Do you have purpose? You’re life depends on it

So you probably know what you do, maybe you’re a docshutterstock_48962368tor, maybe you’re a teacher, an engineer or a lawyer. But here’s the million dollar question, do you know why you do what you doIt would appear many of us do not. 

In recent years, there has been a surge of research into purpose-driven leadership. The evidence is clear.  Not only is defining a purpose a key foundation to sustained, exceptional performance, it is the secret ingredient to a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, both at work and at home. Dan Pink in his book Drive: What motivates us, identified it as one of the 3 innate motivators we have as human beings at work. Doctors have actually found a link between having a life purpose and decreased risk of disease (Craig & Snook 2014).

Why? Well you could look at purpose like a lighthouse. When things get complicated and the right way forward is far from clear, people with a clear purpose can look to it to guide them out of the dark. Purpose illuminates the bigger picture, focuses us on our goals and lights the way towards them. Sounds good right!

However, in their article, From Purpose to Impact (2014), Nick Craig and Scott Snook estimate that only 20% of the thousands of leaders they have worked with had a strong understanding of their individual purpose, with even fewer being able to put it into words. So whats the catch? If having a purpose is the key to unlocking all the good stuff, why isn’t everyone doing it? The answer; it’s really hard. Of course it’s possible, but it involves a lot of learning, courage and commitment.

What is Purpose?

The first step is understanding what exactly is purpose. Craig and Snook define purpose as “who you are and what makes you distinctive” (Craig & Snook 2014). Its important to remember that purpose isn’t about what you do, its about honing in on how you do it and why it is that you do it.  Your purpose gets of the core of your individuality, its a summation of your interests, your experiences and your values.

You have a personal purpose and a leadership purpose whether you know it or not. The first answers the questions of “why do I exist and what gives meaning to my life”? The second answers the question “Why do I choose to be a leader”?

How do you define your purpose?

This is the hard part. When you look back at your life (and forward to the things you want to achieve) what are the major themes? which values resonate the most to you? What interests of yours are highlighted? If you can answer these questions you’re half way there!

The next step is a purpose statement. This is short and concise sentence or two, that in your own words, sums up your purpose. You can create a personal one or go straight to your leadership purpose.

I took a few days time out on my own in 2007 to take stock and ended up defining my personal purpose (by the way I didn’t go sit on a mountain top to do it, some time relaxing on an island worked for me). My purpose is ‘To explore the world and make a difference in the lives of the people I come across. Sounds pretty simple but it gives me meaning, it focuses me and acts as a lighthouse when it comes to making tough decisions. I have since extended it to define my leadership purpose “To explore the potential of people and make a difference in their lives through helping them understand their strengths and assisting them to have the freedom, courage and skills to perform at their best”.

The final step on the journey for purpose is to set some goals around living your purpose. What does your life look like in 6 months, two years, ten years? And how does this align with your leadership purpose?

Stop and Reflect 

Great! you have your leadership purpose statement, now what? Time to start living it!

It’s so easy to loose touch with your goals and aspirations in the drag of day to day life. We all know the ‘how to boil a frog’ anecdote (if you put the frog into cold water in a pot and slowly turn up the heat, it won’t realise its being cooked until it’s too late). This applies all too well to the purpose-less life. Maybe you didn’t quite align with the values in your organisation or the job you were in didn’t really get you jumping out of bed in the morning but you stayed, just a little longer, so you could afford that big trip next year, or because you were doing that renovation or maybe you simply didn’t have the energy to go on the hunt again. Now it’s twenty years later and you’re still there, its boiling hot, you’re about to crack and you’re still in the pot!

So, take a moment to look at your current levels of happiness and success. Ask yourself, how do I rate my happiness? How aligned am I with my purpose and values? If the answer to either of these questions is “not very much”, maybe its time to take a time out, check back in and ask yourself, “what is my purpose?”


Craig, Nick, and Scott Snook. “From Purpose to Impact: Figure Out Your Passion and Put It to Work.” Harvard Business Review 92, no. 5 (May 2014): 105–111.

Scott Erskine

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