Six years ago Simon Sinek’s TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” took the internet by storm. And while the talk’s content was and is compelling, its internet virality and resulting 28.3 million viewers was revealing of our society and workplaces: People are yearning more than ever for personal and work lives that have an inspiring purpose.
People want to believe in something that’s bigger than themselves. Sinek’s idea is quite simple. People and organizations who believe in and prove their reason for existence inspire more loyal people to join their movements and invest in their products.
And the research is supportive. People make decisions and are inspired more by an emotional sense of meaning and purpose than almost anything else in personal and organizational life.
In the last six years, though, the purpose marketplace has become crowded and purpose has become a hot self-help commodity, strategy, and management consulting fad. And the very meaning of “purpose” is being diluted as a result.
“Purpose” now resembles an eye-roll-worthy business concept relegated to the bookshelf containing the same old profit-obsessed motivation tactics that have repeatedly failed for the past century (as Wells Fargo reminded us this month).
When important and society-altering concepts like purpose start getting muddled, it is helpful to go back to the dictionary.
What is purpose?
It’s simple. Purpose is defined as the “reason for which something is done or created; the reason for its existence.”
The problem has become that people, coaches, and management authors actually think that purpose is something a person or organization can do.
You can’t “do” a reason for existence.
Purpose isn’t some exercise for a board retreat that will magically sell more products, fundraise more dollars, or keep more employees. For individuals purpose isn’t some pill you take after reading a book you picked up at the airport that suddenly makes your life clear, easy, and blissful.
Purpose is the reason for your rare existence on the planet and begs individuals and organizations to answer the question: Why you, here, now?
Awakening purpose is tough and revealing work. Purpose is not a statement, some “thing” to be found, a goal, a strategy, or a future. It is a reason.
As people and organizations look to discover and awaken their purpose, it’s important to fully understand what purpose is not.
1. Purpose is not a well-worded statement.
I just read a Harvard Business Review article about how to word your purpose statement to attract and motivate multiple stakeholders.
If the motivation for your purpose is to make money or find success it is not a purpose but a classic carrot-on-a-stick motivation tactic cleverly dressed up as purpose. And like most motivation tactics, it will ultimately fail.
Purpose is a deeply held pervasive belief in a reason for existence. It pulls people forward, not pushes them.
2. Purpose is not something that you can go and “get” in the future.
Purpose is not a future goal or strategic priority. Purpose is time-neutral. Your purpose is why you existed twenty years ago and why you will exist twenty years from now – all at the same time.
What meaningful need do you fill in the world?
If market conditions or life circumstances determine your purpose, it is not your purpose. It’s just another marketing or personal branding strategy.
For example, if you create a purpose statement or marketing plan as a way to attract Millennials it’s not a purpose, it’s a tactic.
3. Purpose is not to be “known.”
People “know” mission statements. They can recite them at the new employee orientation session and pull them out of their filing cabinets once a year.
Purpose is something that is believed in and pervades every aspect of our behaviors and attitudes.
For example, let’s say your purpose is to “make the world better.” And let’s say and you actually believed it. Then it would then be psychologically impossible to hate Mondays or wish it was the weekend.
You would have to honestly be okay saying to yourself, “Oh darn, another five days of improving the world. I’d rather take a sick day.”
It doesn’t make sense. Yet people do it every day. They say they have a purpose because they have a mission statement and yet most people remain miserable at work and in life. They may “know” their purpose but they clearly don’t believe it.
4. Purpose is not a fix-all.
A compelling purpose is just a starting point. No one cares why you exist unless you prove it every day.
What does it mean to live and work with purpose?
It means you can answer this question: “Can every person associated with you or your organization, after every interaction, know and feel why you exist?”
5. Purpose is not an exercise.
If purpose was something you could “do,” every person and organization would do it. As Sinek pointed out, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t “do” civil rights. He believed it and proved it every single day and inspired others to believe the same thing.
6. Purpose is not easy.
If any of the above sounds easy, you’ve misunderstood purpose. Purpose is messy. It is a descent into the soul of you or your organization and takes more than a one-day workshop or Ted Talk.
To awaken your reason for existence, you’ll have to face down everything you’ve ever done in the world that was not aligned with why you exist.
You have to be willing to re-imagine your life and organization and rebuild something that is authentic to your why. And you’ll suffer setbacks, even profit or immediate success, for the fulfillment of your reason.
Otherwise purpose goes the way of all of the other “tactics” – and with it the transforming benefits.