It’s Time to Get Brutally Honest About Purpose

I was recently asked if I have a defined purpose. The question cut through me like a cold wind passing through an abandoned building. I looked inside myself and found… nothing.

The lunchroom wall in the office space of my mind was blank. No carefully constructed purpose statement printed on a crisply designed poster affixed at eye level for me to recite. Did that make me a nihilist? Is my life without meaning?

I do not feel that my life is meaningless, but my lack of a purpose statement seemed deficient, especially for someone who writes for a living. Purpose is a big deal now, so where was mine?

Corporate Purpose as Impression Management

Companies are scrambling to differentiate themselves based on how well they align themselves with a greater purpose. According to McKinsey, companies “need good answers” to these questions:

What is your company’s core reason for being, and where can you have a unique, positive impact on society?

Some of the reasons McKinsey give for a company to pursue purpose are to attract talent, help solve vexing environmental and social issues, plus avoid public shaming on Twitter for not being a good corporate citizen.

That last reason caught my attention because it possibly explains why I do not have a go-to purpose statement. Purpose, and the zeal with which it is promoted as a way forward for companies, seems like just another form of impression management.

‘Purpose washing,’ like its cousin, ‘greenwashing’ is appealing for a company because it is easier to workshop marketing statements than enact deep, systemic change that will leave the world a better place. Unlike the abstract entity that is a corporation, my life, and yours, are far more wondrous and valuable than glib, feel good statements.

Personal Purpose as An Oasis

If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that authentic opportunities to align our lives to a greater purpose are scarce. Often, it is achievement enough to simply get through the day with a sense of calm.

For me, purpose is not something I carry with me like my driver licence. Rather, it is a space in time that occasionally manifests like a welcome oasis after a punishing trek across the desert. I am always on the lookout for small pockets of purpose to slake my thirst. This usually revolves around adding value to someone’s day. For example, do they feel uplifted after interacting with me?

The McKinsey article stated that for a company, “connecting your people’s individual purpose with organizational purpose is the critical link.” How realistic is that? It takes ages for a company to change and I am convinced purpose is fluid, not set. Also, people evolve faster than organizations, so I question how relevant a purpose-driven company can be.

After writing this blog post, I now know I am okay with not having a defined purpose. Even without a fancy mission statement, I can still act purposefully… and so can you.

5 Replies to “It’s Time to Get Brutally Honest About Purpose”

  1. Excellent piece Tim! So many great questions you raise about a corporate movement that, with all best intentions, over-simplifies the very idea of individual purpose & organisational relevance.

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