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Meaningful work

Hot off the back of facilitating a group reflection session to rave reviews (you can read a writeup of our recent Leadership Connection Space here) I’m joined by Dr. Albert Viljoen, Coaching Practice Lead at Sanctus, for a typically big chat about purpose and meaning at work.

Previous topics we’ve tackled together include motivation and job security.

Why is purpose important in the workplace?

AV: In a general sense, purpose is a fundamental need that’s built into who we are. You see it in kids as they start growing up, they get to about 2 and start wanting to claim things as “mine, this is mine, I want to do it my way!” It’s that sense of claiming your place in the world. Without a sense of purpose, we’re a little bit unmoored.

Being connected to a purpose seems to be important for us to feel a sense of vitality, and direction, and place. In some ways, the question of purpose is an existential one. You’re essentially asking “Why am I here?” which has huge implications. But it also has an impact on how you do the little things.

Why is purpose important at work? Because we spend most of our time there! If your work isn’t aligned to some form of meaning, it’s really hard to sustain energy. We need a clear ‘why’. Only it doesn’t have to be a big one. For some people, having or making enough more money is a strong enough purpose to keep them going.

Purpose infuses energy in you to work. And it creates a kind of energetic loop. Start, and it keeps you going. If you don’t have a lot of motivational energy, having a purpose can help. Or if you feel quite low, purpose can enable you to get stuff done, because you have a clear idea of why you’re doing it.

Can a job give you a sense of purpose?

AV: Yes.

TF: I’ve got a personal anecdote I can chime in with. I used to work in a charity fundraising call centre. Tough environment, not for everyone. Really high pressure and a lot of staff turnover. That said, we were weirdly good at retaining consistent high performers.

Some stayed because they just love operating in that kind of environment. Some because they liked the zero hours contracts and flexibility of it. For some, it was all about raising money for good causes. For others, it was simply about paying their bills and supporting their family.

From my own probably quite basic observations, it seems to me there are layers to purpose. Different people may get wildly different things out of the same job. And, it probably goes without saying, but everyone’s individual purpose will be different.

What can employers do to cultivate a sense of purpose?

AV: Businesses need to recognise that whatever they feel their purpose is, every individual has their own reasons for why they’re there. One mistake employers often make is they want everyone to rally around the businesses purpose, instead of aligning with each individual’s purposes and seeing how that serves the business.

Being clear about how individual purposes might be different, and yet still contribute to the broader purpose of the business is important because it helps employees find their own energy in it. Otherwise, there may be a clash.

Think about it like a ship: it’s heading to a certain destination, you might not be desperately interested in where exactly you’re going, but you’re really keen to be a good rower or engineer or the best navigator you can be. Your rationale and contributions might look very different from the person stood next to you, but you’re just as important and valuable as one another.

How do I find my purpose?

TF: There’s a Japanese concept – Ikigai – that can help with this. Your purpose in life can be found at the very centre of this diagram. At the intersection of four things:

  1. What you love
  2. What you’re good at
  3. What the world needs
  4. What you can be paid for

AV: What I might add is that there’s a temptation to think you need to have all of these elements in place to have any purpose. So the minute you miss one element, you’re off track. Everyone wants their job to be that perfect combination of what they love, what they can get paid for, and what the world needs. But, well, that’s not necessarily realistic. If you’re constantly measuring your current role against a perfect ideal, you might feel more dissatisfied than you deserve to. Sometimes, it’s enough just to have a few of those needs met.

Purpose also doesn’t always mean lofty goals, ambitious mission statements, or some kind of profound global impact. Maybe the most meaningful action you could take in your day is to bake a cake. Maybe putting dinner on the table every night is the only real purpose you need or that matters to you.

In a world where everyone sees everything that goes on in every corner of the globe, we are conscious of much more than we could ever possibly contribute to. Even at your best, it’s impossible to impact the amount of world you’re exposed to.

Before the internet, everything you could possibly impact was pretty much right in front of you. The world is a much larger place now. We can get lost in questions that are simply too big for us to comprehend when we think about our place in the world.

It’s important to bring it bring to ourselves, back to our immediate reality, rather than constantly measuring our purpose against celebrities and internet sensations and some of the biggest, well funded brands on the planet.

What’s the meaning of life?

TF: I sort of asked this one as a joke.

AV: Well, it’s good to try and answer so we should have a stab at it.

*thinks for a bit*

The question of purpose is linked to: “why am I on this planet?” We often don’t stop to answer it and we don’t necessarily need to. At some level, it’s an opening question that provokes a lot of subsequent questions around why we do the things we do.

As an example, if someone comes to the coaching room in a typical mid-life transition – kids have left home, they’ve already achieved a lot of their life purpose by being a parent, career’s gone well, they’ve made money and have a house, a stable family life, one or two holidays a year – they often get to a point of saying “I don’t really know why I’m here anymore.”

And that usually opens up bigger questions: “What am I contributing to the world? What am I leaving behind?” We don’t really ask those questions in our twenties. Well, maybe millennials do.

A good question you can ask yourself to get clear on your purpose and give life meaning is:

“When things get tough, what keeps me going?”

Purpose supports us with energy to get through difficulty. And difficulty is an inevitable fact of life. When work is tough, if we connect it to a purpose we can push through. Because we have a clear sense of where we’re going. And hopefully, that place is somewhere better. Making the world better, becoming better ourselves – whatever ‘better’ means for us in that context.

I think there’s a bit of stigma if you haven’t worked out the secret to life just yet or you’re not aligned with some noble, lofty purpose. We kind of shame ourselves for being normal and happy and in our own lane.

If it gets you going, if it gives you a sense of energy, if you feel a sense of accomplishment, it’s probably a pretty good purpose.