We tend to think about purpose as being about finding our life’s meaning. There can be a perception that it should be noble, significant, profound and connected with our deepest feelings and emotions. While this can be true, of course, at the same time it’s probably what frustrates most people about the idea of purpose—largely because we just haven’t found those deep and profound meanings. And we have work to get done.
As we’ve already discussed, this is really all about is lining up priorities and actions, and focussing on what is most important now. In some contexts, that might mean defining where we are focussing for the next few years, or the next few months. In others, it might be about what we are investing energy on in terms of today. While the circumstances (are hopefully) rare, the most important thing you do all year could genuinely be a product of where you focus your attentions right now, for the next couple of hours. Saving a life, providing critical advice to someone who desperately needs it or getting someone the professional and medical attention they require all more than qualifies.
We don’t necessarily go looking for those opportunities. But when they find us we have a choice: do we step up and lean in, or do we pass by and leave the problem for someone else to tackle? At the heart of this is where we find the answer to our current question of purpose. It might be long term, short term or simply about getting the current project at work done. In all instances, though, we need to figure out why that’s important and what getting the project done actually means to us.
A personal example might help to illustrate what I am talking about here. One of the things I do is teach. I don’t do it a lot, but I do it. Over the years, the audiences that I have primarily delivered workshops to has evolved; it now tends to be more senior people, and often internally with organizations, where the focus of the workshop is on solving real, concrete problems. These sessions are often as much about consulting and finding solutions that work as they are about delivering content or introducing ideas. And that is what engages me about the work; being able to bring my consulting, facilitation and problem solving capabilities to bear in a context that will have meaning and leave the group in a better place where they are able to productively move forward.
What I have done far less, until very recently, is teach more introductory courses and workshops. My initial field—and one where I still do a lot of work—is project management. A common (and popular) workshop my company has delivered is an exam preparation that supports people attaining their Project Management Professional certification. I am on record as saying (several times, and quite vehemently) that you never, ever, ever want me to deliver that course. And yet, today, I do. Not often. Only about twice per year. But I do deliver it, and I enjoy it; in fact, I get a great deal of value from it, and I delivering it as a core part of my current purpose. So what changed? And how did I get there?
My initial resistance came from the fact that I find the subject matter on which the certification is based on to be dry, overly structured and not terribly relevant to the actual successful managing of projects. But to pass the exam, people need to know the content, and they need to be able to offer up the right answer on cue. I saw teaching an exam preparation workshop as not just boring and unchallenging, but antithetical to where and how I typically deliver value. I didn’t want that experience, and I was pretty sure that my issues and challenges with the material would be pretty obvious to all.
Circumstances nonetheless put me in front of the classroom, and I had to come to terms with this. Doing so required me to revisit and reconnect with why I was doing this, and what I needed to do going forward in order to be successful. That brought me to a meaningful realization: my resistance to teaching the course was rooted in my biases. I was making it all about me. Yet the people taking the workshop wanted to be there. They valued the certification. It is—for most of them—a critical milestone in their professional development, and one that can have a profound influence on their careers and their lives. That they would hopefully continue to evolve and grow in their approach and practice beyond this achievement was secondary; first they had to attain their certification.
The shift for me was fairly significant. A certification workshop—at least one that I deliver—isn’t about rote delivery of dry and technical content so that people can pass an exam. It is about supporting—in whatever way is relevant—a group of people to realize an important accomplishment in their careers. It is about not just providing the understanding and education necessary to pass an exam, but also the insight and awareness to question how they apply that knowledge in their work. It is about helping people to reach the next stage of their career, confidently and well. That’s my purpose. That’s what connected with me. And that’s what motivates me when I stand in front of a classroom to deliver a workshop that I swore I would never teach.
Yes, purpose has to have meaning. We need to connect with purpose in a way that motivates us, that challenges us and that aligns with our sense of who we are. But purpose doesn’t need to be big, cosmic or profound. It’s about finding—in whatever challenge that we face that we care enough to actually do—what is important for us, and why. We need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions. We need to know not only what we are doing or being asked to accomplish, but why we are doing it, what success looks like and what we need to do to be able to deliver that success. We need to embrace and value the answer to those questions. And then we need to commit to move forward.
Purpose can be found in the most mundane and prosaic of activities. What is key is knowing why those activities are important, what their accomplishment means, and caring enough about the results to undertake them. Doing the exact same work can be a boring experience, or a rewarding one. What makes the difference comes down to one simple thing: purpose.