In the New Year, Scratch “Purpose” and (Finally) Follow Your Desires
Whether in business or personal life, we overrate the importance of intentionality.
by Tim Leberecht
It’s that time of the year again, and everyone’s getting busy making new year’s resolutions: more of this, less of that; this year I’m really going to do x; and so on. New year’s resolutions make us reflect on the past year, our role in the world and the location in our life’s journey. They are powerful because they give us a sense of agency. The clearer and firmer our intentions, the more control we seem to exert on our fate, the more we seem to believe we can directly enhance our wellbeing. They are a direct application of what is widely touted as the crucible of a good life: purpose.
There is no generation purpose
In recent years, purpose has moved from philosophy to lifestyle. On the personal level, an army of coaches preach what positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman suggest: that there is a direct link between purpose and human flourishing. On the organizational level, a plethora of consultants now work with leaders of all sectors and industries to help them clarify the purpose of their company or institution. Since Larry Fink, the CEO of investment firm BlackRock, postulated the critical importance of purpose in a much gushed-about letter to his peers, it is hard to find any company that is not interested in uncovering, defining, or sharpening its purpose, in an effort to attract and retain talent.
The more the business mainstream has adopted the language of purpose (several CEOs have shared with me this year that they have launched a “purpose initiative”), the more wary I have become. In fact, even beyond the concern of purpose-washing, I began to wonder whether purpose as a concept has any merits at all.
It’s true that, as the economist Paul Collier points out, no one is getting up in the morning and thinking, ‘I’m so incredibly excited to contribute again to maximizing shareholder value today.’ But at the same time, it is questionable how many workers do get up every morning and wonder, say, ‘how can I contribute to my firm’s purpose of promoting wellbeing’?
Corporate purpose statements can often sound hollow (“to increase value for our customers” or “to give back to society”). And even if a purpose is more specific, more disputable, it often remains an abstract idea suspected of putting lipstick on rather conventional corporate behavior. That is hardly surprising. It is difficult to buy into a common purpose when CEO salaries are on average more than 300 times that of the average worker.
A stubborn sub-plot of purpose has been that it is of particular importance to Millennials, that they are in fact the “purpose-driven generation.” But, as the Millennial Taylor Dennis points out, the numbers tell a different, more complex story. Neither do Millennials start more businesses (the number has actually declined), nor do they prioritize purpose over paycheck (many Millennials live in a state of constant economic volatility and have to make ends meet through gig economy or precarious part-time or super-flexible jobs).
They also don’t organize their lives around one central mission, which exposes a fundamental flaw in the concept of purpose. A person’s actions can rarely be reduced to one singular motivation, Dennis argues. Surely, no one wants to intentionally waste their time on earth, but purpose comes in many forms, not necessarily in the form of a single coherent organizing principle for one’s life.
If it must be codified, it lacks passion.
This is true for communities, too. For example, the question of purpose came up after the latest edition of the conference I helped launch and co-host, the House of Beautiful Business. Now entering its third year, the gathering has grown into a global community, and some have told me it might even be the beginning of a movement. But, they insist, we would need to articulate its purpose in order for it to scale.
The corollary of purpose is impact, which is another one of these sacred words in business and community-building. Purpose is the prerequisite of impact, and without impact — preferably a measurable one — talk is just talk, so they say.
I resist that notion.
First of all, building community has an innate purpose that is articulated by the experiences each individual brings to the collective whole. It appears that purpose is defined by the sum of its parts rather than by a leader and their purpose statement. Moreover, I fear that explicating purpose means diminishing it. If a sense of purpose is strong, it doesn’t need be to codified. It is implicit and intuitive, and I don’t want it to be shouted from the mountains, I want to discover it in the caves of hidden meaning. Purpose is a story I can tell after I’ve followed my instinct.
Some of the most impactful experiences in life usually come without a distinctive explicit purpose: art, for example, or romantic love. No one would ever ask for a purpose statement from a date or romantic partner. No one would ever ask Alfonso Cuarón, Banksy, or Beyoncé to write down the purpose of their work. While love and art experiences desperately seek to extract some temporary meaning (primarily through narrative, the stories we are told and tell ourselves) from the seemingly random maelstrom of time, they are not driven by a specific purpose. Similarly, impact, specifically on an emotional level, is very much the point, but not in the sense of something one can plan or design for.
Impact is the inevitable product of our impassioned creations, but never the intended goal. Ultimately, “reason is slave to passion,” even Adam Smith knew. We need to allow passion to be the main driver of our pursuits. Passion is not antithetical to purpose, but purpose leads to engagement, while passion leads to open-ended exploration (John Hagel has written extensively about this topic). And both we and the organizations we inhibit need the latter much more urgently in order for us to learn and flourish in a time of accelerated change.
Is it immoral, though, to skip purpose in favor of passion? Doesn’t passion alone give us a carte blanche, a free license to do whatever we want in absence of an overarching principle that harmonizes our actions and does so, most importantly, in relation to other people? Of course it would be catastrophic if we simply followed our passions without applying ethical standards. But that’s still a far cry from having a single purpose that guides us at all times. Appreciating our passions may in fact help us to recognize those of others and, in other words, to generate compassion.
Passion is at the heart of love and art. Both of which reveal something deeper and darker, less positivist than purpose might ever unlock, something exponentially more creative and exponentially more destructive: our desires.
Our intentions are never clear, only our desires.
As the year comes to a close, it is curious that we speak of new year’s resolutions, and not desires. Resolutions are reason-driven and impact-oriented. They provide us with the illusion that we are the CEOs of our lives, when in fact, we are struggling to act as their project managers. We are mustering all of our resolve to exert some control over our lives, but we rarely cut deeper, to the profound and unmanageable desires that are the true drivers of our actions.
We humans are complicated beings. Our intentions are never clear, only our desires. At the end of the day, only a few of us want impact — mostly what we want are memories, and preferably without a prior purpose statement.
What if a company without a single purpose but with a strong implicit sentiment that all its constituents could attach themselves to were the more humane workplace? What if a life without a singular, coherent purpose — a life full of wandering imperfections, incongruities, and inconsistencies — were the more humane life? What if instead of plotting our map of action, instead of striving to match the person we want to be with the person we are, instead of defining our location in the world, we simply allowed ourselves to feel, to be touched, to be changed, to be found?
Purpose is so 2018; 2019 will be the year of the blank canvas, ready for the imprint of life.
This article was first published in Psychology Today.