The value of defining your purpose in life

04 April 2016

Woman looking in mirror
Seeing yourself clearly is the first step

It’s funny how many of us would say that we aim to have a meaningful life, and yet we wander opportunistically from one happy accident to another, letting random events define who we are and what we might ever achieve. Grabbing a passing job opportunity ends up defining a life’s career. That career then establishes what skills you will develop. Even what sort of person you will be.

By all accounts, one of the things that marks out those who really make a difference is that they know what they’re here to do, what’s their personal mission. Therefore they create opportunities that take them closer to their goals. They evaluate the happy accidents and reject the ones that, even if they seem superficially attractive, aren’t really connected to where they’re going.

I think I’ve tended to fall between the two camps. I’ve certainly made my own path, when I decided to step away from the design career I seemed to be heading towards in order to campaign on issues I cared about, principally the environment. I ended up doing some amazing things, speaking to large crowds of people in different parts of the world, working with inspiring change makers and sometimes, just sometimes perhaps, making a difference to somebody or something in a way that made things better.

If you know what your mission is, then you can look at an opportunity and know whether you should do it or not.

But that’s not the same as knowing what you’re for. If you’re asked what your purpose is, you can give the vaguest waffle about how you’re here ‘to do good’ or some other nonsense. But it’s too unspecific. Just about anyone could sign up to that.

If you know what your mission is, then you can look at an opportunity and know whether you should do it or not. It guides your decisions. That’s the test.

A couple of years ago, I decided to confront this, and I tried to work through just what it was I was aiming to achieve. You might argue that, having hit 50, it might be a bit late to be worrying about such things. Heck, no. It’s never too late. Well, all right. If I step out into the road and see the articulated lorry bearing down on me with its brakes screeching helplessly as its huge metal bulk is milliseconds from ending my mortal existence – then I might concede it’s too late, although it might not be uppermost in my mind at that point. Until then, I aim to be like Gandhi who began learning a new language at age 71.

But at age 50, at least I did have some evidence to work with.

Obviously, I have spent my adult life being involved with issues around sustainability. At least two decades of it have been focusing on corporate responsibility. The fact that it’s about positive change is obviously a key part. But what else?

Over the last few decades, I’ve done what seems to be a wide range of different things. I’ve been a writer on CSR for many years, a blogger before the term blogger was even invented. I’ve spoken at hundreds of events, aiming to inspire people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t have done. I provide websites and online video for organisations that are about making a positive difference to the world. I’ve run programmes at Business in the Community aiming to engage businesses to do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done. I’ve done some consultancy on CSR with a few companies. I lecture students occasionally on CSR.

When I first looked at all that, I assumed that there could be no common thread. It seemed such a disparate range of activities.

But eventually it did occur to me. Every single piece in there, without exception, was about making other people powerful. Specifically, other people who define their own role (or might be persuaded to) as directly creating change.

It was an interesting realisation. Obviously, we are all the hero in our own movie and I’d probably had my preconceptions that one day I would directly do the thing that created change. But by this I came to realise that, no – it was my role to support the change makers.

And it’s not just about support. I speak and write about this, I create video and audio. It’s all about telling stories.

I tell stories to inspire people to become change makers, and to promote and support those already on that path.

It plays to my strengths. I’m quite good at telling stories, and they always interest me. I’ve been told that I have the power to inspire when I speak. I’ve been told by some people that an article I wrote inspired them to get involved in CSR, or provided the catalyst for them being given that role within their company. Those occasional bits of feedback always made it feel as though it had all been worthwhile. Now I understand why.

So that’s what I’m for. The realisation is why I revamped this blog. Why I’m starting to experiment with the YouTube channel and the podcast and why I’m clear about where they need to go. It’s why my website work focuses on change makers, rather than simply doing websites for everybody who has money to pay for it.

Your turn. What are you for? Do you have a single sentence that is specific enough that it defines what you actually do? Do you think you could come up with one? Would it make a difference if you did? Maybe make it more likely you would lead a deliberate life, a meaningful one, rather than an accidental one?