What is purpose?


For millennia, the question of how to find purpose in life and work has been of central importance to philosophers and theologians. More recently, the topic has become of increasing interest to psychologists. A key figure in this move was the psychologist Viktor Frankl, whose book 'Man's Search for Meaning', I can't recommend highly enough. Frankl, referring to his experience in the Auschwitz labour camp, described the discovery and pursuit of purpose as a key human need. Frankl's work on purpose was picked up by the positive psychology movement, which swiftly identified purpose as a central component of human thriving.

Academic definition

Despite the growing interest in the topic, there is little consensus as to what purpose really is, or how it should be defined. Some authors use the terminology of 'calling' and 'vocation' to describe the concept. Others refer to 'mission', 'discovered life themes', or to 'authentic' versus 'inauthentic' projects. The many different ways of describing purpose are often confusing. They also give the impression that the research into purpose is less rigorous than in fact it is.

In an attempt to address this issue, in 2003 a team of academic researchers from Stanford University, led by William Damon, proposed the following definition:

“Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self”.

According to this definition, the extent to which an individual is purposeful can be measured by assessing the extent to which she or he demonstrates the following:

  1. A settled intention to accomplish something that is personally meaningful;
  2. Engagement in activities that will allow this intention to be realized; and
  3. A connection between these activities and the wellbeing of others.  

The Damon definition is now largely accepted among psychologists as a working base for further study and research. One of the advantages of the definition is the distinction it draws between goals that provide personal satisfaction only, and goals that include a desire to make difference in the world. This is the key distinguishing factor between 'meaning' and 'purpose'. Although the terms are closely related, the former lacks the pro-social focus of the latter. As Kendall Bronk (2012) put it, “while seeking fame and fortune may imbue one’s life with meaning, doing so does not provide a source of purpose”.

It is important to note that the Damon definition is not confined to the domain of work. Certainly, individuals will often find or give effect to their purpose through the work they do. But the definition may be applied to other domains as well. Damon provides the examples of a parent caring for their child, a person committed to charitable giving, and of someone dedicated to their faith. 

real-world application

The academic definition is helpful, but can lead to problems. It's easy to read the definition and conclude that purpose is about having a noble cause, or doing great things in the world. In fact, in my experience of working with individuals and organizations, thinking of purpose in terms of things that you do is unhelpful. It's more productive to see purpose in terms of the orientation you bring to your work. In other words, purpose is not what you do but how you do your job and why. 

In their insightful article for the Harvard Business Review, From Purpose to Impact, Nick Craig and Scott Snook make this very point. They describe purpose in terms of the strengths and passions you bring to your work, and as an aspect of your essential identity. It's the magic that makes you tick. Craig and Snook give examples of how individuals they have worked with define their purpose:

"Compelled to make things better, whomever, wherever, however"
"To help others live more ‘meaning-full’ lives"
"With tenacity, create brilliance"

I define my own sense of purpose in a similar way: "To have the conversations that really matter".

purpose circles

I'll say more about creating a 'purpose statement' in a future post. For now, a final point I want to convey is about the difference between purpose, vision, and goals.

Typically, when people talk about purpose, they are really referring to something that results from purpose, rather than purpose itself. In other words, they confuse purpose with their vision for the future, or the goals that they set. The 'Purpose Circles' diagram provides a simple way of distinguishing between these concepts. I'll use my own purpose statement as an example: 

My purpose is to have the conversations that really matter. This is an orientation I bring to the world. I can't help it. And this is different to the vision that flows from my purpose, which includes establishing Purpose Matters, and my aspirations for what I would like the world to be like as a result of the conversations I engage in. My vision for the future in turn shapes the goals I set for my self. This is the realm of action planning, the to-do list, and project management.

I've noticed that many of the people and organizations I work with are most comfortable with the outer of these circles, with setting goals and targets, often over a relatively short timeframe. I've found that setting a long-term vision is surprisingly rare, for individuals and for businesses. And connecting with a sense of purpose is rarer still. But purpose is the foundation on which vision and goals rest. It pays, then, to pay attention to purpose, not just to what's next on the to-do list.