The «purpose quest» Volume 1 ̶ Hype, hope or hypocrisy?

There is a lot of talk about purpose these days: Humans, organisations, teams are said to function better and be more successful if they act from a place where they are aware of and in tune with their purpose. Everybody seems to be looking for a “raison d’être” which sounds like a noble pursuit. But isn’t this an age old thing that they are only just trying to recycle here to sell more stuff? And where does the purpose idea come from in the first place? In this article I will be looking at the topic of purpose from different angles, put it in context and give you some food for thought and discussion. In a second piece, I will share my own “purpose quest”.

We stumble into a career wanting to make a living, not to find meaning

How many of us are currently working in a profession that we envisioned ourselves in when we were kids? Mostly, the career we end up in is not a very conscious choice. It was the same for me. Just by chance, I came across a topic that I found promising to make a living (advertising) and then followed a path from my first job to the next, eventually specializing more and more in a field (marketing) and expanding responsibilities and expertise (business, HR), earning more and more until I was nearly halfway trough my statistically expected lifespan and found myself hip-deep in a career. Busy as a bee and happy as… well, at times happy as a wet towel on the floor. 🙂 Sounds familiar? Have you ever asked yourself “hang on, how did I end up here and what would have happened if I had taken a different turn at this or that crossroads?” Maybe there might be a line of work or a way of living that would be more fulfilling than what you’re currently keeping yourself busy with. If you let this question linger, not answering “yes” or “no” immediately but give it time to sink in, you might be onto a very exciting journey – the purpose quest.

How do we put meaning into what we do? Is it like putting a ship into an existing bottle? Or is it more about finding what gives your life meaning and then finding a vessel to match who you are?

There is huge promise in finding your purpose as an individual

On an individual level, this is about finding out in which way you can best be helpful and create value for the world or the ecosystem you live in while doing something that makes you happy. What your purpose is depends on your values, i.e. what you care about deeply and what you want to fight for. Combine that with your unique capabilities, things that you’re especially good at and get pleasure from and voilà, there goes your purpose. If you manage to find a line of work that is in sync with this purpose, work will not feel like something you have to cope with but rather a fulfilment. You are at ease with who you are and what you want and your work gives you energy and helps others at the same time. This sounds tempting, doesn’t it?

Purpose as a hypocritical “fig leave” or marketing tool

I read this article the other day where a social worker shares his frustration with the hypocritical use of purpose and claims “If you want a meaningful job, why don’t you try mine?”. I think there is a lot of painful truth in this question. White collar workers like me who never got their hands dirty can come across as awfully self-satisfied, ridiculous and smug when they are now looking to create meaning out of thin (or rather hot) air, steering clear of the unpopular and uncomfortable social support jobs. The spoilt elite that claims to be looking for “meaning” in sparkling clean yoga studios and expensive spas but wants to avoid getting in touch with people who have had it a bit rougher in life than them.

On the business side of things, there is the understandable concern that there are companies who continue to do what they have done before, just with a new label of “purpose” on it. This is referred to as “purpose washing” or “greenwashing”. As an informed consumer it’s not a far fetch to suspect that in many cases a planet-friendly or peaceful “purpose” might be used as a fig leave for trying to sell more ice cream, more cars or more coffee, to give just three examples.

Making the world a better place by buying treats? Some marketers want us to believe that this is a possibility. Very few companies really nail the “purpose-driven enterprise” thing in a credible way.

As informed consumers, we all know full well that the most sustainable food choice is not to go for a product that is transported for hundreds of miles in a freezer before it reaches your doorstep. We are also aware that the most eco-friendly car is the one that never gets built and that world peace will probably not be installed by convincing more people that 5 EUR for a mug of over-sweet coffee is money well spent. Despite all this, are we going to fall for the adverts that try to convince us otherwise?
In Switzerland, super market chain Coop prouds itself on its CSR campaign “actions instead of words”. This effort has been running for a good couple of years and they have done some helpful things which I do not want to play down. At the same time, this image is clouded again when I walk into my local store across the road and I see that there is organic asparagus from Peru on the shelves in the first week of February. Asparagus. Flewn in from Peru. In February. And calling that organic. For me personally, that does not make sense.

One of the current advocates for a purpose-driven life and humble leadership in business is Simon Sinek who became famous in the 2010s for the concept of the “golden circle” that he developed in the first decade of the century. In his way of looking at purpose, it’s about having a compelling reason why you do what you do and how you do it in order to be more impactful in the world and yes, in one of his earlier talks from 2009, he references that companies can use this to sell more products. His thinking has since evolved from selling in the here and now to setting your mind to infinite mode, considering the consequences and interplay of your actions long-term.

Nonetheless, this means that as consumers it’s probably helpful to question what’s really behind it when a company claims to be purpose-driven and pats itself on the shoulder for that. In many cases this might be nothing more than a marketing fad, doing the actual idea of purpose and the philosophy behind it a disservice.

So, where does this pursuit of purpose come from in the first place?

Finding and following your purpose is not a new topic by any means, it has just become more relevant in recent years. The importance of knowing what you want in life so that you can take your “fate” into your own hands dates way back and has its origins in the east.

The longing for a life filled with purpose is an old concept that has gotten a contemporary coating, very much like this modern interpretation of the famous sculputre “The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin. This piece here was created by artist Ichwan Noor from Indonesia, as seen in a sculpture park in Tuscany

The oldest account of the central idea of purpose probably lies in the “Iaw of “Karma”. This ancient philosophical concept dates back as far as 1500 BC and was later made popular through the teachings of Buddha and Mahavira (around 500 BC).

There are different interpretations of the concpet of karma. Deepak Chopra – a modern teacher of ancient wisdom – explains it like this: “The first component of Karma is to discover your true self. Secondly, you are invited to express your unique talents and share your gifts. Find the things that make your heart sing and allow you to make a life, not just a living. Ask yourself: How can I help? How can I serve?” This quote is taken from an intro to a guided meditation.

Ikigai – finding the sweet spot between what you bring and what the world needs

The Japanese answer to the question about the meaning of life is the concept of Ikigai. This idea is believed to have its origin either in the 14th century or in the Heian period (794 to 1185), depending on which source you check. The concept of Ikigai is rooted in the belief that human beings have an in-built desire to fulfil their potential. In order for this to happen, you need to become aware what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, what you can get paid for and ideally finding the sweet spot where all of these overlap and you are completely balanced in bringing your talents and your passion into the world in a way that is not only helpful (because it meets a need) but can also provide an income.

Ikigai can be translated into “something to live for” or “the realisation of what one expects and hopes for”. For more info, I highly recommend this site. There are even templates you can use to fill in which can help guide you on the journey to finding your ikigai. Diagram taken from clubsheis.com

Purpose arriving in the west – devils and artists

In the western world, one of the earliest authors to pick up on self-fulfilment was Napoleon Hill who wrote a book called “Outwitting the Devil” way back in 1938 in which he describes how the majority of people live their lives as “drifters”, guided by fear and fulfilling the expectations of others instead of following their own desires. Hill outlined a force he called “infinite intelligence”, an abundance of faith and positive energy from which to draw motivation and turn around from drifting through life towards shaping your own future. His thinking was revolutionary in his time, which probably explains why the book was not published until 70 years later.

The meaning of life is to find your gift.

The purpose of life is to give it away.

Pablo Picasso

Before him, French artist Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) predicted that “Humankind can only ever be happy when all people have an artistic soul”, meaning that every person has a type of work they enjoy and when everybody gives their life a meaning. Also Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is said to have had his take on the meaning and purpose of life, as the quote above that’s attributed to him shows.

An Austrian immigrant reinventing society way ahead of his time

And then of course, there is Frithjof Bergmann who came to the US as a young man where he made a living with a variety of pretty rough jobs. He first coined the term “new work” in the 1970ies as a counter-draft to the demotivating and draining ways of working (and living) that he observed all around him. According to his philosophy, finding out what you really, really want and being able to dedicate time to that, plays a pivotal role in life. Bergmann made it his mission to help people to be guided by their own wishes, hopes, dreams and talents so that they become independent and self-determined. He painted a vision of society in which people dedicate one third of their time to working on what they really, really want, one third to earning money in a paid job and one third in producing goods or food for themselves. This future vision which was way ahead of the thinking back in the day could soon become reality. If you think about the development in the fields of tech and machine learning, digital printing and automated gardening, the way things get produced might really become much more decentralised again.
There is a heart-warming interview with Bergmann in a German podcast that I highly recommend where the 90-year old philosopher shares his life story and his thinking. I found this episode very touching and inspiring – nearly three hours of audio, but so captivating.

It’s about finding your balance between who you are and what you do. Inviting yourself to think about which qualities and actions you want to be remembered for in the world

My personal take on purpose: There’s a lot to gain if you aim for win-win but there is no one-size fits all, either

Now, taking all of this into account, what does that mean for people like you and me, right here and now? I am convinced that there is a lot to gain both for the individual and for the planet in finding and following your calling, especially if this comes from a place where your let go of an “ego system” world view (where you believe that you’re in competition with others, trying to get the most out for yourself) and change towards an “ecosystem” world view that lets you rest assured that everything is connected and that if you do the right thing and help others, the rest will follow without you having to force anything. This wording ego/eco is derived from Otto Scharmer’s Theory U approach.

I feel that for me personally, working in a job in which I can live my passion and earn a living with what I love is something to aspire to. For many others happiness looks different: They are perfectly fine with doing what they really love in their leisure-time while pursuing a nine-to-five job that pays the bills – and that’s ok, too. I have a friend who he keeps his passion and his bread-earning deliberately separate because he thinks that having to earn money with his hobby would rob it of some of the creativity and lightness and make him less good at it.

A purpose quest can start with a very simple question

For me personally, I found out over the past years that it costs me a lot of energy if I am leading a “double life” where my heart is not fully in what I do the majority of my time. I want to go “all in” and live my passion at work and I am fully aware that this comes with risks as well, such as being more vulnerable than I would be if I just kept work and passion separate.
I also think before you can find out what you really, really want you need to find out who you are because what you want is linked to that. Who you are should not be confused with what your job is or what you trained as. You are not a lawyer, or an account manager. Who you truly are lies much deeper and is defined by your values and by what you’re naturally drawn to and what you stand for.

Making a splash: Your own purpose journey may lead you to (re-)discover what you believe in and what gives you joy – and these things might be far from what you’re earning your bread and butter with today, stirring the “safe waters” you have been traveling in.

Find your entry point, go one step at a time and don’t go alone

For this journey, there are many possible entryways and clearly there is no one-size fits all solution. You can find your own personal route that resonates best with you. It will likely be an experience that takes you by the hand and guides you one step at a time. You need to be willing to discover what lies beyond the stories you have been telling yourself and others about who you are and yep, you guessed it – this goes deep and can be a bit uncomfortable. The questions are simple but finding your answers can be challenging. That’s why I think it’s easier not to go onto this adventure all alone but with someone you trust such as a coach or a group of individuals who have committed themselves to the same journey.

In the next article of this two-part piece, I would like to shed some light on my personal pathway and the tools I tested to help me discover what I’m all about, acknowledging that your path may look very different. The objective is to give you ideas and spark your curiosity so you can start finding out for yourself where your own purpose quest could start or if you would rather not have any of this in your life, which is perfectly fine, too. 🙂

to next post – Purpose Quest 2.1 which is where my personal quest begins…

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