Having a profound sense of purpose has become Quite The Thing now.
° That’d be unfashionable.
You wouldn’t want to leave home without one.° It’s 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’s 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?”°°
° The same brilliant artist and wonderful guy (he captured my latest set of photos, which were featured in last month’s issue of The Collective).
°° You could hear the capital ‘P’ in her tone.
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.°
° Mayhaps a Precursor to Purpose?
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 exquisite whisky.
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 and perturb your Pithy Purpose
Do not settle on a Pithy Purpose. Sure—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.
PS: Our friends at Wildwon are hosting Purpose again this year. I had the honour of speaking at this event last year, and I loved the deep, meaningful, practical, non-fluffy and beyond-pithy conversations that were hosted. I'll be attending along with my team again this year—perhaps we'll see you there?
~Worthy updates & nifty reads from the interwebs~
The new Jaxzyn Quarterly is out: "Simplifying Complexity"
Oh gosh I love this. Essential reading. “Join as we set out stout-hearted to simplify the complicated relationship between complexity and simplicity. Not without purpose though — no, but to help leaders like you take inherently complicated issues, processes and information and transform them into easily digestible and engaging fare. This isn’t a manual for minimalism or dumbing down, howevs. No, you’re much, much better than that. Instead, we seek a process that celebrates complexity while making it seem simple. Devilishly difficult, yes — yet necessary for any who seek to set new standards.”
How to get people to buy into your ideas
Ace chap Simon Dowling has written a new book—Work With Me. In this magnificently practical book, he unpacks the science of collaboration and makes it an art. I love it—read this and revel in newfound savviness.
The problem with cynicism
This is a really useful reframe of how you might respond to cynicism. “What the cynic really needs – and yet fears they may never get, so naturally never asks – is kindness, a kindness that may eventually help them to rekindle their stunted secret desires for hope and fulfilment.”
Order versus chaos
An essential reframe and productivity primer from Matt Church. I needed reminding of this.
“The problem is, most personal effectiveness programs are designed by disciplined, organised people in an attempt to get the rest of us to do what they do. This isn’t always an effective strategy; one person’s ‘smart’ may be another person’s ‘dumb’.”
Want to be more productive and creative? Collaborate less
I’m not sure that pioneers are generally that great at collaborating—but maybe it’s not as essential as popular belief might dictate. “It may be that collaboration and groupthink are two sides of the same coin—kissing cousins at least—and we’ve collectively chosen (thank you, groupthink) to see only one side of that coin for years.”
Is group chat making you sweat?
I’m a huge fan and advocate for slack. It works wonderfully in our team, and it’s been revolutionary for clients that have chosen to embrace it for internal comms. I consider it (or similar platforms) to be an essential element of a responsive organisation. But not all agree. I respect Jason Fried’s thinking immensely, and so here’s a rather biased article for your balanced pondering. Take it with a pinch of salt, and—as ever—work it into your own context. “It’s common in the software industry to blame the users. It’s the user’s fault. They don’t know how to use it. They’re using it wrong. They need to do this or do that. But the reality is that tools encourage specific behaviors. A product is a series of design decisions with a specific outcome in mind. Yes, you can use tools as they weren’t intended, but most people follow the patterns suggested by the design. And so in the end, if people are exhausted and feeling unable to keep up, it’s the tool’s fault, not the user’s fault.”
Is your performance management approach destroying performance?
Oh the very popular topic of performance management (and more ace reading from The Ready). Remind me: in a future museletter I’ll share how we do this at The Cleverness. “The jury is still out, but, patterns are starting to emerge around how organizations can create the best culture and environment to engage today and tomorrow’s workforce…”
Five books to read this summer
…from Bill Gates. I can’t wait to get into Seveneves. “I hadn’t read any science fiction for a decade when a friend recommended this novel. I’m glad she did. The plot gets going in the first sentence, when the moon blows up. People figure out that in two years a cataclysmic meteor shower will wipe out all life on Earth, so the world unites on a plan to keep humanity going by launching as many spacecraft as possible into orbit. You might lose patience with all the information you’ll get about space flight—Stephenson, who lives in Seattle, has clearly done his research—but I loved the technical details. Seveneves inspired me to rekindle my sci-fi habit.”
Oh by the way—you know we’re going to Mars, right?
I’m amazed at how many people didn’t hear the news. And—in the conversations I’ve had with enterprise leaders in the past couple of weeks—how few seem to really comprehend or care (just yet). “If things go to plan, the Neil Armstrong of Mars will touch down about eight years from now. And zero people are talking about it. But they will be. The hype will start a couple years from now when the Dragons make their Mars trips, and it’ll kick into high gear in 2022 when the Big F*cking Spaceship finally launches and heads to Mars and lands there. Everyone will be talking about this.”
Will it pass the Mars test?
Will Dayble is building something worth taking to Mars. Which begs the question—will it pass the Mars test? In this piece, Will explains how “going interplanetary could be an opportunity to reinvent things for the better, for everyone, on whatever planet we end up living on together.”
PS: Will is speaking at Percolate. Get your ticket.
The rise and rise of tabletop gaming
Yay, tabletop gaming. There’ll be tabletop games in Mars, right?
Hat tips to your magnificence.