On Purpose

Full humanization…
requires the breakthrough
from the possession-centered
to the activity-centered orientation,
from selfishness and egotism
to solidarity and altruism.

Erich Fromm

This week’s Ass Kicker is brought to you by the letter P.

I am often in conversations with leaders, individuals and organizations struggling to find the right words, the words to define who they are, what they stand for, and where they are going. Because words matter, they matter a lot. The words come from ideas, generate thoughts, invoke emotions, and ultimately start to form the crust and the body of identity. And identity is all we have, who we think we are, how we shore up our fragile sense of confidence and how we make ourselves feel good. The scaffolding of our sense of wellbeing all comes from words. And the quest to find the right words and not the old comfortable words that have lost their meaning and energy.

Never fails, we end up at the word basket of “P” words. A few examples: Passion, Purpose, Path, Priorities. But then I hear many other “P”words: Productivity, Performance, Profit, Prestige and Prosperity that can add to the confusion. You know these words and may use them frequently and interchangeably.

Of all the P words–Purpose is the key. In my opinion the most important one. Yet the most successful people are confused by what Purpose is. How to know you have it. How to sustain it. What can be confusing is there is living with purpose and a life of purpose.

Daniel Pink’s meta researched book Drive on motivation and success concluded that Purpose was the most influential factor in total success.

First and foremost purpose is a mindset. It is a way of thinking AND acting with clarity of values that are personally meaningful. Purpose is not just a philosophy or a theory. Purpose is animated through its application to daily life and career. What drives purpose is the motivation to be one’s best self by being in service to something much larger than oneself and one’s family.

There is so much research and evidence that shows that people who live and act with “purpose” are physically and mentally better off. They have more positive energy, live longer, have a much lower incidence of dementia, and heart disease. They recover faster from surgeries have much higher life satisfaction. And to top it off they are better human beings—more generous, caring, volunteer more and even get higher grades. Drop the mic!

Finding purpose is not some fantasy Mother Teresa job. It does not necessarily require major changes in one’s life. It can be applied by anyone in any stage of their life. Living with purpose is a lens, an intention to transcend the mindless transactions and to be mindful of how your compassion for others is being upheld in even the most mundane tasks. How what you are doing benefits others, beyond oneself, is always present.

Purpose is an energy source that engages all of your attention and talent. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow — “a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger.

Once your self-importance, your needy ego is subordinated to the needs of others you begin to understand the power of purpose.

You must do the dishes, write up a bunch of reports, conduct performance reviews of your staff. Yes your time is valuable and the ROI for you to do “more important” stuff might be greater. A purpose mindset focuses you into an appreciation of the meal and the chance to share in the daily chores. You know that completed reports will help your colleagues manage the workflow. Your team craves feedback, just as much as you do. Is this some Jedi mind trick to confuse purpose with presence? Nope. Living with purpose is a meditative state. You have to reflect on how everything you do contributes to the values you stand for and represent. How every task you take on will help others.

But there is another purpose too. -A life with purpose. The greater good you hope to achieve and leave a dent in the universe.

Find something more important than you are, philosopher Dan Dennett once said in discussing the secret of happiness“and dedicate your life to it.”

It is about a teacher who derives joy from being a part of a school that is nurturing the potential of the students. The waiter who endeavors to play his part to help the restaurant create magical culinary experiences. The customer service rep who loves solving problems.

The story about the circus maintenance worker who cleans up after the elephants and is asked why he doesn’t get a better job. “Why would I quit? And leave show business!?”

Now if your job and parts of your life are soul sucking toxic cultures and contexts, then being mindful, present and positive won’t always work. Change is necessary. 

And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. Steve Jobs

As you might suspect most people know nothing of purpose and pursue pleasure, promotions, prestige and profits. Short term gains, cut corners, use people and get the most they can. It is a familiar method that puts oneself at the head of the line and predictably ends with a hollow existence and a miserable life.

“The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”  Viktor Frankl

People think I am trying to have them do good. To give away more of their time and money. By the way, I think this should always be on the agenda. 😊 But I don’t want people to do good. I want them to be good. To see their opportunities, their relationships, their vocations as chances to be selfless—to put the redemption and liberation of every other person above their own.

It is living fully in the work and width of life. Purpose is the byproduct of the way you live and the life you lead. Purpose can be unearthed in every job, in every position, in every opportunity. Whether your day job or your night hustle—You find the inspiration, the work, the vision and/or the why that lifts you from self-serving to serving others. From me to we.

To care for yourself and for those immediately around you is important and good. But it is not a purpose. And will never be enough for a fulfilling and meaningful life. Living with purpose and a life of purpose allow us to awaken from the illusion that we are separate and independent from all others. And that the relentless pursuit of more just sedates our soul and our heart’s intrinsic need to help others. 

Purpose literally sustains us and provides the answer to why we are here.

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