All the talk about purpose can be confusing. In particular we can be vexed by the difference between personal purpose and organisational purpose. The high bar that purpose sets for work can also create the feeling that every single moment of our work life should contribute to personal purpose. As the outcomes of our efforts that benefit others, purpose is not required from one task or one job, the outcome flows from a whole life – all the ways we work, hobbies, volunteering, family and more. We need to manage our personal portfolio of purpose.
Discussion of organisational purpose can make it feel like purpose can be imposed. It can also create the impression that anything not directly to that purpose is less valuable, even where it might matter greatly to you.
Purpose is the outcomes of our effort that benefit others. Organisational purpose is the shared outcomes of individual efforts. The organisation itself has no purpose that isn’t shared by the people who make it up. Both personal purpose and organisational purpose are discovered not imposed. If your organisational purpose was developed by consultants or around a board table, it likely misses some of the subtleties of the culture in practice of your organisation. At worst, that statement of purpose is irrelevant to how the organisation acts.
Engaging with others, it is helpful to have a sense of the positive outcomes that you want to contribute for others. If you aren’t clear going in, you can always discover purpose in the work and in the collaboration. The best way to discover individual or collective purpose is not by what people say but the choices that they have made to benefit others through work. The Purpose is in the Work.
A Portfolio of Purpose
Most of us struggle to make everything we do or every organisation we join, directly relevant to our personal purpose. Life just doesn’t work that way. There is always development work, preparation, administration and overhead in all parts of life. Both individuals and organisations need to do things for money, to learn and to grow. Often your personal purpose is met later along the path and not right now.
Two approaches can reduce the sense of disappointment we feel when we must tackle tasks away from our personal sense of purpose:
- Recognise purpose comes from all of life: Work is not the be-all and end-all of purpose. For many work may actually be a means to an end to pursue social or artistic purposes that don’t fit well into traditional work roles. The richer and more diverse your life the more likely you are to find ways to express your contributions to others. That also means knowing when to stop the gradual encroaching of work into every aspect of our life and identity. You aren’t your job and don’t let it define you. If your job doesn’t quite fit your sense of self, then embrace the difference. Difference is OK and you only need change role when the difference becomes direct incompatability.
- Manage a diverse portfolio of activity: Recognise that the perfect job is rare, will likely become the end of a long search and may even be fleeting. Putting all your effort in the job basket can ignore the myriad other ways that you can make a contribution. Look across all the domains of your life and build a portfolio of contributions to others – that portfolio of purpose will provide the greatest chance for you to experience the personal rewards and to discover more about how you can contribute. Like any portfolio, diversity of effort also helps mitigate against disappointment in any one part of your life. There will always be some part of your efforts that are rewarding.
I have been exploring the portfolio life for some time, combing work, running businesses, consulting, advisory relationships, board roles, volunteering and helping friends. Every one of those activities gives me new insight into my personal purpose and new chances to express my contributions to others. The breadth of activities reduces the need for any one activity to meet my highest expectations. I learn and grow as I work across the breadth of this portfolio of roles.
So what’s in your portfolio of purpose?