Life is complex, and not everyone has a predefined purpose. Most people struggle to identify their goals for the next month. And that’s okay!
As a society we have created perception cages of what defines success, what defines happiness and fulfillment, what is normal and what’s not, and so on. This oversimplification of the human purpose and fulfillment for the sake of popularity, marketing or to create meaning, does not address the complexity of the human nature. We are multifaceted individuals and organizations who evolve over time, influenced by numerous factors such as growth, experiences, and changing circumstances.
The Purpose, Vision, Mission Trap
Purpose, Vision, and Mission are interconnected concepts used in organizations and personal development. Purpose represents the fundamental reason for existence and the broader impact. Vision outlines the desired future state or destination. Mission defines specific actions and objectives to achieve the vision. To put it simply, purpose answers the “why,” vision looks to the future, and mission guides daily actions and decisions. Together, they create a cohesive framework for meaningful pursuits.
In ancient Greek philosophy, Aristotle, discussed the concept of “telos,” which refers to the inherent purpose or end goal of a thing or individual. Socrates urged his followers to engage in self-examination and the pursuit of wisdom. He famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” emphasizing the need to question and understand one’s purpose and values. Moving forward in time, one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s central ideas was the pursuit of meaning and purpose in life. He believed that understanding the “Why” behind our actions and existence was crucial to living an authentic and fulfilling life.
Over the past decade, purpose has become a management watchword, especially following Simon Sinek’s popularization of the phrase “Start with Why” in a modern context. Since 2010, the word purpose has appeared in the titles of more than hundreds business and leadership books and thousands of articles.
In the 2019 McKinsey Organizational Purpose Survey of employees at US companies, 82 percent said organizational purpose is important, but only half that number said their purpose drove impact.
Many organizations attempt to address the need for a clear vision or purpose by formulating what they often refer to as a mission statement. While this is a positive step, the majority of mission statements are remarkably ineffective in serving as a compelling and guiding force. In truth, most corporate statements – regardless of whether they are labeled as mission, purpose, vision, manifesto, or the company way—lack significant value. They fail to achieve their intended impact as they lack authenticity and do not evoke a deep emotional response or motivate individuals to unite in pursuit of a common objective. In many cases, these statements are the hard work of an advertising firm, unfortunately ending up as uninspiring strings of words, leaving little resonance throughout the organization.
For many organizations and individuals, it is overwhelming to pinpoint their purpose, despite the enormous investments in training, consulting, and coaching. They may be eager to discover a clear and predefined purpose from the outset, but the process can be daunting without first investing in the fundamentals. To establish a strong foundation, it is essential to focus on core values, fostering a culture of experimentation, and embracing courage and risk-taking. By aligning actions with values, exploring diverse interests, and having the courage to try new approaches, organizations and individuals can create a more adaptable and resilient path towards defining their purpose. Investing in these foundational elements enables them to navigate the complexities of their journey and discover a purpose that is authentic, meaningful, and aligned with their true aspirations.
Busting the Myth: Vision and Purpose as Evolving Entities
We’ve been led to believe that successful individuals and organizations started by having a strong and consistent purpose or vision (unlike various Eastern philosophies). Consequently, this has sparked an ongoing journey of exploration and discovery for both individuals and organizations alike. However, it has also triggered a sense of overwhelming frenzy, leading to a lack of focus for individuals and organizations who struggle to identify their purpose.
Although many successful companies had a clear vision from the outset, many prominent companies adapted their purpose or vision as they were evolving. According to a study conducted by Deloitte, over 90% of Fortune 500 companies in the United States experienced a change in their core purpose or mission over a span of just five years.
You’ve heard the stories how Coca-Cola started as a medicinal tonic, Play-Doh as a wallpaper cleaner, and Flickr as an online game. You’ve also heard the stories of Kodak and Blockbusters who started with a clear vision but failed to adapt to the changing environment and especially technological disruptions.
While a strong vision can provide a sense of purpose and direction, it’s the combination of factors such as keen market insights, innovation, adaptability, and a commitment to consumer needs that truly drives a company forward. Embracing change and remaining agile is often more crucial than adhering rigidly to an original vision. While vision is important, the journey to success is a dynamic process that requires a willingness to evolve and navigate unforeseen paths.
Embracing an alternative approach
If you’re starting on your vision journey or have been struggling to identify your purpose and define your vision, here’s an alternative approach that will enable you to build strong foundations for your organization.
- Step out of your comfort zone
Instead of focusing on finding a singular purpose, prioritize exploration and experimentation. This encourages embracing uncertainty, taking risks, and being open to diverse experiences and opportunities, which can lead to growth and a more nuanced understanding of purpose.
- Start Dreaming
Instead of fixating on a grand vision, start by having dreams that ignite your passion and curiosity. Allow your mind to wander and explore the possibilities without limitations. Dreams are the sparks that ignite the fire within us! But remember, dreams alone are not enough. Take a step back, evaluate their feasibility, and break them down into smaller, actionable steps. It’s the path ahead, not just the mountaintop, that paves the way to success.
- Focus on Your Core Values
Aligning your dreams with your core values creates an inherent purpose. By chasing what makes you happy, you naturally radiate positive vibes and create a ripple effect of goodness in your community and society as a whole. Focus on and align with your values. It is these values that serve as the compass guiding actions and decisions, ultimately formulating a meaningful and authentic purpose.
- Capitalize on Your Strengths
It’s often said that “where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” Indeed, people aspire further when their energies are channeled to purpose. McKinsey research finds that people who say they are “living their purpose” at work are four times more likely to report higher engagement levels than those who say they aren’t. Focusing on organizational as well as individual strengths is paramount as it fosters growth and paves the way for a clearer path towards finding purpose. By identifying and nurturing strengths, organizations can capitalize on their unique capabilities and competencies, leading to increased effectiveness and success in their endeavors.
- Ask “Why Not”
Ask yourself “why not” instead of just “why”. When you live with courage, you’re more likely to align with your true purpose and values. While both “why” and “why not” have their place in critical thinking and decision-making, asking “why not” can provide a broader perspective, encourage action, and foster a mindset of possibility and growth. It challenges conventional thinking and invites individuals to think beyond limitations, ultimately opening doors to new opportunities and breakthroughs.
- Don’t ignore the power of your team
Leadership is a team sport. There are many instances where a collective team endeavor proves more instrumental in shaping the vision of the organization, as opposed to the vision being solely dictated by the leader.
Navigating life without a predetermined destination is not a sign of aimlessness, but an invitation to discover purpose through a dynamic journey. The real essence lies not in the absence or existence of a vision, but in the proactive steps we take to craft our vision effectively—a vision that springs from authenticity, curiosity, and the willingness to evolve.
Written by Maria Papacosta.
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