A story of purpose



During the Covid lockdowns I designed and conducted a research project  to investigate how the pandemic was changing our relationships with work. You can click on the blue highlighted word or the link at the bottom to read the insights paper but if you want a one-line synopsis it’s this: Covid did change our relationship with work. We want our work to be meaningful. Of the 100 participants from around the world that I interviewed, I heard time after time stories about purpose. Stories about losing purpose and a reason to get out of bed. Stories about finding purpose in a crisis. And one story about purpose that stands out for its beautiful simplicity. The story of Gerhard the Retiree and his bookshelf. 

Gerhard is a retired pharma CEO. He’s also my father-in-law.  He did not lack purpose in his work, and he does not lack it in retirement either. He loves to learn languages, he loves to hang out in viennese cafes, and he loves philosophy. His library of philosophy books is enormous. According to him, perhaps one of the largest you might find outside of a university. I can’t say for certain if that’s true but I can tell you that his desk is always piled high with new philosophy books.

Gerhard explained to me that long before Covid, that he had made it his mission to tidy his desk and re-organise his bookshelf. He could never find the time to do it. Then, Covid came along. Gerhard was stuck in the house, suddenly with lots of time and….he still did not tidy his desk and reorganize his bookshelf. He caught himself giving himself a hard time and asking himself: “why don’t you just do it?”. Then, all of a sudden an answer came back:

“Because I never really wanted to do it in the first place!!”

Gerhard had done what we all do, often. He confused what he thought he should do and what he really MUST do.

When it became clear to Gerhard that his bookshelf project was a should it made an immediate impact. He stopped wrestling with himself, the feeling of avoidance disappeared, and he felt lighter. This allowed him to focus on his real purpose, his MUST, actually reading the books that bring him joy.

What is Purpose?

We often overcomplicate what purpose is. This brings stress when we can’t find it, and when we do know it, there is too much pressure to achieve it. Over the years, Purpose has been jumbled up, thrown-in, and mixed-up with other close relatives.  We often see it used as a synonym for “meaningful work”, “doing good for others”, and “authenticity”. Purpose can and does contribute to finding meaning, and it is an essential element of having meaningful work but it is not the only one. Your Purpose can also be something that impacts the world for the greater good but that doesn’t have to be it’s primary objective.

A simpler definition of Purpose is:

Having a clear picture of what it is that we really want to achieve / to become / to give to the world through our work.

When we have a strong and clear purpose we have a shining north star that guides us toward where we want to be and what we want to achieve. It can act like a magic filter for decisions, for prioritizing our time, and giving our energy. It helps us to spend our time on the things that matter to us.

When we work in alignment with a purpose it feels great. It can be the difference between being filled-up by work and being emptied. This purpose thing really is something wonderful that we all need, there is just one small problem. How do I know what my purpose is?

Finding and working with purpose

What I love about Gerhard’s bookshelf story is that it shows us a way for finding purpose by listening to our inner-guide. We all have ideas about what we want to do and what we think we should do. Fortunately we all also have an inner guide like Gerhard that can help filter between what we should do and what we simply must do. Listening to our inner guide is how we get close to our true purpose.

Gerhard quite accidentally but quite literally asked his guide for an answer. He got one. If that sounds a bit crazy then let me ask your inner guide for you right now, listen out if you can hear a response:

  • What do you want to do above all else?
  • What is the thing that if money, time, resources, knowledge were no object that you would do?
  • What is the idea that you keep throwing away that keeps coming back to you?
  • What would your life be like if you didn’t do this thing that you’re thinking of right now?
  • MUST you, do it?

Did you hear an answer? If so, AWESOME, you’re one step closer to purpose.


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