The Purpose of Purpose

In business, career, and life plans, one common factor exists that determines whether such a plan is strategic or not. What is this X factor?

It is PURPOSE.

Most plans of any type lack purpose. Purpose is the end game you are trying to achieve. It is the “WHY” behind any plan — at least it should be.

The purpose of purpose is to provide direction.

How can you tell if you have a clear purpose or not?

Here’s a simple test:

If you struggle to make a decision between two well-understood options, then most likely your purpose is unclear.

If you can enter two different markets, but can’t decide between the two even after researching them thoroughly, most likely your purpose is unclear.

If you can’t decide between two job offers even after researching them thoroughly, then most likely your purpose is unclear.

If you can’t decide between living in two different cities, even after understanding both options, then most likely your purpose is not clear.

When you have purpose, decisions become surprisingly easy.

You pick the option that gets you closer to your end game. When your end game is clear (extremely clear), the decision is usually obvious.

In my work, I come across those just entering the work force, those in the work force for some time but who are unhappy, and veteran entrepreneurs in their 50s -- all of whom are “stuck” in their careers for one reason or another.

In my client work, I’ve told prospective clients for most of the last 10 years, "If you know what your goal is, I am quite good at helping you figure out an effective path to get there.

"But, if you don’t know what your goal is, I can’t help you." (Though I often refer such prospective clients to colleagues who can help them get clarity).

In other words, if you are starting at Point A and you want to get to Point Z, I can map out a strategic plan and course of action to get you there. But, if you are at Point A and have no idea where you want to end up, then my expertise is pretty useless until that has been defined.

Here’s another test to determine someone has a clearly defined purpose:

When someone states their goal, I ask them WHY that is their goal.

Regardless of the answer I get, I ask them WHY their answer to my question is important to them.

For example, someone might say, “I really want to work in management consulting.”

I say, “Okay. Why?”

They say, “Because it sounds like interesting work.”

I say, “Okay, why is that important to you?”

I will basically say "why" all day long to try to uncover someone’s underlying reasoning behind their reasons.

What happens quite frequently is at some point in the process, most people can’t answer the deceptively simply (but in reality, quite profound) question of “Why?”

I recently had a client tell me she had a goal of building a business with $X million in sales. I asked why?

She said, “Because it’s the next level.”

I said, “Why is achieving the next level important?”

“Because it is.”

“I understand it is, but WHY is it?”

Silence…

“Do you need the money to buy something?”

“No, I already earn enough to buy everything I need.”

“So WHY is $X million so important to you?

Silence…

“If you built a business that earned $(X - 1) Million, would you consider that a failure?”

She then responds, embarrassingly but honestly, “Yes…”

“Okay, why?”

More silence.

In this case, what I suspected was the purpose of her purpose was not one financial or strategic in nature, but largely emotionally symbolic. For some reason, not yet clear to me or her, the $X million had some symbolic meaning beyond its financial or strategic value.

A clear purpose helps enormously in identifying alternative and often unconventional ways to achieve your purpose.

I once remember Tony Robbins talking about one of his exclusive retreats in Fiji. Tony was taking a walk on a nearby beach when he ran into an old man who lived nearby all his life. The old man asked why all of these foreigners were in Fiji learning from Tony.

Tony responded that they were there to take control of their financial lives and to build wealth. And the local man asked, “Why?”

“So they can accumulate assets, to generate income without having to work.”

The old man responded, “And why do they want to do that?”

“So someday they can stop working entirely, and retire, and spend every day at the beach.”

In response, the old man said, “Well I’m not rich, I’ve worked all my life, and I've spent at least part of every day at the beach for my entire life.”

Isn’t that a thought provoking dialog?

When it comes to careers, most people are wedded to “The Path” — common popular career paths such as consulting, investment banking, law, medicine, etc.

There’s nothing fundamentally right or wrong with these paths. Whether these paths are good choices depends in large part on each individual’s purpose.

For some, management consulting is a phenomenal path. For others, it’s a completely disastrous idea. It all depends on your purpose.

I routinely get emails from readers looking for help in deciding between career path A vs. B, or job offer A vs. B. Invariably, I’m sure they are disappointed in my reply. In nearly every case, I ask, “What is your goal?”

What I find noteworthy is many people don’t know the answer to that question.

So what do you do when you don’t have a sense of purpose that is all your own? How do you figure out what you want out of your life?

Often this happens to people who have spent their whole lives based on what others (parents, siblings, peers) want for their lives.

If this describes you, here are a few tools you might find helpful.

1) If you don’t know what you want, then you damn well better know what you do not want (and at a minimum stop focusing there).

2) If you don’t know what you want, it helps enormously to invest time in exploring a wide range of options. Go visit people (alumni from your university are great for this) in different professions and see what a day in their lives looks like. You might not find out what you want, but you will most certainly figure out what you do not want.

3) Keep asking yourself what you want, even if each time you ask, you don’t get an answer.

I’m using this latter approach with one of my daughters. A year ago, I would ask her what she wanted to eat for dinner. She would never give me an answer and would just say, “whatever everyone else wants.”

When I would push her on the question, it eventually became clear to me that she literally had no idea what she wanted to eat for dinner.

When I saw this pattern repeat several times, I immediately linked this to readers who have written to me about their careers and were unable to respond to the question of "what’s your career goal?"

I extrapolated that if she couldn’t answer the question of “what do you want for dinner?” as a 6-year-old, as a 26-year-old she would probably have difficulty answering the question, “What do you want for your life or career?”

What I’ve found helpful with her is to do the following.

I would ask her what she wanted for dinner when everybody else in the family was not present. So when she would say, “whatever everyone else wants,” I’d say, “well nobody else is here, just you.”

“What do you want?”

The first 5 or 6 times I did this, all I ever got back in response was silence and a shrug of the shoulders.

Around the 6th or 7th time, I would (barely) get what I call a “non”-answer out of her. She would say, “I don’t know, but I do not want X.”

Progress!

"Okay, you do not want X. We’re not going to eat X tonight."

After many months of working with her on this, she now actually knows what she wants for dinner and can verbalize it.

The takeaway I got from this experience was that the act of asking the question, “What do you want?”, even when there was no immediate answer, prompted her (and others) to continually think about the question and build up the self-awareness needed to answer the question in the future.

Sometimes it takes weeks or months for someone unaccustomed to answering a particular question to develop their own thoughts and feelings about it.

(I personally think the human mind abhors a vacuum, and tries to fill it.)

I see this with my clients all the time. I will ask them a “why” question that they just can’t answer.

They will ponder the question, in some cases for months.

Their inability to answer a very simple question bugs them a lot.

So they start thinking about the question over several days, weeks, and months, until they eventually are able to answer it. (Though often the initial answers are “non”-answers -- e.g., they figure out what they do not want, before they figure out what they do want.)

If you sense the purpose of your career and life is unclear, I strongly urge you to not avoid the uncomfortable question.

By keeping the difficult-to-answer question present in your mind, your mind will dislike the discomfort it causes and do one of two things:

1) It will try to avoid the discomfort by avoiding the question.

or

2) Your mind will seek to resolve the discomfort by seeking an answer.

When you deliberately do not let yourself avoid the question, you force your mind to find the answer. You will definitely find the answer... eventually — though the path to do so might not be easily predictable in advance.

I’ll close today with a quote attributed to Socrates: “An unexamined life is one not worth living.”

I’ll add my corollary that, “an unexamined life is existing, but it is not living (your life).”

 

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35 comments… add one
  • VV May 8, 2014, 11:39 pm

    Dear Victor,

    Great article once again ! And something that I have spent countless hours thinking (being a very analytical/logical person myself)

    A few thoughts that came to my mind following your article…

    1. While it is indeed very useful to keep asking the “Why” behind the actions you perform and filtering out what you don’t want, it is important to note that for many of us purpose itself is a moving target and one has to be okay with choices you made 4-5 years earlier since I know that at least for me some of my priorities have changed in life.

    2. It is also interesting to hear your views on how you go about making your choices rationally and logically (by a process of logical thinking and elimination). Contrast this with say someone like Steve Jobs who takes a different approach asking you to “follow your heart” (rather than your mind). Do you think you might sometimes end up unhappy if you leave your decision making to your mind ? (successful and miserable :) )

    3. Sometimes when I have resorted to thinking too much about the choices I have to take, I do not “take action” (as mentioned in your previous article). I would love to hear your views on whether we as human beings “find our true identity” through a process of logical thinking or “create our own destiny” through the process of taking action.

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:45 pm

      VV,

      1) Sometimes the only way to find your purpose is to pursue what you THINK is your purpose. In many cases a fast wrong decision is better than no decision, because often the wrongness of the bad decision becomes apparently more quickly through action that the lack of insight that comes from inaction.

      And yes, priorities change through life. My purpose today is quite different than what it was when I was 20 years old. That’s natural.

      2) I personally like to make decisions where both my head and my heart are in agreement and alignment. Or stated differently, when my head and heart disagree I definitely take a time out to reflect on why the discrepancy exists.

      I think holistic decision making should incorporate both. I personally use my heart to figure out the spirit of my purpose and goals, and my head to figure out the practical, tactical and scheduling aspects of it.

      If you only follow your heart, it’s very exciting but the heart isn’t always great at solving problems, laying out a schedule, making short and long term tradeoff decisions.

      If you only follow your head, it’s logically sound but may not be at all inspiring. The head is great at preventing “dying”, the heart is more geared towards “living”.

      -Victor

      3)

  • sumeet May 8, 2014, 11:29 pm

    well articulated and very thought provoking write up victor!
    intact for me it also triangulates with ” Stephen covey ‘s” habit of ” keep the end in mind ”

    keep up the good work !!

    best regards,

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:40 pm

      Sumeet,

      Yes, I first read Covey’s 7 Habits book when I was 16 years old. It was as brilliant then as it is now. Beginning with the end in mind IS being strategic.

      It’s hard to do, but quite worthwhile to do so.

      -Victor

  • Puja May 8, 2014, 9:34 pm

    Thanks for another brilliant article, Victor! It sounds so simple and should be so obvious, but I’m continually surprised at how many times we miss it. As an aspiring consultant heading to B school next year, I’ve started saying “My passion is purpose” – it explains a career in strategy consulting so well. Thanks again for great career advice!

  • Guilherme May 8, 2014, 8:35 pm

    Dear Victor, as the reader from Sweden said, I might have read about this topic sometimes before. But the way you approach is aweesome.

    I started reading you when I was applying for management consulting firms. I did get an offer and started as an intern, being hired 4 months later… And fired 3 months after. At that time it was the biggest fall I’d ever had and it seemed as my career was over when it was about to start.

    Today, 3 years later I’m enough mature to understand that it was one of the best things that happened to me. I wanted to be in management consulting because others had told me it was the best career path to follow and not because a purpose of mine. Today I still think I must find some purposes in order to continue to develop myself. But the good thing is that I finally feel as I’ve found my career path. And it’s completely aligned with one of my life’s purposes. And I think all this “bad” experience hepeld me a lot in reflect about what I really want. At least I’m usually the one to decide the restaurant and what to eat among my friends :)

    Thanks again for one more useful reflection.

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:39 pm

      Guilherme,

      I’m glad you found your path. Sometimes the so called “failures” are simply feedback to consider another approach or direction. Although I have never enjoyed any of my failures, they have all served me in the end in some beneficial way.

      -Victor

  • Jane May 8, 2014, 8:26 pm

    I enjoyed the article but I’m wondering why an “emotionally symbolic” reason for pursuing something cannot be a purpose. I’ve read many articles that have stated something similar but I am not sure I understand what the flaw is here. Aren’t all purposes emotionally symbolic? Can you please clarify?

    • Victor Cheng May 9, 2014, 1:37 pm

      Jane,

      An emotionally symbolic reason for pursuing something can be a valid purpose provided the person understands it’s an emotionally symbolic reason.

      It is when an emotionally symbolic reason is disguised as something else or when its status is unknown that it is a problem.

      Also, I have found that many emotionally symbolic purposes are illusory — meaning when you achieve it, you aren’t actually happy with it.

      For example, you’ll see this in Silicon Valley a lot. I want to start a company and sell it for $100 million to prove I am important. Then once that happens, I still feel inadequate because other people I know sold their company for $1 billion.

      So I set out to build a $1 billion company, and do it. Then critics say it was just luck, and I didn’t do it twice. So I STILL feel unimportant, and aim to do it again.

      This pattern has more similarities to an addiction than to say a calling, ones core values or some functional purpose.

      -Victor

  • Andrew G May 8, 2014, 7:17 pm

    Hi Victor,

    This is a fantastic email, and has come at such a timely moment in my life. Last week, I read an article by an ex Blackstone analyst imploring us to examine the question of “what is the true purpose of my life”, and when I finished that article (at 3am), I spent the next 3 hours asking myself this question over and over until I got an answer that resonated with me. This 3-6am period has been the best use of any block of my time this year, and the answer has driven my day to day decision making and gave everything clarity.

    It’s also important to emphasise broadening one’s experience to clarify purpose I think. It’s a shame “someone from Sweden” (the above comment) does not appreciate the value of this post. However, had I not thought long and hard about my purpose last week, I will very likely have also dismissed this post as cliche.

    Thanks and keep the good stuff coming!

    Andrew G

  • L C May 8, 2014, 6:49 pm

    The 5 Whys you have borrowed in this article is a very useful technique that should be in everyone’s toolkit.

  • Pius May 8, 2014, 5:47 pm

    Thank you for the invaluable article.
    Embarassly, whenever I am stuck in some difficult situation or trouble, your precious and advisable articles come in my inbox, and then surprisingly it leads me to an end (action).

    I am really happy of subscribing your newsletter!

  • someone from Sweden May 8, 2014, 4:34 pm

    Dear Victor,
    Some of your articles are really insightful and a pleasure to read. This one was a terrible cliché.

    If were to talk about “purposes”, I think it would be better to share some interesting (not predictable) examples of how purpose has shaped decisions.

    • Honest Abe May 9, 2014, 1:12 am

      Someone from Sweden, please read the post again.

      Victor, your wisdom is astonishing and your effort to illuminate purpose is wonderful. The framework suggested here will help many. Your insights are helping many caught in conflict avoidance behavior. Thank you so much. Please continue to address these deep core issues that when resolved create substantial inner peace.

  • Rob May 8, 2014, 4:16 pm

    Excellent post, as someone with a few years in strategy consultancy that is debating their options this is a timely article!

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