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Lack of Purpose

When I first met Richard, one of his major complaints was about his ever-demanding boss, who never seemed to be content with what Richard did. Yes, there were those empty praises, such as, “Terrific job!” and, “Well done!” and the like, but Richard perceived that they were delivered in the same tone and with the same facial gestures as when his supervisor would ask about the weather or the time. I once asked Richard what he worked for (I was afraid that asking about a purpose would paralyze him), and he remained speechless. After reframing my question into whom he worked for, he immediately responded, “My boss, of course!” Gone were the carefully worded company mission and the beautiful and moving statements about the importance of the company stakeholders, environment, and community.

Richard’s objective was to please his boss by achieving increasingly demanding financial results in his area. This boss-pleasing strategy had proven to be successful in the past, and thanks to this fact, Richard always managed to move up in the organization. But it became harder and harder for him to become motivated, and boredom seemed to kick in much too often. Something was missing in Richard’s life, but what? It seemed that all of his achievements did not produce the energy to wake him up each morning, to push him further even when he was at his worst… The human flaws of laziness, frustration, and fatigue were kicking in, and Richard just could not find inspiration to get himself moving in a particular direction. At one point, Richard could not continue hiding these feelings, and his team started to get dragged down by the same sentiments. Once the star of the company, he received a modest “meets expectations” rating on his year-end performance appraisal for the first time. Right afterward, during a business review meeting with the executive committee, Richard sensed that he was no longer being appreciated and celebrated as he used to be, and he decided to hand in his resignation. Everybody was shocked to learn that it took so little to drive him to make such an abrupt decision. Why would such a bright guy with a history of so many successes make such a decision? Was it because his level of tolerance for constructive criticism and his resilience were small?

Absence of Purpose A quote from the famous British writer Dorothy Sayers may fit very well into Richard’s situation: “In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell, it is called Despair; the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

Even though this may sound a little extreme for this case, it describes pretty well a sentiment that is pervading our society and, thus, many corporations: an extremely low level of resilience and tolerance when the first difficulties arise. Richard was not able to weather a single storm because he did not have any island to get. His lack of purpose deprived him of the needed energy that would otherwise make him resilient to external criticism. His level of self-awareness was so small that he never honestly asked himself what his real work motivations were. This lack of inner meaning was compensated for by external factors that are as fragile as they are elusive: a friendly environment, constant positive reinforcement from his peers and boss, excellent business results, etc. The moment the external environment turned a little bit hostile (an average performance appraisal rating, in his case), he realized that his work life was based on pillars of sand.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said, “What man needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” When he founded the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy based on his experiences in the Nazi death camps, Dr. Frankl discovered that people who had the hope of being reunited with loved ones, projects they felt a need to complete or great faith tended to have better chances than those who had lost all hope. During his ordeal, Dr. Frankl came into contact with people who, despite the extreme negative circumstances and expectations, managed to achieve inner peace and serenity. (And he was one of them!) In fact, one of the principles behind logotherapy is that man, is a being whose main concern consists of fulfilling a meaning and actualizing values rather than merely gratifying and satisfying drives and instincts. There was no way prisoners in the death camps would have been able to find any gratification of their human needs in such a poor environment. The world is going through difficult times, but a death camp is, fortunately, an extreme example of a hostile external environment that we all hope will never, ever exist again. I wanted to use this image to depict the extent to which human beings can cope with awful negative circumstances when they have a clear purpose to fulfill. Companies are surely no death camps, nor do we necessarily need to look for transcendental meaning to our jobs, but unless we find a purpose in what we do, we will have many colleagues like Richard, whose motivations revolved around external effects that cannot be controlled. Richard’s life was a pointless race toward bigger and bigger accomplishments, with pats on the back from the crowd saluting the runner but with no finish line in sight. Even if the final goal was actually to please somebody else (boss/family/friends), how would he ever be able to control other people’s feelings? He could have surely provided better and better business results for the company, and still his boss may have never been satisfied for reasons beyond Richard’s control.

The pervading reductionist vision in many management theories promotes the idea that people’s motives usually boil down to just four items: money (getting a raise in salary), power (obtaining a coveted promotion), status (acquiring a more lofty company title), and popularity (a burning need to be liked by everyone). I am not against any of these, but I believe we human beings are much more complex and that living a mere goal-centered life is not sustainable, neither for the individual nor society as a whole. We may achieve many goals that can make us happy or proud for a while, but like caffeine, this effect will peak and then subside, and then we will need more coffee to get us going (higher salary, bigger office, job promotion, etc.)…until we are suffering from ulcers!

The Difference between Goals and Purposes

In our jobs, we have many goals to achieve, but these cannot be considered purposes. It is essential to recognize the difference between the two. Think of a goal as something external that somebody else suggested or imposed. (This is not necessarily right or wrong, because external goals if properly aligned, can help us achieve our inner goal, which is our purpose in life.) A purpose, on the other hand, is something that comes from within; it has been created or found by oneself. A purpose in what you do may not coincide with your present company’s mission, but it also does not necessarily need to be a transcendental one. Your purpose could be a high and noble cause, such as saving lives, finding a cure for a rare disease, creating something the world has never seen before, educating at-risk kids, solving an environmental conundrum, creating quality objects that stimulate positive feelings in consumers, developing an environment-friendly mind-set in your community, or elevating moods and spirits by producing a piece of art or writing songs. Your purpose also could represent less far-fetched aspirations (and those closer to our business world), such as improving working relationships in your organization, turning the challenges of leadership into opportunities for personal growth, developing a culture that brings out the best in your people, or mentoring up-and-coming leaders.

Think of purpose as something that you find pleasure in pursuing and that you would like to be remembered for—your legacy (the question Richard was not able to answer). A purpose provides direction. It is the reason I get up every morning, and it will help me weather some difficult times. It is the caffeine (with no side effects!) that Richard needed to help him become more resilient to external adversities (criticism from his boss), and it might have prevented him from making such an abrupt decision (resigning). Richard could not bear an insignificant how because he had not yet found a why for his existence.


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