Good change at work

Purpose is personal: what’s yours?

What is your purpose? Have you thought about it recently? Just over a year ago I realised that mine had shifted, and I no longer felt – as I had for so long – that what I did was me. That realisation sparked a major change in my professional life.

Last month I was asked to give a talk to a group of students from the Beta Alpha Psi society about purpose, and these notes are from that talk.

Purpose is a big topic of business conversation these days. Management gurus are all over it, pointing out (and I agree with them) that organisations need to know their “why”, if they are going to succeed in the modern world.

A core part of the discussion is that purpose is a thing that businesses need to provide, because Millennials need to be given it. One implication of this framing is that purpose is a new concept . And – perhaps because of this modern framing – that it’s something consumable, or tradeable.

But it isn’t new. And it isn’t tradeable. Purpose is personal.

In the 1900s, English jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote this:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

Hopkins is saying that each of us has within us “what we do”, which is so closely aligned to who we are that it begins to artciulate our very essence. As someone described it to me recently – the thing we can’t not do.

This idea of “selving” is powerful. In Hopkins’ description of it, it is not narcisstic, but is self-realisation for the purpose of being able to undertake our service to society.

The Japanese have a word for this: Ikigai, which essentially translates as “reason for being”.

Our purpose.

Our task through the course of our lives is to find our purpose, or our reason for being. For some people that’s easy, for others it is harder to come to, for many, it will change and evolve over time, as we learn and experience new things, and outgrow old passions.

Our purpose won’t necessarily play out in our paid work, but when it does, that’s magic – as Hopkins goes on to say in his poem “the just man justices”. But not every job we do in life will fulfill our purpose. It is OK to be on a journey, to use the jobs we do and the careers we pursue to try things, and by doing what we don’t love, come closer to understanding what we do and who we are.

Like individuals, organisations must find their own purpose. Some organisations will have a clear purpose right from the start, others will travel towards it more slowly, through trial and error, learning and evolving.

But even an organisation with a clear purpose is not a substitute for the people within it finding, and dealing out, their own purpose.

Hopkins says “each mortal thing does one thing and the same”, and even Milennials are mortal.  We must each be responsible for – and find – our own purpose.


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