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Are you living your Purpose?


There’s a current resurgence of interest in the idea of Purpose, as it relates to business. Aaron Hurst with his book the Purpose Economy and company Imperative, and Jeremy Heimans over at seem to be hammering social media with the idea that purpose is not just good for people, but that it is also good for organisations and the way we run our businesses.

I am pretty unlikely to disagree with that. I also think purpose is important, for both people and organisations

Of course, purpose itself isn’t a particularly new idea in business. It has existed in the form of ‘Mission’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Values’ for a long time, and while people like Umair Haque have brilliantly lampooned these more traditional forms (in his book Betterness, for example) it continues to be something that comes up regularly with clients. “Help us clarify and communicate our purpose” they ask.

But the more of this work I do the more I realise that the really critical thing with Mission or Purpose, or whatever you want to call it, is ‘living it’.

Again this isn’t a particularly new idea – people have called this ‘walking the talk’ for as long as I can remember.

But I am not sure that particular injunction – ‘telling’ people to live it, to be it – really helps that much. I may want to “walk my talk”, but I still find it hard.

So here are some simple things you might choose to do that I believe will help you live your purpose.

Have a Purpose

First of all, it’s is good to have one, obviously.

But there’s a dilemma in that. I am going to focus in this post less on finding or discovering a purpose because I think there may be nothing to find. I don’t think purpose is a thing, and therefore we cannot find it like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Stafford Beer, the great cyberneticist, talked, I believe, in terms of POSIWID. “The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does”. This suggests that purpose is more ’emergent’. Like a rainbow it isn’t really there. But under certain special circumstances in combination with the way our eyes and brain work we can surely see it.

For example, my purpose today based on an observation of what I am doing, is to get out of bed and write a blog post.

I seem also to be in the throes of trying to raise a family, build a business, be a good citizen etc. Later I’ll make breakfast, go to meetings etc.

Notice that my purpose depends on a number of things, including the time of day, my role as viewer, as participant and so on.

The purpose gurus I listed above will, I am sure, provide useful methods to ‘capture ‘ your purpose as if it is a thing to be captured. There are audio books and books galore (contradicting myself, I have to say I rather liked Richard Jacobs’ attempt), and generally consultants and coaches love to do this kind of work.

And if you really want to clarify your purpose then I can recommend nothing better than a week-long silent retreat in the mountains of Wales or some other beautiful and remote place.

Maybe it is just me, but I think the assumption behind many of these ‘processes’ is that purpose will emerge as something tangible, words that you can, for example, engrave on a tablet of stone. A ‘calling’ that you can take along with you for the rest of your life, to steer you, to drive you?

But maybe purpose as a thing is hard to ‘capture’? Maybe it is too temporary, too contingent on circumstances for that?

Simply Noticing

So instead of a long search, or following a complex process, I suggest simply noticing. Being aware. Not just of our thoughts, but also of our feelings and our instincts. Noticing what you do and how you do it. Noticing is a conscious business practice and one we can do at any time.  It is especially best done, while we are acting – we sometimes call this reflexivity.

If you spend a little time on that then you’ll probably quickly notice that purpose changes. It changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute and even second to second.

If I am eating lunch with a friend my purpose is probably something to do with enjoying the food and conversation. Or maybe I am trying to get something across, or share something, or get some support.

At a business meeting an hour later, my purpose might be completely different. I may be trying to build a very different kind of relationship.

Yes, I may be able to see a pattern in my purpose. I seem to want to build a business day after day after day. My need to feed and clothe and educate my children does not go away.

Seeing purpose as changing makes me want to explore it all the more. I can learn more about my purpose by enquiring into it, enquiring into all these facets, discovering what it means, and what I am about.

Am I Living My Purpose?

But when I do that, and I guess it is the same for many people, I notice that there are also plenty of times when I don’t seem to be following my purpose. I find myself distracted. Or I find myself doing something completely at odds with what I think I want to achieve.

This happens most often in groups and teams. For example, my purpose, as I might name it when entering into a meeting is to be unconditionally constructive, collaborative, and help people, including me, find the best solutions to whatever issues they face.

But what happens? Sometimes, almost the opposite. I might notice myself behaving destructively. Perhaps causing as many problems as I solve.

Again noticing, I believe, is the key to unpicking this. By observing what I am doing, I can ascertain a new facet to my purpose, something I may have been previously unaware of.

Maybe I am more competitive than I thought and I am engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Maybe I have learned some habitual ways to get my need to feel outraged met, and I am exercising this by blaming other people and their failings.

Again, simply noticing will probably give me all the clues I need.

Beyond noticing – community and conflict

So noticing is great. But for me, noticing also isn’t enough. When I become more aware of what is going on it helps, but it doesn’t necessarily help me break out of the habits I have formed.

This is one reason why I like the Do Something Different system – because I believe it can help us break those habits – of mind and body – which keep us in our comfort zone.

And the other thing that I believe is completely necessary if I want to live my purpose is trust, and conflict. Echoing Patrick Lencioni, we have found again and again that a group of people won’t enter into conflict unless there are high levels of trust amongst the group.

A healthy form of conflict is necessary for someone to do me the huge favour of pointing out my failings. If you are going to point out to me that I am not living my purpose, and, believe me I do want you to do that, you risk me fighting back.

We risk conflict every time we point out to someone the difference between their espoused position (what they say they will do) and what we actually observe.

But being open to this feedback and being in a group of people brave enough and caring enough to give accurate feedback is, I think, really the answer to living my purpose. Few of us are saints – few of us have the awareness to always notice when we stop living our purpose. And even fewer, myself included, have the willpower to do much about it.

We need other people, we need a community around us that will give us that ultimate gift of clean, unencumbered feedback.

Being personally open to that feedback isn’t easy, of course, but the skills and conditions that allow trust and healthy conflict to arise in a group are fairly easy to learn and practise. There are better ways to converse than those we learned in the playground or in our first families.

As a group, we can learn to break collusion, and see reality.

I’d love to hear what you think? Does this make sense? Is your purpose more easily fixed than the way I describe it? Are my assumptions correct, or way off base?

What is your purpose?
And are you living it?


Aaron Hurst – Purpose Economy book company Imperative

Jeremy Heimans

Betterness by Umair Haque

Richard Jacobs – Find your Purpose

Patrick Lencioni

Do Something Different

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

7 thoughts on “Are you living your Purpose?

  1. I absolutely loved reading this, feeding and housing my family are essential components of my purpose on a day to day level. I like the word purposeful, and aspire to that being an accurate description of my activity more often. Feedback from others can be hugely useful, however I am less certain that there is such a thing as ‘clean, unencumbered feedback’. When giving feedback we can try and be as conscious as we possibly can be as to the different layers of motivations we have but I still think it is important when receiving feedback to hold it with a degree of lightness, being aware that the feedback is just a viewpoint.

  2. I agree – that is a great point about feedback Robin – sometimes I remember to remind myself that most feedback is inaccurate. That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful – just that we need to enquire into feedback to fully understand it.

    I think we could probably say the same thing about purpose – holding it lightly is a great idea.

    Best, Pete

  3. Great post Pete. I agree that purpose isn’t about the timeless mission statement. I think this is the key point: “…you’ll probably quickly notice that purpose changes. It changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute and even second to second.”

    The frame of reference that works for me around this is to channel some Marshall Rosenberg and swap the word ‘purpose’ for ‘needs’. Our needs change from moment to moment, and there’s a large menu of them ( All us humans are ever doing is trying to meet our needs in the only ways we know how, be that consciously or unconsciously, constructively or destructively. Perhaps behind your writing of that blog post was a need for self expression, connection to others, or maybe a need for flow or creativity through the act of writing itself. Whatever your needs were, I’m glad you did because it met a need for stimulation and inspiration in me, and that (amongst other needs) sparked this comment.

    I believe a purposeful life is about getting off auto pilot and becoming more conscious of your own needs. Then you can be creative and find the best, most positive strategies to have your needs met as they change from moment to moment. At the same time, we can learn to get better at connecting to other people with empathy, helping them to understand our needs as we also connect to theirs. This is where the magic really happens as I believe we can experience a deep sense of fulfilment in helping others to have their needs met.

    All initiatives, from an entire company, to making a round of teas for your colleagues are an expression of needs. At some point somebody took a first step to bring an initiative to life, as a strategy to meet a need. Within our organisations, the more we can connect to the needs driving our initiatives and support one another to have these needs met, the more fulfilling, human and purposeful our organisations will become.

    • I agree with that Tom, I do think we do things for feelings, and feelings in some way relate to our needs.

      I also agree that it is in groups that ‘magic really happens’. I think our needs arise socially not just individually – in other words when I am in a particular group I need to respond in a certain way – to act out the sibling rivalry I mentioned, for example.

      So as we move around the world and encounter different social situations then accordingly our needs change. As you point our we’re great at adapting to those situations. This is what Esa Saarinen and his colleagues have called ‘systems intelligence’. It is, for me, a good way to understand ourselves, and relax into it.

      But that idea of needs being social, and therefore constantly in flux is challenging for a business, I think.

      If a group of people get together, and one person expresses their need to grow the business, the others may or may not share that need. That is why there is so much talk of ‘aligning’ around a mission or purpose. The idea is that we can somehow agree on the purpose, and then work towards it. But as I have suggested even my own purpose is constantly shifting.

      And in a group people may be trying to meet needs that are different or that they are unconscious of – again, for example, sibling rivalry or the wish to be on top. Or a need to fit in and please other people. These needs may trump other needs in the moment, and cause stress, or upset, and distract from the overt ‘purpose’.

      It takes a very high level of awareness, not just of self, but of the group dynamic to be able to separate out all the different needs as they constantly arise, are met, collapse, and re-form.

      That probably makes it incredibly challenging for a group to have a ‘common purpose’ and hold it together for more than even a few seconds!

      I don’t have a solution to that.

      We’re in the territory of discussing ‘commitment’ in Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions model. Commitment ‘sounds’ like a great antidote to these shifting sands, but group commitment only seems to arise under certain quite rare conditions. And even then it seems temporary. I have seen it in groups – and when it did appear, the results were great. But I have seen it only rarely, and I am not at all sure what those conditions are.

      I have never seen it last more than a few months. And maybe that was an illusion. The traditional ideas (like a ‘burning platform’) only work temporarily, I believe – people soon lose interest and their needs shift again.

      This brings me back to the idea that purpose is not really useful in the sense of being something to strive towards, or as some inner force. ‘Living our purpose’ day to day – staying aware, and committing and re-committing momentarily to purpose – seems more doable.

      Any thoughts, anyone?

    • I love the idea about needs and helping others communicate their needs better, it resonates with me very deeply. Perhaps this is because I realise how incredibly difficult it is to get a grip on what my own needs actually are. Helping each other to understand what our needs are, moment by moment, is an activity some part of me manages to maintain some commitment to, when ever I remember. Communication is key here, as are presence and awareness. I like the idea that groups might be able to help each other with commitment, and so NVC practice groups, or sitting practice groups, or experiential groups can all be hugely helpful. But as Pete points out, those pesky old family roles have a tendency to get played out in groups and that can make them incredibly challenging to be in.

      For several years I have bought into the idea that if a business is values led and alignment of values can achieved within the business then that business was pretty sorted. I was open to the idea that the alignment bit of this was always going to be fairly tough. But actually I like this idea that maybe it’s all a bit or a red herring. Maybe the focus could be less on alignment and more on a being with the lack of alignment, an awareness that the point of full alignment perhaps only lasts a few seconds as individual purposes shift. This might allow for a degree of plurality, and a continuous process of re-aligning and re-committing.

  4. Purpose seems to engage the will.

    I believe that feeling without purpose is both “demotivating” and “unmotivating”.

    When we feel purpose alive within us, we experience “motive” force. It can be so weak as to be close to zero. It can also burst forth in us, volcano-style and we are suddenly on fire. That can be dangerous too as purpose overshadows our common sense.

    At the heart of all of this is the relationship of purpose to what I call “flow and stumble”. Much has been written about flow and how a strong sense of purpose can align to states of creative and productive flow. Ye, as we learn, and as purpose awakens the will to “act” in us, our inherent (And I believe beautiful) clumsiness in us leads to stumble. Reflection on our stumbling can allow insight to emerge. We learn from “not” as much as “what”. We develop wisdom from experience, but that experience has to embrace the full horizon of the human condition – we clumsy fools, frail and mortal geniuses.

    Organisational life needs to see purpose as a possibly bumpy ride, a place to wobble as well as experience harmony. We resonate with life and each other in “waves” and waves are both up and down, core and periphery, foolish and wise.

    Experiment is another example of flow and stumble; frown and smile, aha! and oho!

    Purpose is born of flow and stumble. But do we design that possibility truly in our businesses and organisations? Or do we seek to design out the stumble part in the name of “excellence”?

    • I think the answer to your last question, Paul, is yes!

      For me, stumbling requires a relaxation of (muscle) control. And many businesses, in my experience, seem to head in exactly the opposite direction.

      Perhaps beyond excellence there is a higher purpose: organisational health. But grasping at organisational health itself can be limiting, I think, because organisations are a) part of a bigger whole b) only exist in our imagination. ‘Organisational health’, when it means a fixed, result sounds to me static and dead. The exact opposite of ‘health’! Whereas healthy stumbling as you describe sounds much more alive and healthful in a real sense.

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