At the beginning of the year, many of us look at our purpose—what it is, how to achieve it and make it real, often with a purpose statement
I propose an entirely new way of looking at purpose.
Many people are experiencing an existential crisis right now. Our sense of safety and stability is shaken by the massive changes happening at every level of society—political, economic, social, technological and ecological.
When we find ourselves in the heat of this fire, we feel pressed to examine every aspect of our lives, and look at what we want to deconstruct so that we can rebuild anew. As the world turns topsy-turvy, flipping everything we know upside down, it’s natural to turn inward and ask, Why am I here? What am I to do?
We are called to question not only what we are doing with our lives, but also, how we are doing things.
The only problem is that very often, as we are looking into our reason for being, we can create more stress and more tension, rather than peace and relaxation.
Where Does Purpose Reside?
We talk about finding or figuring out our life purpose. We talk about following the breadcrumb trail of our passions to reach it as if purpose is hidden somewhere “out there” in the wilderness. We talk about uncovering or revealing our purpose, as though purpose can be found “in there” somewhere, buried beneath a secret trap door in our psyche.
The language of heroic quest supports the belief that purpose requires a search. We see it as something to seek and find, something to know and name.
We treat purpose as our prey to hunt and capture; our treasure to discover and recover; or our trophy to drag back to our cave and mount on the wall.
This objectification of purpose is cause for caution.
Whenever there is a desired object that we believe we have or do not have, a lineup of people will be waiting to sell us the thing that we feel we are missing. We are bombarded with ads for secret guides to fulfillment or simple blueprints for a meaningful life.
Purpose has become a new age award of significance; it is yet another marker of “having your life together.”
I propose a fresh new perspective on purpose, and a challenge to our conventional thinking about it being something to seek and achieve. My book, “Regenerative Purpose: The Dynamic Nature of the Way We Choose Work,” offers five major frame-shifts that help us redefine our relationship to purpose:
1. Purpose is not something that you can reach or achieve or complete; it is a daily practice that we have to commit to coming back to again and again.
2. Purpose is not singular focus; it touches multiple dimensions of our life.
3. Purpose is not a fixed thing to define and label with a permanent marker; it is dynamic, living, breathing and always changing, as much as we are.
4. Purpose is not personal, in the sense that it doesn’t belong to an individual owner; it emerges in the relational space between us and the world around us.
5. Purpose can take on a form of expression, such as a business or a project or a product, but it is not dependent on form; it is an experiential quality of life.
(The book describes a cyclical model of purpose flow that is centered around a free-moving exchange of energy and information between the individual and collective world at large. It goes into depth describing the core inner qualities that we can cultivate in ourselves to encourage this flow: authenticity, attunement, responsiveness and receptivity. It offers a number of different stories, perspectives, and practices to help us integrate this new paradigm of purpose into the way we live and work.)
Here is one exercise we can use to support that process, by reframing traditional purpose statements as purpose commitments instead.
How do we codify our purpose? How do we claim it? How do we commit to it?
It is a common coaching exercise to craft a purpose statement — a sentence or two that summarizes your personal mission. It is an elevator pitch explanation for your existence. It is a catchphrase that is usually short and sometimes inspirational. It is a declaration that describes your why.
Here are a few examples of typical purpose statements:
My purpose is…
• To enable others to express more of their true selves
• To help people embrace healthy risks without fear
• To support flourishing, healthy, mature relationships
• To inspire positive change through teaching and coaching
• To empower other women in greater sexual freedom
• To create growth opportunities for young adults
• To bridge understanding as a speaker and writer
• To support others to identify their gifts and talents
These purpose statements share some common themes. They all reflect a desire to make use of a personal strength to be of service to a particular group of people. They all demonstrate
a motivation to help others, to make a positive impact, or to contribute to creating a better world. Most people reading these statements would nod at the nobility of these causes.
These kinds of statements are useful personal touchstones. They remind us to stay focused on the impact we want to have, or rally us to persist through challenges. They help us find our way back to the path when we get lost. They can also make lovely branding messages for purpose-powered products and services. If we leave it there though, we run the risk of experiencing purpose that is only skin deep, not soul deep.
Make Commitments, Not Statements
For soul-deep purpose, we have to make and honor purpose-based commitments.
As sweet as they may sound, purpose statements are not that useful when it comes to actually living our purpose. In our efforts to free up space and make good decisions on a day-to-day basis, these inspirational boilerplates will not help us. Such declarations do nothing to open and conduct the flow of purpose.
We need something else to support purpose alignment in everyday life. Beyond the boilerplate, what we need are clear commitments that set firm boundaries and guide principled choices.
Two kinds of commitments help facilitate purpose flow:
• Selection-commitments are the commitments that support dedicated space clearing by defining our boundaries.
• Direction-commitments are the commitments that support devotional decision-making by guiding our choices.
Selection commitments mark our boundary edges. They help us draw a bright line between the people, things, and experiences we want to include in our lives and those we want to exclude. The diva of decluttering, Marie Kondo, has popularized her filter for getting rid of unnecessary objects: Does it spark joy?
She suggests tossing out things that do not spark joy when we touch them. This rule is simplistic but it’s a good example of a filter that is used to select what we allow into our space. It determines what is in and what is out. It tells us what is allowed through the front gate as things come to us. It tells us what goes out with the trash when things are ready to leave us.
Some examples of selection-commitments are:
• I commit to only accepting Facebook friend requests from people whom I have met at least once in real life
• I commit to donating any clothing items that I haven’t worn in more than a year
• I commit to ceasing my efforts to connect with friends when they do not reciprocate for one month
Direction commitments guide our actions. They are principles that help us decide which way to go when we are at a crossroads. They tell us when to turn left; when to turn right; and when to make a U-turn and go back the way we came.
Direction commitments clarify the foundational values that act as guardians of our choices. They serve as guiding principles that we can fall back on when we have difficult decisions to make. These commitments can be expressed as priorities or preferences. They make it obvious when one choice is more aligned with our values than another. These kinds of direction-commitments help us choose between options by clarifying the reason for taking this path over that path.
Some examples of direction-commitments are:
• I commit to choosing to work with organizations based on my alignment with their mission and values
• I commit to buying organic produce from the farmers’ market instead of the nearest global chain grocery
• I commit to patronizing restaurants that are locally owned and managed over international brands
Ultimately, the purpose statements that we craft to declare our life’s mission to the world often end up being largely for appearance’s sake. On the other hand, when we make purpose-full commitments, we put in a grounding stake.
Get in the Flow of Purpose
We can be more on-purpose in our lives when we get clear on our selection-commitments and direction-commitments. If we use these commitments to manage our personal space and guide our daily decisions, we will naturally be more aligned with the flow of purpose.
Making and sticking to these kinds of commitments to ourselves feels purpose-full because we are consciously contributing our gifts to create what we value.
“Regenerative Purpose” talks about purpose as relational, experiential and fluid. This is a radical new view that invites us to participate in what is happening in the world around us with a sense of both engagement and ease.
This article was adapted from Excerpted from “Regenerative Purpose: The Dynamic Nature of the Way We Choose Work,” by Wendy May. For more information about the book, audiobook, and additional free resources, go to regenerativepurpose.com.
About the Author
Wendy May is a purpose coach, conscious leadership consultant, and recovering achievement addict. She is the author of “Regenerative Purpose: The Dynamic Nature of the Way We Choose Work,” a frame-breaking perspective on purpose work as dynamic, interdependent, and regenerative.