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What I’ve learned about finding and defining purpose

I wrote this post before the coronavirus outbreak, but I think it makes even more sense now. This is the time when all of us look at the contribution we want to make and the purpose that guides what we do. And more importantly, we ask others to do the same.

These days purpose becomes more than ever a place where businesses define who they are.


In my work I help leaders to articulate their purpose and achieve extraordinary results by owning the story of why they do what they do.

Some of these conversations may not be easy, because we need to go through many layers before we can answer the question what your purpose is: this includes expectations about success, need for the approval and acceptance of others, and desire to belong and be loved.

These are some of the lessons I’ve learned by working on myself and with others on finding purpose in life and business.

Purpose evolves

When you start finding your purpose you need to look for the theme in your life, for the idea that’s kept you inspired, the aspiration that’s moved you forward. When I started working on my own purpose I realised that at the beginning of my career in human rights my purpose was helping others to have a voice. Later, when I changed careers, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find my own voice. That was a very difficult moment because I really wanted to have all the answers in front of me at the same time. And as you can imagine, it didn’t happen. Today I define my purpose as helping others to shine a light in the world and do work that matters. Finding your purpose requires a certain level of historical perspective and self-reflection. Don’t just focus on what’s going on right now.

Purpose is not intellectual

For some time I felt a bit embarrassed that “shining a light in the world” might sound a bit too new-agey. But I couldn’t find any other words to express how I felt about my work and why it matters to me. When I was telling people that this was my purpose I often got the answer “Yes, I can see it.”

Purpose is best articulated in simple words, not complicated sentences. It needs to make sense to you first. In this initial phase it’s not about marketing or branding. If you read what you’ve written about your purpose and it doesn’t resonate in your heart, you need to keep on searching.

Any narrative about purpose has its counter-narrative

It’s odd, but in my work I’ve found that we tend to put ourselves in situations that challenge our purpose. It’s as if we need to experience and learn what we want to bring to the world first. If you want to bring community, you might find yourself surrounded by conflict; if you want to help people with their leadership skills, you will probably find this area challenging.

Any narrative about purpose has a counter-narrative or anti-narrative, and it’s important to see both. A company that wants to make a product or service accessible to everybody might be operating with a scarcity narrative in the background. A person whose purpose is inspiring and helping others to be better teachers might struggle to receive feedback.

Because purpose is a higher aspiration, it sometimes collides with older narratives that no longer serve us. Typically, a company with a genuine commitment to diversity might reveal discriminatory practices in the workplace. At this point we need to accept what we see without judgement and find a way to replace the old narratives with new ones that serve us better. But be certain that there is no purpose without a counter-narrative, as there is no light without darkness.

Active listening and storytelling are your best tools

When it comes to finding your purpose, people who know you and have worked with you are your best allies. Ask them what they think matters to you, how they feel around you. Ask open and unusual questions such as “What energy do I bring to the room?” “What do I add to the conversation?” “What do you think I stand for?”

Another angle can be collecting the stories that have shaped who you are in your life, that really made an impact on you, so you that can start to see the patterns of what matters most to you.

You might start thinking about purpose during a crisis – but you won’t find your purpose in the crisis itself

That was a big lesson for me. The question of my purpose came at a very difficult moment in my life and it took me a while to understand that the answer was not to be found in my current situation. I see this happening with my clients too: they come to me at a point when they want to grow or there is a conflict, and think the answers will come from understanding what they have in front of them. But the truth is that it doesn’t work like this.

Purpose is aspirational. Many companies refer to is as higher purpose, and there’s a reason for that. It requires you to go higher, to detach yourself from the current drama and problems and look at the bigger picture. Purpose answers the question of how we can contribute and add value, not how we can make more profit or resolve this conflict.

Purpose will give you clarity, but you need to set the direction

Once you see your purpose things become clear. But an important part of the process is making a decision about the direction you want to take. It took me several different approaches and many mistakes to understand what I wanted to do to help others shine a light in the world and make work that matters.

Purpose gives you intention and clarity, but you still need to make the decisions. I’ve seen many people landing on their purpose and doing nothing about it. I’ve seen organisations recognising their own purpose but avoiding taking the decisions that were needed to activate that purpose in their business.

But probably the best lesson I’ve learned is to always stay curious. Purpose is not knowledge, it’s not equivalent to expertise: it’s a commitment to do things better, to bring meaning and fulfilment into your work. Questioning your purpose, learning from your purpose, reframing your purpose should be part of what you do if purpose matters to you in life and in business.

Never settle – always stay curious. Your purpose is only the beginning of the journey.

PS: I’m offering a free storytelling gathering on Thursday the 19th at 1:00 pm GTM. This is a 40 minutes gathering to tell stories about resilience. Stories from family, friends, books or films, stories that will help us to go through uncertain and difficult times. Bring your story or just join us to listen. This is the link



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