On Purpose (Part 1)

On Purpose (Part 1)

March 5th, 2010 // 10:22 am @

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitation, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed.”

– Patañjali

Taken from Inserm Serimedis What does purpose have to do with your job or with the organization you work for? We’ve all worked for companies that had mission statements or corporate values, but how has that translated into why we do what we do on an everyday basis? What does it all mean? Why is it important?

I remember having a football coach who would constantly push us through each drill by reminding us that we needed to “move like we had a purpose!” We never stopped to really inquire as to what purpose he was alluding to; either because we implicitly assumed what it was or because we were afraid that an intellectual point-of-order at that particular time might mean running more wind sprints.

It’s worth considering: are we doing the same thing in our organizations, and what exactly is our purpose? Certainly most companies have a “mission statement” or something similar, and we spend most days reacting to the latest “urgent” request or “fire-drill”, but what is our purpose and why should it motivate us? What is the initiative? What is the inspiration?

One key motivating factor is to create meaning in the work or role itself. How we answer the question of why we choose to do something, and how that fits into the larger plan is an important first step. From there, we can figure out how to structure everything else including strategic aspects like: compensation plans, motivation, roles and everything else that defines how the organization operates.

The Random House Dictionary defines Purpose as: the reason for which something exists or happens. An intended or desired result; end; aim; goal; determination; resoluteness.

According to Dr. Russell Ackoff, a system (organization) is purposeful if “it can produce the same outcome in different ways in the same state (environment) and can produce different outcomes in the same and different states (environments). Thus, a purposeful system is one that can change its goals under constant conditions; it selects ends as well as means and thus displays will.”

Although the ability to make choices (goal seeking) is necessary for purposefulness, it is not sufficient. Because a purposeful system has the capability to function in multiple ways as well as the consciousness to alter the end goal when necessary, we can begin to understand the organizational power inherent in purpose.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian Psychotherapist who, because of his Jewish ethnicity, was sent by the Nazis during World War II to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and later to Auschwitz.  While there, his skill in psychiatry were noticed and he was assigned to assist new and suicidal prisoners overcome their feelings of shock, grief and depression. It was here, in possibly one of the most purpose-less, absurd and demeaning environments conceivable, that Frankl developed the basis of what would become Logotherapy.

Logotherapy is a type of existentialist analysis that focuses on a will to meaning (as opposed to Adler’s Nietzschean doctrine of will to power or Freud’s will to pleasure). Rather than power or pleasure, Logotherapy is founded upon the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes counseling people who truly had no visible meaning in their lives and while doing so, he noticed that it wasn’t the physically or even emotionally strongest people that survived, but the ones who realized the one thing they had that couldn’t be taken away was a sense of purpose. This “spiritual life strengthened the prisoner, helped him adapt, and thereby improved his chances of survival”.

Frankl states his realization, quite beautifully:

..for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

Not unlike Dr Ackoff’s definition of a purposeful system, Frankl developed the following list of purposeful tenets as the basis for his Logotherapy:

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  • Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  • We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in our approach when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

It stands to reason, then, that any organization that wanted to fully engage their “Human Capital” and tap into the one of the most powerful human motivators for adaptive change would take a hard look at Purpose.

To be continued in the next post……

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