Purpose plays an important role in leading, and simply in doing. As I discussed last week, clarity of purpose is an essential contributor that underlies the concept of agency. Our confidence in leading a change—even in positions of informal power—derives in part from the degree to which we are clear about our goals and confident in our ability and intent to realize them.
At the same time, many of us can tie ourselves up in complex intellectual and emotional knots trying to figure out exactly what our purpose is. Especially as we go through times of personal or professional crisis (and in the past few years, I’ve done both) the lack of purpose can feel entirely disabling. We don’t know what to do to make meaning of things, so the tendency is not to do anything. We aimlessly wander, hoping we will stumble upon a purpose that defines our destiny for all eternity.
The challenge is that it just doesn’t work that way. Well, it worked that way in Arthurian legend, perhaps. But it still doesn’t work in modern day. For starters, purpose doesn’t tend to find us. Opportunity will find us, of course. Other people will try to enrol us in the realization of their purpose. Interesting career possibilities may pop out of the woodwork or the aether. But we need to seek out our purpose, more than it is going to find us.
Secondly, purpose isn’t—or is rarely—for all time. This is not about, “What am I meant to be doing with the entire rest of my life?” This is much more about, “What am I meant to be doing with my life right now?” And should probably be better phrased as, “What am I choosing to invest in doing with my life right now?”
When we look backwards, it’s often readily apparent that our purpose has changed over time. Sometimes that’s driven by life stages: school, university, finding gainful employment. Other times, that is sorting out the mystical idea of ‘what we want to be when we grow up’, which is a really dangerous and challenging set of words. It is somewhere around the time that we first confronted that sentence that we started wrestling with the whole mess that we call purpose.
For me, I’ve had several different answers to that question. I had intended to go into computers, and specifically software, back when that wasn’t necessarily seen as a viable career (and while I was still early in high school). Then the siren call of theatre got a hold of me; I got a degree in it, and actually worked for a while. I did work in software, for a time, for a large and wonderfully liberal corporate monolith. And from there I started down twin paths of consulting and project management that in part still define what I do today.
Clearly, we recognize that our purpose has evolved in the past. And yet, what seems to cripple so many of us going forward is the idea that this time we have to get it right. That there will be no take-backs, no do-overs, no further process of growth, development, evolution or reinvention. We are haunted by the idea that if we don’t find our one, true, real purpose right now, then we will be miserable and abject failures. In the bright light of day, that should appear laughably inaccurate. Unfortunately, many of us cling to that mentality, with all of the frustration and misery that goes along with it.
Purpose is the driving force that motivates us today. With luck, it will get us a few years down the road, before we encounter some other motivational force that overwhelms our current trajectory. But the reality is, that could change tomorrow. That’s not to say that it should; purpose should be slightly more constant than our current change of underwear. At the same time, events of family, job, economy or global conflict could very easily reframe our sense of purpose quite literally overnight. That is part of the challenge of life, and we have to roll with those obstacles and opportunities when we encounter them.
But we really need to get past the idea that purpose is fixed, immutable or unchanging. Or that there is some test at the end of our days about whether we figured it out, gave it our all and got to the final level of the game.
Purpose is about knowing what is most important to you, right now, and for the next little while. Embrace that, do that, be that. Engage in that purpose with passion, do good work and enjoy yourself as much as you can along the way. Be open to checking in on your purpose once in a while, and recognize that it might wholly shift at key life events. Accept that change has accompanied you up to now, and it will find you again in the future.
We are not fixed beings. There is not a time when we will stop evolving. We are works in progress. It’s up to us to frame the cohesiveness of our direction and the quality of our work. But we shouldn’t be tying ourselves up in knots about it.
Be. Do. Have fun.