People and Organization

For 2018? A crystal-clear purpose!

Having ‘purpose’ is an important key to providing a meaningful life and also to inspiring our organizations. But, what exactly does that entail?
Kim Oostvogels

Yesterday evening, Sister Jeanne De Vos was on regional television. She was lauded by being made an honorary citizen of the Municipality of Kortenaken. It reminded me of 2006 when she received the Vlerick Award and 2005 when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It made me wonder whether she, a humble 82 year-old sister, could still appreciate all of the attention, accolades, and fanfare. At the same time, I also surmised that she was probably happy to receive the accolades as long as it furthered her goals. And it certainly does that. Her name recognition and the appreciation for her work draw attention to her ‘purpose’. For more than 50 years, she has endeavoured to improve the living conditions of the very poorest in India. Her passion is impressive. The clarity of her purpose is a particularly valuable compass.

So, the word has been set down. ‘Purpose’. In my opinion, this is an important key to providing a meaningful life. In my opinion, this is also an important key to inspiring our organizations. But, what does this mean?

Mot juste

Feedback on my book ZEAL is sometimes about ‘purpose’, which even became the most important word in the last part of the book. It is not that easy to understand exactly what is meant by this word. The book does provide clarity, but you really need to read it first. Why is there no clearer, perhaps Dutch alternative?

Gustave Flaubert, a French writer, was well known for his keen desire to find exactly the right word. He was not a writer whose words simply flowed out of his pen on a whim. He was a writer who could spend a day mulling over and seeking out that one perfect word. The ‘mot juste’ that completely exemplified what he meant. I am no Flaubert. Perhaps that is a shame because to this day I have not found a good alternative to ‘purpose’.

Might it be ‘motivation’? Yes! It is what motivates us and at the same time ‘purpose’ is not just any type of motivation. It is a motive that spurs us on to make a meaningful contribution.

Might it be ‘an objective’? Yes, that too! It is something that you strive towards and at the same time is almost unattainable, something that you embody with the language mirroring the wildest dreams of the future.

Might it be ‘the intention’? Yes, that too! It is your intention or your organization’s intention. It describes the reason for your existence and at the same time directs your actions.

Might it be ‘meaning’? Yes, of course! A purpose imbues meaning into who you are and what you do. And, at the same time, it goes beyond your own needs and desires. It must also be meaningful for the larger totality in which you live and work.

So, it’s all of these, somewhat and more!

How does it help me?

As an organization, there are many, many reasons why it is increasingly important to distill clarity of purpose. These reasons are explained in detail in the book ZEAL. The organizational purpose deals with the missing puzzle piece when mission, vision, values, and objectives have been made clear. It is a lever used to further engage the commitment of all staff. Purpose cannot be determined in a top-down fashion by a CEO or management. Rather, it is the collective summary of the purposes of all members of the organization. And this is why it is important that you elucidate your own purpose and your organization’s purpose.

But, you can do without, right?

Everyone has a purpose. Many people do not have clarity about their purpose. Their lives are being led. They fulfill the roles imposed on them by the company, their organization, and their family and friends. They are constantly chasing something. They work to live. Aren’t they just living for their work?’, I sometimes wonder. ‘And that seems to work?’, I hear now and then. Well, yes. But, does it make you happy? A while ago, Bronnie Ware’s book was published. She is a palliative care nurse. She was surprised about the clarity with which people nearing the end of their life looked upon their life. She identified the top five issues that people most regretted. So, what was at the top of the list? ‘I wish that I had the courage to live my life true to myself and not the life that others expected of me.’ QED.

So, how do I figure it out?

Just answer the following three key questions:

  • Why am I here?
  • Who am I?
  • What should I do?

Of course, there is a touch of irony here. It is often not that easy to do so. For most people, these questions are much too expansive and all-encompassing to answer at once. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources and tricks to help you discover your purpose. Basically, it comes down to daring to and learning how to look in the mirror. Pose the right intermediate questions to yourself and do not try to answer these immediately. Feel comfortable about not yet knowing what your purpose is. Put your purpose into words like the maturing of a fine wine. There is no need for haste. Five tips for your quest:

  1. Dialogue: start a conversation about your purpose with your partner, your colleague, your coach, etc. You will increasingly uncover what it is that motivates you. Good coaches usually have lots of tools in their bag of tricks to help you and accelerate your quest.
  2. Silence: the busyness and rat race of today makes it a real challenge to get closer to yourself. You need to consciously make the time for it. Consciously include silence, moments of reflection, to increasingly do more than just lifting the tip of the veil.
  3. Accept imperfection: the manner in which you describe your purpose does not have to be perfect. In fact, it will not and cannot be perfect. For Flaubert enthusiasts, my favourite quote: ‘La parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.’

(loosely translated: ‘Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’)

  1. Refine your purpose: a purpose changes. Your life experience accumulates. The manner in which you will explain your purpose will evolve. The accents you want to impose on the phase of your life will shift.
  2. Experience the power: try out your purpose. If you start to share your purpose, you will be astonished by what it does to you. Talking about your purpose changes your consciousness and focus. Talking about your purpose influences others. You will surprise yourself with what you encounter.

My purpose: use organizations to contribute to a sustainable people-friendly world. So, what’s yours?

Thanks for reading

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Kim Oostvogels

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