It wasn’t until the shock of COVID-19 and my contract as an interim leader ending that I realised I had been avoiding something. Like many who have had similar experiences I paused and reflected on my life and my responsibility for my predicament. I’d been on the same career path for 22 years, things just kept happening to signal that time was up and this was the latest and loudest call so far. I had ignored the signals for years, activating my determination and tenacity to deliver ‘the life plan’ no matter what. The problem was, it may not have been my life plan.
Six months later, about to launch a new coaching business, I was having a conversation with a copywriter about our new website. “You use the P-Word a lot”, she told me. I wasn’t immediately sure what she meant, but by the second use of this term I worked out she was talking about the word ‘purpose’. The psychology of abbreviating words in this way is interesting, as we tend to do it with taboo words that we cannot bear to look at fully. These words can be obscene, coarse, offensive or in some way unacceptable to us. We also abbreviate in this way when words lose their meaning and become trite, worn out expressions without the impact they once had. I once wrote an article about business ‘transformation’ referring to it as the T-Word. Transformation at the time (and perhaps still) had lost meaning and was being used to describe any business change. My sense is that my copywriter friend was saying the idea of finding purpose had already lost its meaning, sunk in the sea of COVID-19 content that had overwhelmed the web.
The task of finding your purpose in life had become a cliche!
Things become cliche for a reason. The origins of the word cliche stem from the French, a technical word in printer’s jargon for a ‘stereotype block’. Supposedly, the sound of the printer’s mould striking the metal block went ‘click’. It may be that in this case the idea of finding our purpose clicked with millions of us globally and then the ‘stereotype’ was worn-out rapidly, as we consumed associated online content on a mammoth scale. But how can the idea of finding purpose in life be worn-out? The fact that so many people seemed to click with this task at the same time might suggest that we should stay with this question a little longer before moving onto the next online keyword.
Growing up I latched onto things that I believed to be purposeful. I believed that if I could achieve this or that then I would be happy and have importance. I always had a big ambition to help me explain who I was. Today looking back, these goals and ambitions don’t feel like they were ever my purpose in life. Many of my goals were achieved and that was that, nothing really happened. Sometimes I didn’t even acknowledge the achievement, let alone celebrate. I just looked around for the next thing to latch onto.
There is no doubt that my ambitions served me well throughout the first half of my life. They kept me bumping along on life’s journey, providing satisfaction and dissatisfaction in roughly too equal measure to encourage any real change. There comes a point when this isn’t enough, bumping from happy to unhappy becomes tiresome. In Transactional Analysis (TA) there are three ego states: Parent, Adult and Child (PAC). If I apply this frame to my search for purpose my Child wanted more, my Parent wanted me to do more and my Adult was questioning the whole damn business. Carl Jung observed that “the greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” This observation only started to make sense as I activated my Adult capacity and questioned why I had pursued certain goals in life. My answer for myself was that I had pursued goals my Father would understand. Was I still trying to please Dad? How could I discern my authentic purpose from Child messages of wanting more and Parent demands to do more? And did I actually need this thing called purpose at all?
When it didn’t happen I wish I could say I modelled a growth mindset
The first serious goal that I can remember having was to become a Royal Marine and this ambition gave me tremendous purpose in my early adulthood. It consumed my identity almost completely and occupied much of my time as I worked hard to make the grade. I never did succeed in this ambition and the failure at the time hurt deeply, but despite this I can now see the benefits of having this purpose. At the time my life was organised around my aim, and my determined energy carried me forward. I was forced to operate in middle class surroundings for the first time in my life, I pushed myself physically, I gave formal presentations and experienced a military culture that affected my entire outlook. Having an aim gave my life purpose in a way that previous experiences had not. When it didn’t happen I wish I could say I modelled a growth mindset and dealt with this set back by learning from it. Unfortunately that was not the case. It’s only now, 30 years later, that I can see the benefits of having a purpose.
“Few of us realise that it is not what we do but what we are in service to inside that makes all the difference”.
When I examine my own life projects, I can now see more clearly what they were in service to and it wasn’t what I told myself and others at the time. I can see now how my ambitions were often in service of managing my anxiety, trying to be be good enough, pleasing my Father and aggrandising myself. These patterns repeated for a long time in what Freud called “the repetition compulsion”; I kept doing the same thing. The question ‘what is it in service to inside?’ opens us right up, getting to the psychopathology that may be driving our behaviour. Answering this question is about sifting through the Parent and Child messages that converse in your head.
Hollis’ reference to “…service to inside” is significant, as it reminds us that there is an inner and outer world and an inner and outer purpose. Having an outer purpose, like my ambition as a young man to be a Royal Marine, can be helpful as it gets us moving forward in the world. Yet, it is not until we find an answer to the question ‘what is it in service to inside?’ that our inner-purpose can be discovered. As I embark on this new project in life I can answer this question. I know that I love to coach, it brings me enjoyment and fulfilment, it is in service of my clients development and of my own. I am passionate about coaching and it feels purposeful. Psychologist Malidoma Some described this realisation beautifully when he wrote:
“Purposeful living arises naturally from deep within as an urge to engage in activities that uplift self and the others. If what you are doing feels like this, chances are you are fulfilling your purpose”.
Malidoma, describes our talents as a gift to be delivered, asserting we have a contract with our gifts that when, for whatever reason, we default on the contract, the gift is upset. The result of this upset puts us out of rhythm with the psyche and we get sick. This physical condition is an expression of the disharmony resulting from being alienated from our purpose. According to Maildoma and Hollis, living in service to our gifts provides us with the purpose that gives us the meaning we are all looking for. Rather than being cliche discovering the gift that provides us with purpose might still be the most important task in life.