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The Point of Purpose

“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.” – Seneca

It was way back in the 4thcentury BC that the Stoic philosopher Seneca urged Romans to live life with purpose, imagining every day was their last. Hundreds of years later, Pablo Picasso came to the same conclusion, identifying purpose as the driver of creativity – and of life itself.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away,” the French artist said.

Oprah Winfrey echoed his thoughts recently, remarking: “There’s no greater gift than to honour your life’s calling. It’s why you were born. And how you become most truly alive.”

Finding a sense of purpose has been a perennial throughout civilisation, and today – with the impact of COVID-19 forcing us to question all that we know, how we live our lives and the ways in which we find meaning – the point of purpose has never been more relevant.

What is purpose?

According to the dictionary, purpose is the reason for which something is done or created, or for which something exists. In ancient and historical times people found purpose through religion and community, followed by civilisation and science. Today, we find it through work, social interactions, hobbies and leisure, but the unifying thread remains: purpose enriches our lives and drives us to make them better, for ourselves and for others. When we are facing hard times and dark moments – now like never before – it provides direction, guidance and comfort, and most importantly, a way forward into a better future. Because when everything falls apart, purpose is the support system that allows us to piece our lives back together. “Clarify your purpose,” says American author Jack Canfield. “What is the why behind everything you do? When we know this in life, it is very empowering and the path is clear.” Or as Tony Robbins puts it more succinctly: “Activity without purpose is the drain of your life.” Purpose is one of the single most important drivers in professional and personal fulfilment, working as a macrovision encompassing everything from ambition and benevolence concerning former to a more micro but equally deliberate living of one’s life when it comes to the latter.

Personal Purpose

Humans need purpose as individuals to give us motivation, fuel our drive and, ultimately, to bring us satisfaction. “Finding your purpose” is more than just a cliché or a dream. It’s a tool for better, happier, healthier life that is backed by scientific research. A 2010 study published in Applied Psychologyfound that individuals with high levels of eudemonic well-being—which involves having a sense of purpose along with a sense of control and a feeling that what you do is worthwhile—tend to live longer. There’s also research that links feeling as if you have a sense of purpose to positive health outcomes, such as fewer strokes and heart attacks, better sleep, and a lower risk of dementia and disabilities. A 2009 study of more than 73,000 Japanese men and women found that those who had a strong connection to their sense of purpose, which the Japanese call ikigai, tended to live longer than those who didn’t. This was supported by a 2014 UK study published in The Lancet. Perhaps even more importantly, purpose leads to better relationships with others. One 2009 study assessed the purpose of over 1,000 adults and found that those with a high sense of meaning in their lives spent more time and attention on their loved ones and communities, enjoying more satisfying relationships as a result. When professional cellist Josephine Vains had all her concerts cancelled due to COVID-19, she found a new sense of purpose by performing free concerts to neighbours from the front yard of her home in Brunswick, Melbourne. “This is my way of feeling … like I’m just continuing to do what I always do,” she told Good Weekend in April. “We all need something to look forward to. Something to do and hear. Together.”

Professional purpose

When it comes to the workplace, purpose can improve productivity, generate innovation and even boost the bottom line. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Research and Personality found that individuals who felt a sense of purpose made more money than those who felt their work lacked meaning. People are also more likely to thrive emotionally and socially when their work has clear purpose and meaning.  When asked to illustrate this point, David Ulrich, professor of business at the University of Michigan and the co-author of The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win, told Forbes an old fable of the three bricklayers all working on the same wall. “Someone asked the bricklayers, ‘What you are doing?,’” Ulrich told Forbes. “The first said ‘I am laying bricks’; the second bricklayer replied, ‘I am building a wall’; and the third answered, ‘I am building a great cathedral for God.’  The third had a vision of how the daily tasks of laying bricks fit into a broader, more meaningful purpose. Likewise, employees who envision the outcomes of their daily routines find more meaning from doing them.” During the current COVID-19 crisis, companies with purpose are applying “smart generosity” – putting their resources towards social issues ahead of profits – using purpose as a vision for strategic decision-making aimed at improving the welfare of all, not just shareholders. Microsoft has offered 12 weeks’ paid parental leave to employees juggling home-schooling with work, Allstate has returned $600 million in premiums back to customers who are driving less and Campbell’s, Corning and Nestle have increased pay for frontline workers. By creatively redirecting their resources (cash, personnel and operations) and reinventing products (creating face masks and hand sanitiser and working to develop a vaccine) they are drawing on their commitment to do the right thing for all stakeholders – to use their purpose to create change for good. Helping professionals to find such a sense of purpose is at the heart of Business of Brand, a new purpose-driven organisation aimed at assisting individuals to grow their business and impact their industry through achieving a greater sense of meaning in their work. To this end the Australian organisation with outposts in the UK recently launched BoB Earth, a global purpose-led platform connecting enterprise to trade. Designed as a community of people and businesses connected by purpose, the organisation offers a global ecosystem for connecting and learning, trading skills and resources, and broadening the impact of a business. “Imagine sharing a community where like-minded people look beyond their own business and connect together through a united sense of passion and purpose to impact global industries and even the world,” say BoB Australian partners Tim Dwyer and Sarah Skeets.  Current initiatives include “home-schooling,” a 10-week webinar series to help people drive growth in their companies, while contributing to a wider sense of purpose in the world. Ever watchful of the changing economic landscape, they acknowledge that economists are saying Australia is headed for recession after almost 30 years of growth, but herein lies the opportunity.  Business of Brand recognises that more market share changes hands during a recession than ever changes hands at the top of a boom. Now is the time to be ready to drive into growth, to be fully prepared to take advantage of September 2021 to 2031 – what Business of Brand believes will be be a 10-year period of growth.

How to find purpose

Whether you helm a large business or you’re an individual wishing to make positive changes in your personal life, finding purpose involves taking inventory of your deepest values, what matters most to you, what problems you want to solve and how you could best contribute to helping others. Once you have done that, it’s simply a matter of actively looking for ways to implement those values in the everyday work you do. You could donate money, time or talent through volunteering, supporting a cause or mentoring, or identify issues in your family unit or organisation then work on a positive plan to solve them over time. Time is key when it comes to purpose, because to cite a truism, nothing happens overnight. The COVID-enforced lockdown is delivering many people the opportunity to ponder purpose. Finding purpose requires self-reflection, effort, getting our hands dirty, and struggling with problems that can make us feel frustrated and inadequate. But when we take on the challenge we find ourselves getting closer to what we want our lives to stand for, and closer to finding fulfilment and true happiness. As the American philosopher and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson has said: “The purpose of life…is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

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