I really like fables because they so directly provide imagery to teach us a lesson. Take the fable of the dog and his bone.

One day, a young dog set out into the forest. While in the forest, he came across a big, juicy bone. He was so happy, proud, and satisfied at his find that he couldn’t stop his tail from wagging. The young dog couldn’t remember being so happy. Content with what had been a successful day, he decided to head home, dancing with happiness as he held his prized bone in his mouth.

On his path home, there was a river with calm, sparkling water, perfectly reflecting the forest above. As the young dog came up onto the shore of the river, he looked down at the water and saw another, seemingly bigger dog staring back at him. This bigger dog also appeared to have a bigger, better bone. The young dog was consumed with envy. He barked as loud as he could at the “other” dog. When he barked, his bone fell out of his mouth, splashed into the water and the “other” dog, the “better” bone, and most sadly, his own bone disappeared into the rippled water. He headed home with no bone at all.

Besides feeling really sad for the dog, I like this fable because it so disturbingly illustrates what I see college students, working professionals, and organizations doing: Sacrificing their authentic selves and purpose for some illusion of what they should be.

And any time we use “should” to describe a decision or direction in life or work, we must not forget that we’re attaching someone else’s expectations to what we’re about to do. So often, this leads to dropping what we love, what we want, what we’re already good at, and what we need out of life to become a false reflection of those who say what we should be.

“Phony” Purpose versus Authentic Purpose

There are an abundance of “find/live/be” your purpose messages flying around the internet lately, and I think there might be a trap in just using the word “purpose” to describe your direction, aim, or reason in life. You see, just finding “purpose,” leaves you vulnerable to living someone else’s purpose and calling it your own. I like to call this, “phony purpose.”

I propose that purpose needs a qualifier, and for me that qualifier is authentic. In the dictionary, authentic means not false or copied; genuine; real. What is your real, genuine reason for being? If untied from results like a degree, dream graduate school, resume-boosters, friends, family, academic advisors, profit, and sales goals, what is your reason for existence?

Underneath all of the arbitrary results, is your personal or organizational Authentic Purpose. Your Authentic Purpose is your ultimate competitive advantage. It is why you as a person or organization, independent of others, exist in the world.

Before uncovering and unleashing your Authentic Purpose, you have to first realize and recognize the “phony” purpose you may be chasing in life. The below is not an exhaustive list, but these are the most prominent signs of phony purpose I have noticed in working with college students, professionals, and organizations.

The 7 Signs You Might Be Faking It

1. Your favorite days begin with the letter F or S.

“Ugh, is it Friday yet?” has become the norm of Monday conversations. This should disturb you. What does living for the weekend really mean? It means you are living for 2/7 of your life. And, when you really think about it, that is sad. This is one of the sure signs that you’re not doing things every day that align with your own Authentic Purpose.

2. You are currently devoting much of your time to something you’ve termed a “resume-builder.”

Don’t get me wrong, experience is great, but not for its own sake. Nothing exists just so you can get some more experience. Your “resume-builder” is someone else’s life’s work. And think of how compelling that purpose is. “Hey, come join me in this pursuit! You can build your resume!” That’s just about as uninspiring as it gets.

3. You made a decision today because it might look “good” or “cool” to someone else, but you weren’t sold on it. 

Our lives are just a series of decisions, and if you’re making decisions for other people, you’re not living YOUR life.

4. You have a step-by-step formula and plan to reach a goal that will make you “happy” that motivates your daily actions.

Look, I know plans are important, but as Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are essential, but plans are useless.” The very notion of a plan means that you don’t currently have what you’re planning for. And that means that if you think you can plan to be happy, you’re clearly not happy. Being aware in each moment of your relentless pursuit of your Authentic Purpose allows happiness. When you make happiness an object of a plan, you’re more likely to miss it. Happiness must be allowed in the plan.

5. You use “if, then” statements to describe your goals.

One quick way to turn a goal into a fantasy is to add an “if” to it. As I’ve written about before, when we start saying things like “if I get a degree, then…” or “if I had more money, then…” we quickly add qualifiers to our goals. It is important to remove the conditions and make a firm decision. “If I can write enough content, I’ll start a blog” is really saying you won’t start a blog. Instead make a decision: “I am going to write a blog post today.” That is a goal, and goals transform.

Boris Pasternak said, “Man is born to live, not to prepare for life.”

6.  You stopped doing something you felt strongly about because it wasn’t “practical”, or because you didn’t “have enough time.”

Time and practicality are really just symptoms of fear. They’re excuses to keep you from realizing the struggle that often comes when pursuing a purpose. Yet, it is the very struggle that will make the pursuit worthwhile.

7. You devote a large amount of time (i.e. 40 hours per week) to something in which money is the only goal, and your personal fulfillment is not.

I am not going to pretend that money isn’t one important result of what we do in life, however it is only a result. As a good friend of mine once told me, “When you live by results, you die by them.” Results come and go, authentic purpose endures.

If you’re reading the above and feel disheartened, you’ve completely missed the point of this post. I have to check myself every day to see where my “phony” purpose manifests itself. But, this also showed me how much of my time was spent on living someone else’s life. Once I was able to start focusing my time on my Authentic Purpose, things started changing – and they can, and will for you.

– Zach