The Importance of Purpose

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone’s

task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


For me, Frankl is on the short list of history’s most important and inspired thinkers.  In his masterwork on meaning, he writes extensively about the unique capacity people have to choose how they will respond to circumstances, and the critical role that meaning plays in life satisfaction.  However, I believe that he talks most eloquently about the importance of purpose.


People today often describe a life that feels like one continuous fire drill, reacting to emergent issues and problems, with little time to reflect or prepare.  Mid-career employees report the pressure of responding to increasing work demands, while simultaneously squeezed between an older generation needing greater care and a younger generation that can’t afford to leave home.  Mostly, they describe a life that is almost completely reactive to events, absent of any conscious purpose that guide choices.


You might choose to say that, with a life like the one described above, it’s impossible to work from your own purpose, that any purpose you identify would be lost in the crush of events.  However, I believe that Frankl would probably say that a clear, important purpose would enable you to make better informed choices about which events to respond to, and how.


At work, I believe that purpose definition begins with two questions.  What are you uniquely capable of creating and how can your capability help the organization achieve its goals?  I believe that most people want to create something that is valuable for others, and then they want others to use what’s been created.  This kind of contribution provides its own intrinsic rewards – described in terms like integrity or satisfaction with a job well done.  Further, if you can demonstrate how your contribution helps the organization achieve its goals, then you can make yourself even more valuable at a time when employment can seem uncertain.


Following are some steps you can take to define a personal purpose that will guide your decision, actions, and critical interactions.

  1. Describe your capability, in terms of results.  Reflect on how you can use your knowledge and skills to create a specific outcome – solve a technical or methodological problem, resolve conflicts among individuals or groups, develop others’ knowledge and skills, manage performance to deliver some work product, etc.  Make sure to think about results, not simply actions or work product.
  2. Select an organization goal to influence.  Don’t wait to be assigned goals.  Instead, look around the organization for some specific and valuable result that you think you can affect.  Pick a result that is important to organization success (develop or launch a new product, deploy a critical capability, solve a strategic problem, etc.) and then identify how your capability could help achieve that result.
  3. Negotiate a role and expected contribution.  Even if you have a defined role, it’s often possible to contribute to a critical project in some meaningful way.  The challenge here is to explain specifically how your capability is relevant to the desired result and how your specific contribution can be measured.
  4. Manage your performance to your purpose.  Even if your manager wants to provide close direction (which is becoming increasingly rare), you will still face many situations where you must decide what to do and how to do it.  If you have defined a specific purpose, that purpose and expected contribution can guide your daily decisions and actions.


I hope that this brief discussion about purpose will enable you to work more from choice rather than reaction.