What's the point of purpose?

Are you lacking a visionary goal? You’re not alone… but don’t panic just yet


One weekend last summer I was staying a couple of nights in a B&B where the host's husband told me over breakfast about a catastrophic cycle accident he’d suffered, leaving him for dead with pre-frontal brain and other injuries.

Thankfully restored to physical health, he found he had lost the ability to plan and direct his effort toward any complex goal, forcing him to step down from his salaried profession to become a helping hand and odd-job man around the property and gardens of the fine old church across the road. "I love the work", he said to me, "but I don’t have any meaning in my life".

I pondered this. From our amiable conversation on life and work, that didn’t seem to add up – so I asked him: "Are you sure? Talking to you I see lots of meaning in your life. Isn't it purpose that you feel you're lacking?" He brightened up and agreed vigorously. He found truth and comfort in the thought.

Now recalling that incident, I got to thinking about my own very recent transition into the emeritus professorial after-life, after 28 years’ service at London Business School (LBS). On hearing of my "retirement" I have got used to people asking me what I am going to “do”. The tart answer that usually comes to mind is, “Whatever I want, whenever I want.” I usually find a more polite variant, but that is how it is for me.

Lots of people dread retirement because it is a withdrawal of one kind of purpose, to be sure. For me, the flexibility and freedom are delicious. In this I count myself very fortunate, not least because I continue to run biography sessions – in which people explore their life stories – with executive groups at LBS.

 People seem to be mildly disconcerted by my joyful renunciation of externally anchored purpose.

People seem to be mildly disconcerted by my joyful renunciation of externally anchored purpose. It seems they struggle to see how one can live without worldly ambitions. Of course, we all have goals – you can't get through the day without a little planning. What I am picking up, however, is a disquiet that someone could be happy without the flotation device of an abiding "purpose".

When purpose is elusive

“Purpose" has become a big-ticket number in management education. Professors now routinely whip up frothy enthusiasm for having purpose behind strategy, behind the brand, behind culture, behind leadership. The evangelical fervour for glory of the "why" over the "what" and "how", dignified by lots of pseudo-neuroscience, is aimed at reinvigorating deflated executives' conviction about what they are doing – to put the tiger back in their tank.

This imperative is noticeable in the biography course that I have been running for many years at the School for mid-career executives and professionals, many of whom are in transition, often looking for a change of flight path. Over time I have become increasingly conscious that a modest proportion of these talented individuals have a kind of "purpose pathology".

They feel they lack and ought to have a visionary purpose – some compelling goal that energises and compels them – but which forever eludes them. They look in all directions. They hope it will wave at them from the passing world. They delve into their innermost souls wondering why they're not hearing the inner call of a purposeful voice. They have been so inured to classroom tales of heroic journeys that they feel a rising sense of urgent guilt for not having embarked on their own, and even shame that they have been abandoned by the gods who dish out these directional beacons.

It seems to be in their make-up – the result of a confluence of genes and experience – that makes them struggle to feel passionate about purpose. Many feel dismayed at finding themselves in the role of life's casual occupants – tourists almost, flitting from flower to flower without settling on any particular burning desire. If they look around, beyond the confines of management and the professions they will see lots of people with unexciting but happy lives. What's wrong with that?

Business schools are in danger of stigmatising mundanity – they are right that it is thin gruel for many of their red-blooded colleagues, but we are all unique as individuals, and we must beware the universalistic prescriptive ideologies of purpose being evangelised by the positive preachers of the management world. They mean well in trying to awaken passion.

It may help all of us if we split "purpose" down the middle into two parts – push and pull purpose.

Push purpose and pull purpose

Push purpose comes from within. It is the aroused instincts toward commitment to particular types of action, ideas and experiences. It emerges from the unique identity and drives embedded in the person. Sufferers of purpose pathology can take comfort from taking simple pleasure in their own integrity at enjoying their diffuse and unfocused purposes; to give themselves permission to be who they are.

Pull purpose is the lure of the goal: the finished work, the summit surmounted, the challenge achieved. This can be stirring stuff, and leaders and their organisations love to feel they have engaged their members to passionate purposes that neatly intersect with the grand purposes of the system they are serving.

Yet I see a lot of disillusionment in organisations that the promise is unfulfilled. Their passionate managers too often find themselves all dressed up with nowhere to go. Instead of feeling triumphant after the last hurdle, they just feel empty. “Is that all there is?” is the dark cloud that can cloud the sun of pull purpose.

Push and pull intertwine, of course, as we interact with the world, and purpose is a noble driver when it conjoins the soul with congruent demands from reality, as so-called "vocations" do. But when it lures appetites and pulls desires into existence that have no deep foundation, it courts a serious risk of the hollowing out of identity instead of its enhancing it.

This is when the destination of "retirement" is a growing cloud on the horizon, a place of alienation and decline. It needn’t be so. Perhaps a better question than “What will you do?” – whatever life stage you are at – is “Who will you become?”

Comments (1)

Peter J 4 years, 3 months and 23 days ago

"They also serve who only stand and wait"