The AQ Element of Purpose is the second of the 3 Foundational Elements of Antifragility. For individuals, Purpose entails finding a fixed point of orientation to guide our lives and aligning all our actions to that highest aim.
For organizations, Purpose is equivalent to a mission statement, and like an individual’s Purpose, it’s a fixed point of orientation guiding all actions. When an organization is formed, its leaders should intentionally define Purpose and are responsible for appropriately communicating around it to keep everyone centered on day-to-day decision-making and prioritization. Leaders are responsible for defining the processes that will aid them in determining how well the organization is fulfilling its Purpose. These processes should also guide them in knowing when its Purpose might need to be revised, how to go about that, and whom to include.
What are the dangers of not having Purpose or not taking measures to let it guide us? As the 19th-century Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle noted, “A man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.” Without Purpose, our decisions are unduly influenced by life’s inevitable randomness, disorder, and stressors. We find ourselves making decisions that take us further from rather than closer to lives of meaning. As we sometimes sadly observe, a lifetime of straying from Purpose can leave people at the end of their days, personifying Thoreau’s famous observation that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
Drifting from Purpose can produce a variety of maladies for organizations as well. We see it in stale products and services and the corresponding results that suffer for it. Prolonged drifting can lead to businesses going under or, worse yet, finding wild success in producing products or services that cause harm.
With a transcendent approach to Purpose, people have the foundation to experience meaning fueled by peace, love, and joy, even in times of incredible pain and loss. People and organizations have the foundation to benefit from shocks and grow when exposed to the volatility, randomness, and disorder that would break others. Rather than a Purpose grounded in resilience or robustness, which resists shocks and stays rigid, posing a greater risk of fracture, the Antifragile approach to Purpose serves as an internal compass guiding us to destinations where the specifics may be unknown and unimagined, but the essence will be faithful to what we’ve longed for.
Here are some thoughts on how to experience Purpose in a way that leaves us unattached to circumstances and further strengthens our ability to live and lead in Antifragility.
Understand Our Wiring to Unlock Our Purpose
As we discussed in writing about the AQ Element of Clarity, we all have behavioral and motivational tendencies. We noted how these tendencies and the biases they create are not choices but rather gifts. We didn’t earn them or choose them. They were given to us at birth and shaped over time by people and life. These gifts and the experiences that shaped them collectively comprise the wiring that informs our Purpose.
With that in mind, understanding our tendencies and biases is the first step in experiencing our Purpose. As I offered in writing about Clarity, if you’re unaware of yours, feel free to take our complimentary AQ Assessment and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be happy to unpack your expanded results with you. We can also spend some time talking about finding growth in your ability to experience Purpose.
Once we’re on firm footing in understanding our tendencies and biases, we’ll next want to overlay our life experiences. Just as there are no excellent or bad gifts with our tendencies and biases, only well-used and misused ones, the same holds with our experiences. There are no good experiences or bad experiences for informing our Purpose, only well-used and misused ones. Understanding the difference requires avoiding judgment and practicing discernment instead—the nuance between the two concepts warrants explanation.
To varying degrees, some of our life experiences would accurately be categorized as “enjoyable,” while some would be labeled as “NOT enjoyable.” The mistake we make is judging them as “good” or “bad.” For example, we’ve all had painful experiences in life. Some may have been mildly painful. Some may have been severely painful and tragically inflicted by others. Other experiences may have been severely painful and, in hindsight, clearly caused by our poor choices or flagrant mistakes. But, if we judge these as “bad,” we risk missing out on the value and potentially causing ourselves and others harm.
Before explaining what practicing discernment instead of judgment means in greater detail, let us be clear about what withholding judgment does NOT mean. We’re not advocating for ill-informed or poor decision-making. We’re not saying that poor choices shouldn’t or won’t necessarily come with real consequences. We don’t fail to recognize that there are people in our lives whose behavior and choices warrant boundaries. And we’re not advocating for an approach to pain and hardship that is nonchalant in any way.
On the contrary, healthy grieving of pain and hardship is critical to growing stronger from adversity. Examining our choices, their real motives, and the consequences is vital to becoming more adaptive and better equipped to face future uncertainty. Understanding the people in our lives whom we should hold close to and those better kept at a distance is important in experiencing the AQ Element of Connection, the third foundational Element of Antifragility.
With that in mind, let’s dig into why we shouldn’t judge our experiences … When we judge experiences as “bad,” we risk attaching and communicating that same judgment of “bad” to ourselves or the other parties, which is shaming. Shame chips away at a healthy sense of self-worth. Because of this, our stance toward judgment is typically one of avoidance or defensiveness. We usually keep our guard up against it. At best, we lose the opportunity to learn from the situation. At worse, we cause harm.
Discernment, however, allows us to mine the gold from ALL our experiences without the adverse side effects of judgment. It frees us to observe our true motives and the outcomes of the choices they produce without fear of eroding self-worth. It fosters Clarity by allowing us to see the patterns of where our healthy motives serve us well and unhealthy ones don’t. We might rightly experience a need to apologize and turn from them or potentially ask it of others, but we don’t need to experience or pass on shame. Rather than producing the avoidance or defensiveness we see with judgment, practicing discernment makes us open to learning and being highly adaptive.
So, why is practicing discernment of our painful experiences so vital that it deserves this much focus? Because they have incredible power to help us experience Purpose. Significantly more so than our enjoyable experiences do. Our ability to live with empathy towards the pain and hardship of others is rooted in our understanding of pain and hardship. Our desire to live lives that benefit others in alleviating their pain and appropriately carrying burdens is birthed in our desire to want the same. Pain and hardship are where growth happens.
I live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where we average 50 inches of rainfall annually. As I write this, I see snow-capped Mt. Hood towering on the horizon at just over 11,000 feet. While I love the view of Mt. Hood, nothing grows up there. It’s here in the muddy valley where some of the world’s best pinot noir grapes and other bountiful crops grow. Similarly, while we all love the mountain-top experiences of life, growth happens, and fruit is produced in the muddy valley of life where pain and hardship are found.
Think about some of the most widely known leaders who exemplified experiencing Purpose; Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Helen Keller, Viktor Frankl … the list goes on. Each leader’s embodiment of Purpose was wrapped up in pain, loss, and hardship. It’s also worth noting that their messages were shaped by discernment and hope. They called for reform, justice, freedom, and lives of abundance, not judgment, condemnation, or shame.
These same concepts apply to organizations as well. All organizations with healthy Purposes exist to alleviate pain or hardship for some specific group of people. Founders frequently set out to help problems in their own lives or the lives of people close to them and find out that many others benefit from the solutions. Like individuals, examining the world through the lens of discernment rather than judgment brings greater Clarity in determining where those needs exist and how best to meet them.
With our minds centered on how our wiring informs our Purpose, it’s appropriate to cover how they morph into Purpose.
Identify and Revisit Our Highest Aim
If experiencing Clarity helps us see the world as it is, without our distortions, experiencing Purpose guides our choices based on that untainted perspective. Here are some thoughts to consider when forming our Purpose:
Remember that our Purpose ideally guides all decisions in our lives and organizations and should be crafted as such. Our Purpose is most relevant when the stakes are high, and the potential cost of following it or not is significant. Ironically, that’s when Purpose is often forgotten or conveniently left out of conversations. If that’s our posture, Purpose has been reduced to a motto or slogan. Purpose done right should have absolute authority over us. If we can’t learn to submit to our Purpose as the master of our decisions, we’ll discard it when it’s inconvenient.
Many, especially in Western society, recoil at mentioning having a master and surrendering authority over our lives. We pride ourselves in being our own masters, with no one telling us what to do. But how well does that really work for us? And is that what winds up happening? If I’m an alcoholic, would it feel like alcohol masters me? Would it at least be fair to say I’d lost mastery over myself and my choices? If I can’t stop binging streaming services or social media, have I surrendered mastery of my life to whatever drives me to consume them compulsively?
While data shows people are prone to addiction to varying degrees, these might seem like extreme examples. Some of us may be saying, “That’s not me!” But how often do we all make choices we don’t want to make? Maybe it’s getting impatient or angry when we’ve committed to being more patient and kinder. Perhaps it’s continuing to overeat when we’ve promised ourselves for years that we will make healthy eating habits. Maybe it’s a commitment to serve that never gets followed, or if it does, it’s done rarely, reluctantly, and with no joy in our hearts. If we’re honest, versions of these scenarios play out in all our lives when we’re our masters. The reality is that we all follow something or someone. The question is, are we making that choice thoughtfully and intentionally?
If we make the mental leap that our Purpose needs to be the guiding authority of our life, it goes without saying that we need to choose carefully. For individuals, some seemingly worthwhile Purposes can be deceptively disastrous. Our children are one of the most common examples of that. Some of us, knowingly or unknowingly, make our children our Purpose, and everyone suffers for it. This is not to say that, as loving parents, we shouldn’t sacrifice for our children or even lay down our lives for them in extreme circumstances. Being willing to die for our children is noble. Living for them is harmful to them and us. We already talked about how we make poor masters. And if we don’t make ideal masters over our own lives, why would we make our children, or anyone else, master over us?
Our work is another seemingly worthwhile yet deceptively disastrous Purpose. Work is an activity we do; it was never meant to define us. Some of us may be fortunate that our work closely aligns with our highest aim, which is a blessing. Many of us dream of such scenarios. And even in those cases, it’s all too easy to allow the work itself, tasks, accomplishments, and the need for validation to become what truly drives us. Try asking some healthcare providers, pastors, or politicians if they have peers who started in their respective fields with genuine Purpose, only to get lost in the work and wind up miserable. Or try talking to any retired professional who made their work their Purpose and see how much peace they enjoy now. You may have trouble finding one because they live in fear of not working and often work until they die.
We’re not saying Purpose can’t or shouldn’t be found in parenting or our work. It can and should be found there. Ideally, it should be in anything and everything we do. A worthy Purpose that moves us along the path of Antifragility transcends all activities and whom they involve or serve. It should be big, broad, and timeless. It should also be unbounded by the uncertainty of life and circumstances we can’t control.
The world’s faith traditions have helped billions of people for thousands of years shape their Purpose in this way. And while religiosity and the harm inflicted by abuse of power may make them seem like an untenable option for some, examining why many people follow them is helpful. Behind these traditions are transcendent ideas like love, sacrifice, justice, and caring for the needs of the vulnerable, compelling people to make choices counter to self-interest to benefit others. Their teachings and stories are timeless in their ability to change behavior and inspire growth. They allow people to offer themselves up to something much larger and more altruistic than they are. Something that has been here long before they were and will be here long after they are gone.
If finding a faith tradition or returning to one followed earlier in life isn’t an option, one might seek to develop a construct of their own. Some speak of the universe as their guide, which can theoretically work. The key is to ensure adequate structure and authority to inform and guide. An analogy of how this might be viewed is a parent’s decision to take their child out of school to teach them at home.
A parent may not like some of the structure or all that a public school may teach their child. They may decide the cost of the unwanted structure or the curriculum they don’t want their child exposed to outweighs the cost of taking the effort on themselves. In considering a curriculum for their child, they must define a structure. What subjects will they teach? How will they evaluate their child’s learning and growth? How will they ensure their child is prepared for what comes next?
If a parent goes this route, applying a learning structure with academic authority to their child’s learning, it can work out very well. Many homeschooled children fare very well in later education and life. But if a parent fails to apply the structure and authority of a carefully developed curriculum to their child’s learning, the child suffers tremendously. The same holds in defining our Purpose, replacing structure and authority we don’t like for a well-defined structure and legitimate power that aligns with our wiring works. Throwing out structure and authority with no legitimate replacement simply means we want the freedom to do as we like when we like, and we’ll suffer the consequences.
Wherever we land in defining our Purpose as individuals or as an organization, here are some questions we’ll want to ask before moving forward: Does it resonate strongly within? Will we submit to it? Is there enough structure to guide decisions? Is it broad enough to encompass all areas of life? If we hold to it, will we be pleased with where we end our lives, regardless of circumstances or outcomes?
Align Our Contribution to Our Purpose
For something as significant as Purpose, we’ll want to write it out. As a rule, shorter is better. Try keeping it to one or two sentences. It may help to ask people who know us or the organization well to review our Purpose and see if we’re authentically reflected in it from their perspective. Once we have a solid working copy, allow time to revisit it. Reflect on it every week or two for a period.
We may need to do some tweaking the first few times we revisit our Purpose. If we’ve done the work well up front and are committed to the growth a strong experience of Purpose can produce, these won’t be wholesale changes, and the motivation won’t be making things “easier” for ourselves. This will be about honing and refining the nuance of it. Once you have a final draft, formalize it, and keep it somewhere that’s visible in your day-to-day routine.
Next, we’ll want to determine the categories of life and in our organization that Purpose should be reflected in and write specific descriptors of how your Purpose lived out or executed well would show up in each category. These should be tangible examples that can be objectively monitored. Some personal examples would be with our partners, children, extended family, and co-workers. It can also be in our health and our finances. Some organizational examples include employee and customer experience, how suppliers and partners experience our organization and community stewardship. With some categories, specifically for organizations, we should be able to set up metrics tracking and communicate appropriately with employees. We’ll need to ask for feedback with most categories for an individual’s Purpose.
With our Purpose dialed in and specific descriptors for the appropriate categories written, it helps to establish regular evaluation rhythms. Quarterly is an ideal timeframe to work off. We should set aside part of a day every three months to review how well we’ve aligned with our Purpose. Have we been experiencing our Purpose day-to-day? Do the people in our life say they experience our Purpose being lived out according to the specific descriptors we’ve created? Our Purpose will be served best if we go through this review process without judgment and defensiveness. Organizations should work through a similar exercise in quarterly reviews or board meetings.
People and organizations should also go through a more rigorous annual review process. In addition to reviewing the prior three months, we should revisit our Purpose statement to ensure it still reflects our wiring and experience. Except for extreme cases, these should be very slight modifications, if any, that incorporate new experiences and learning.
What Do You Have to Lose?
As mentioned earlier, experiencing Purpose so you can live and lead in Antifragility will cost you authority over your life. You may miss opportunities to take the quick or easy way out that you previously enjoyed. Some people may get upset with you as their efforts that were once effective in getting you to make choices that ran counter to your Purpose will no longer work. There may even be people who don’t like you anymore because of what you stand for.
What Do You Have to Gain?
Experiencing Purpose will bring new meaning to life. Relationships and experiences that may have seemed dull previously will be reinvigorated. You’ll be able to tap into a new source of strength with the power to propel you through difficult or painful circumstances. That sense of aimlessness you once experienced, however frequently or infrequently, can be expelled as you tap back into Purpose in those moments. You can live in peace knowing that at the end of your days, you’ll be able to reflect on a life lived as intended.
What Does Experiencing Extreme Purpose Look Like?
Experiencing extreme Purpose looks like a person at ease in every situation. They know precisely why they exist, and that knowledge is at the forefront of their consciousness, guiding all they say and do. They seem oddly at peace when faced with tough decisions that would rattle others. This uncanny sense of peace doesn’t emanate from a sense of control. Not only are they comfortable in their lack of control over what is uncertain, but they also possess an Antifragile mindset and apparent fondness for the uncertainty of life.
Their peace stems from Clarity, the First Foundational Element of Antifragility, in knowing that whatever comes of their life, they will have lived it well, blessing others along the way. Their lack of desire to control the uncertain, freedom from judging themselves and others, and the deep sense of conviction their Purpose provides, strengthen their experience of Connection, the Third Foundational Element of Antifragility. Their foundation is nearly set to live and lead in Antifragility.