The most frequently asked question in my MBA class at Columbia University is How do we find our purpose?
I have been fortunate to lecture in the class on Personal Leadership led by Professor Hitendra Wadhwa. As one of the highest rated classes in the university, it is also called “the church” in the Business school. Often, students are confused — why should the premier business school in the world, focused on training the best minds to join Wall Street and Silicon Valley, have an entire program focused on leading self before leading others?
It is because conscious leadership and purpose-driven organization have now become the norm in corporates. Gone are the days when purpose and profits were never uttered in the same breath. They are no longer considered mutually exclusive — in fact, recent surveys show that millennials rate purpose above salary and other incentives.
We seem to have mastered technology but not wisdom. The same technology that created electricity from nuclear power also created the nuclear bomb. Doing good beyond the bottom line matters. Every human being wants a narrative of why they are doing what they are doing.
President Obama in his speech at SAPPHIRE NOW, Orlando mentioned, “The missing ingredient is not some policy idea or technology innovation. For the world’s most compelling problems, we know what to do — things don’t get implemented because of the lack of purpose-driven leadership. My mission is to train the next generation of purposeful leaders.”
So, what are the myths around purpose? Why do some people find their purpose while most people spend their entire lifetime searching? Is there a secret to finding your inner purpose or meaning of life? Is purpose overrated and overwhelming? Is purpose just a projection into the future?
Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Franklyn remains one of the most influential books of all time, around the topic of purpose and meaning. Every passage from the book is deeply insightful. There is a rare clip from 1972, where he delivers a powerful message about the human search for meaning.
In a simple equation, Victor Franklyn explains the state of Despair(D) as suffering(S) without meaning(M); D = S — M. In other words, suffering ceases to be suffering, the moment it finds meaning. Once you know the purpose or meaning, you can turn your personal tragedies into triumph. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW”. Find your why. Find your meaning.
Meaning can be found in each and every situation in life, even under the worst conceivable conditions, provided it is a situation that can be changed. Once you find your meaning, suffering can be converted into triumph.
Everyone has a choice. Your ability to choose your response to any situation can never be taken away. No one can escape the Triad: pain, guilt and death. And many a time, death can be an incentive to responsible action, because time is finite.
Here are the key takeaways from my personal journey towards finding my own purpose.
1. Pain, purpose and progress are correlated. We all must undergo pain in our lives — whether it be sickness or a broken relationship; a job that drains you or hits your faith — pain in some form is inevitable and ever-present. Pain helps us discover our strength and increase our endurance. Pain helps us mature and see the world differently. Pain teaches us what pleasure never can! If you were to find your purpose, it would almost always be from a painful experience in your life.
2. Purpose need not be anything grand. It can be a small act of kindness, done over a long period of time, with great love. As long as we are doing what is useful to others, as long as we make a difference to at least one person, we will be happy, and life will be purposeful. As Emerson said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
3. Even if you find your purpose, it is not going to be all peace and bliss. Never assume that once you found your purpose, it’s going to be easy. In fact, the challenges will only increase. The hard part of following your purpose is the distraction that comes with it. Everyone will pull you in different directions. Having a clear focus on the purpose is the only way you can overcome all the challenges.
4. Purpose will come to you only when you are seeking it. Purpose is something that you must earn. Work for it and be ready for it. Like they say, “fortune favors the prepared mind”, it’s the same… if you look for your purpose and work towards it, you will find it. Or as they say, “the purpose will find you”.
5. Purpose is about going beyond yourself. Finding your purpose essentially boils down to finding those one or two things that are bigger than yourself, and bigger than those around you. Ask the question: What is your legacy? What are people going to say about you when you are gone? Imagine a world without yourself and the footprints you want to leave behind!
Whether sparked by a deeply moving personal event or a conscious and compassionate choice, Purpose becomes my dynamo to perform. If we can find a purpose that takes us and future generations into a world more inclusive and fulfilling, we are aligning behind the Purpose of Life itself. All it takes is a being a little more conscious of and compassionate towards all that we are and all that we are capable of.
The role of human beings is being human and that of mankind is being kind. Once we forget that, we will cease to exist.