How common is it for people to feel that they have a clear purpose and focus for their lives?
A few years ago, I did an informal survey with 110 people related to purpose. On the first page of the survey, I asked them if they felt they had a purpose for their life. 89 (81%) responded by indicating “yes.”
Then, on the next page, I asked them what their purpose was. Of the 89 that said “yes,” 80 wrote a purpose. Of the 80 that wrote a purpose, nine actually articulated a purpose that suggested that they had thought about it in advance.
For example, the person who said, “Through my work and relationships, help people be happier and more fulfilled” seemed to be something that had been thought out in advance, whereas people who said, “To be happy” or “Giving to family and people” did not appear to have thought about it much in advance.
As a whole, this suggested that of 110 people surveyed, 8% seemed to have a clear purpose for their life.
Why Does Not Having a Clear Purpose Prevent Us from Being a More Positive Influence?
Andy Stanley, a popular leadership podcaster has stated: “Everybody ends up somewhere in life. A few people end up somewhere on purpose.”
One way that I interpret this quote is: people either have a defined purpose or they have a default purpose.
If someone does not have a defined purpose, what becomes their default purpose?
One way to answer this question is: rather than be purpose-centered, they become comfort-centered.
Another way to answer this question is by asking how do non-purpose-centered people measure their lives?
Isn’t people’s default purpose, “success?”
I think we are all socially incentivized to measure our lives in terms of success. But, how we define “success” differs person-by-person.
So, what determines how someone defines success?
My observation is that people tend to define success based upon their peer group’s values. If their friends value:
Fancy cars, they will measure their success by the degree to which they have a fancy car
A big house, they will measure their success by the degree to which they have a big house
Being admired, they will measure their success by the degree to which they are admired
If we measure our lives in terms of personal success, what happens when we face an ethical dilemma?
We will usually try to do what is easiest, most convenient, or best for us.
If we primarily seek to do what is easy, most convenient, or best for us, are we going to be a positive influence in the lives of others? Are we going to be someone that others want to follow?
To me, my mind goes to Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling of Enron fame. When faced with an ethical dilemma, they chose to do what fed their default purpose of “personal success.”
Why is having a Purpose Essential to Being a More Positive Influence?
Consider: How do great leaders measure their lives? Think people like Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela.
To me, rather than measure their lives in terms of personal success, they measured their lives in terms of their contribution to others.
Because of their purpose, they were willing to sacrifice and give of themselves for a cause that was bigger than them, a cause that was for others.
If we measure our lives in this way—our contribution to others—what happens when we face an ethical dilemma?
Rather than do what is best for ourselves, we will seek to do what is best for others. We will do what is right, not what is easy.
If we operate in this way, are we going to be a positive influence in the lives of others? Are we going to be someone that others want to follow?
Developing a Purpose for our Lives
If you find yourself without a clear purpose, let me try to provide some advice and guidance.
First, I think many people avoid coming up with a clear purpose for their life because they feel that if they lay claim to a purpose that it is something they need to stick with for the rest of their lives. That is not the case. What is key is having a purpose, not so much what it is. As we mature, so will our purpose.
Second, I have found this Harvard Business Review article helpful: From Purpose to Impact
Third, Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen gave a HBS commencement speech entitled, How Will You Measure Your Life. In it, he says the following:
Identifying a purpose for your life and figuring out how you want to measure your life takes an investment to dive into:
The impact you want to have
The values you want to espouse
Becoming an expert related to your intended impact and values
Moral of this post: If you want to be a more positive influence, more of someone that others want to follow, you need to develop a clear purpose that is connected to making a contribution to others.
This article is the third article in a series of articles all about helping people and leaders become people of positive influence, people that others want to follow.