The Perils of a Neatly-Defined Purpose

When words get in the way of meaning.

The Perils of Purpose by dangerlam for Dr Jason Fox

Having a profound sense of purpose has become Quite The Thing now. You wouldn’t want to leave home without one—it is now almost essential to have an answer to the question: “What’s your Purpose?” (or “What’s your Why?”).


Hip agencies, startups and solo consultants love this question.* So do I, kind of—it’s sometimes quite fascinating to hear the driving intent behind people’s behaviour. And we know that purpose is inherently linked to intrinsic motivation.


* Though I still haven’t figured out if it is more or less awkward than the dreaded: “So, what do you do?”


But… I’m not sure we need the answer to this question—‘what is your purpose?’— to be served ‘neat’. In fact, I worry when it is. 


A brief encounter with ‘The Purpose Cop’


A couple of months ago I was at a fab event in which—during Q&A—a photographer of international acclaim was asked: “what’s your Purpose?”

You could hear the capital ‘P’. 

I’m pulling this from memory—so don’t quote me—but I remember he started his reply with something authentic like: “I don’t know.” He then proceeded to describe—with raw and perfectly imperfect truth and elegance—the intimacy amidst the subtle play of light, and his love of capturing rare moments and the raw honesty of the people he works with. 

But that wasn’t good enough. “No... but what’s your Purpose?”, the Purpose Cop drilled. She had been given a handheld mic, and was drunk on the power. Each attempt he made to answer the question was interrupted with further probing. “No, I'm not happy with that. Tell me: What Is Your Purpose?” In the end he conceded beneath the barrage and was later handed a business card by Purpose Cop.

I feel a tad bad about this tease—she was probably very nice and earnest of intent. But it left me wondering: what would I have done in that situation?

Now, I have me a “Purpose” which I actually, truly, deeply, feel an affinity to. It would make for a great bumper-sticker.

“To create a world that’s more curious and kind.”

It lights me up, and I can talk through it at length. 
But I wonder…


Is it perilous to have a Pithy Purpose?


I daresay, sometimes, yes.

If we’re not careful—or, ironically, if we’re too careful—the noble yearning and the burning aspiration that comes from a clear sense of purpose can be rendered inept in our attempts to neatly define it. Just as over-rehearsing an ‘elevator pitch’ can trigger you to activate a kind of glazed-over robotic auto-parrot-bot mode whenever presented with the opportunity to pitch, the words of a Pithy Purpose might similarly get in the way of the meaning.

I see this happen in senior executive teams. It’s now known that Purpose is an important element for Engagement, particularly as we Attract Talent and Embrace the Future of Work.* But what this looks like is a bunch of superficial word-smithing alongside the Vision, Mission and Values. Topical buzzwords get jammed in, and then after much compromise and angst, there comes a point at which we can dust our hands and declare “DONE! Good. We now have our Purpose. Quickly—get it laminated before we change our minds.” 


° I’m capitalising the terms oft-overused to the point of superficiality.


But does the neat conclusiveness of a Pithy Purpose actually shut down the very thing that connects us to a sense of purpose—the curiosity to ask questions and pursue meaning? Does it become too tempting a default—something to fall back to, when confronted with any angst, uncertainty or doubt? Is this how a blind or non-thinking adherence to dogma begins?

In the exaggerated example above, quite possibly. 
But is there any need to have a neatly-defined purpose?

I daresay, sometimes, yes. 

As with all important things, purpose is paradoxical. 

A well-crafted and neatly defined Pithy Purpose gives people something to rally around if (and it’s a big ‘if’) it serves as a label* (or a shorthand-prelude) to a much deeper and impassioned conversation. You can make T-shirts and posters with it. It’s rad.


* Like the label to a most exquisitely complex whisky—it just hints.

But any such labels have a shelf-life—they get stale. Habituation kicks in, and we run the risk of becoming disconnected to the why behind our why.

What to do?


Periodically prod & perturb your Pithy Purpose


Simply do not permanently settle on a Pithy Purpose. Sure—hitch a tent if you need, and roll with it if it serves you. But be attuned for the day it does not.*


 And this is perhaps, the most difficult thing to do. In How to Lead a Quest I describe the concept of The Progress Delusion—a phenomenon whereby the things that provide the richest sense of progress are the very things getting in the way of meaningful progress. Where productivity, ironically, inhibits progress. It makes me wonder—is there such a thing as A Delusion of Purpose? 


And besides—it’s the conversation that sits behind the label that really matters most. The living expression of purpose, in its most raw, real, and imperfect form.

If you don’t have the label for it yet, that’s fine. 
Keep searching. Keep questing. Fumble your way through the dark. 

Don't let words get in the way of meaning.


An authentic and yet imperfect expression of purpose trumps a well-polished and neatly-defined Pithy Purpose any day.

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