has its root in the philosopher, Aristotle in the 4th century BC.

Aristotle adopted a very hopeful and optimistic position in his thinking about purpose, with the general insight that to live in accordance with our purpose would mean that we would live a life that was virtuous – live a good life – that would in turn bring happiness.  

So, if you think about it, for Aristotle (remember he is at the root of our conversations about purpose) to be purpose-driven will mean we live a virtuous life, a good life that brings happiness.  But here is a caution, this ‘happiness’ is not intended to mean simply pleasure or being jolly.  No.  For Aristotle, happiness is about a state of life that is complete and good, without evil.

Personally, I really value this idea that being purpose-driven, living a good life and striving for happiness in that full sense.  What’s not to like about it?

My difficulty is that, if I am honest, sometimes I’m not sure some of those who talk about purpose or about being purpose-driven understand what Aristotle meant or appreciate he meant creating that kind of full-on happiness.  I think what they mean by purpose is something more like a personal commitment or fulfilling a personal ambition.  Being purpose-driven is really more than that.

Don’t misunderstand me, personal commitment is great as is ambition.   It’s just that, what this or that person is committed to may not be good and may not bring happiness.

I guess what I’m saying is that identifying and living out our purpose is ultimately about happiness in that sense of creating that which is good, more than fulfilling a set of goals. 

It seems to me that if we speak of being purpose-driven, as a means of being motivated to attain some goal we risk tearing out the heart of Aristotle’s idea, we risk reducing it to disposable soundbites and snake oil deceit.

My difficulty is, I hear consultants and others supporting businesses speak soothing words about purpose in these difficult times.  I wonder if they are bringing comfort for a moment but missing the point, maybe offering a deceit.  

I should not be misunderstood.  I understand well enough the need for each of us to find and to live our purpose.  It seems to me that drinking from the deep wells of our heritage, we find that purpose is actually about doing good and seeking happiness.  It is only that I wonder if some with convincing, well-practised presentations have us drink from shallow pools that will dry up when deep wells are within our reach.

I’d be interested to hear what others think.

In these difficult times we need to work together, to share thinking and to share the journey as we navigate to new realities. 

As part of our new platform at www.spiceframework.com we are launching a new forum for people to share their views and contribute to developing thinking.  We’d love you to visit and to join in.  You can find us at www.spiceframework.com/forums/

Written by Michael Croft

October 7, 2020