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What is purpose, really?

Do we all have to be ecological warriors, doctors on the frontline or Stacey Dooley shining a spotlight on the world’s ills to be living our purpose?


We’re living in extraordinary times. We’re longing for clarity and certainty. During the pandemic we were forced to slow down, to reflect, to ask ourselves what’s really important? Isn't it funny it took a global crisis for us to really ask ourselves what we value most in the world – our health, relationships, human connection and the planet.

People are talking more than ever about finding purpose. But what does that really mean?

Do we all have to be ecological warriors, doctors on the frontline or Stacey Dooley shining a spotlight on the world’s ills to be living our purpose?

Finding my purpose

I had my opportunity to work out what I was all about in 2018 when I went through a personal perfect storm: my Dad’s sudden death, a sustained blow to my confidence in my professional ability, and raging hormones (which other women of a certain age will understand). Quickly and deeply, I fell OUT of love with marketing – completely turned off by the relentless drive for instant results, digital data overload, stats, analytics and algorithms that provided numbers as the stand-in for success.

I considered re-training, mothballing my business and getting a ‘proper’ job. Without any sense of who I was, what my life was about, or where it was going, I felt at sea – the way so many of us are feeling right now. So how do we rediscover our true North? How do we find, and live our purpose?

Myths about purpose

A couple of years ago I did a wonderful short course run by the Five Institute, which included a session that debunked common myths about purpose:

  • Purpose is size dependent
    In our current culture, purpose has come to feel weighty, big, with an onus to transform the world and all the lives in it. The truth is, purpose starts as entirely personal. It must have meaning to you. For some, their purpose might be to be a good mum. For many of us it might be – quite simply – to be kind to ourselves, others and the planet. Purpose is about making a difference in our own way – sometimes big, sometimes small – but consistently through everyday actions in life and work, in our own little space. It does not have to be about massive transformations. Bigger is not better!
  • Purpose comes out of the blue
    There isn’t always a big flash of inspiration or bolt of lightning that hits you between the eyes. Purpose may reveal itself as a slow burn or dawning, a recognition, like love.
  • Purpose makes you happy
    On the contrary, uncovering your purpose could be disturbing, troubling or overwhelming, especially if you also come to realise how far away you are from living it.
  • Purpose conquers everything
    Everything will not necessarily fall into place when you find your purpose. In some cases, purpose can cost dearly, particularly if it’s exhausting and burning you out.
  • Purpose eliminates fear
    Fear will not necessarily disappear when you find your purpose. You will perhaps gain in confidence, but that’s not the same as being fearless.
  • Purpose gives you wings
    Finding your purpose can help you to find your flow, but it doesn’t necessarily give you energy. We can still be susceptible to burnout.
  • Purpose makes life perfect
    Despite finding your purpose, life can still be difficult. Finding your purpose, living your purpose, doesn’t create a euphoric world full of rainbows and unicorns. If only it did!

If purpose is not big, brave, obvious and all-healing – what is it?

Once you remove the implied heroism and larger-than-life pressure from conventional definitions of purpose, The Five Institute’s take makes more sense:

The central, defining theme that guides all aspects of your life – across all areas – and at each stage of your life."

If our values are the compass by which we navigate, our purpose is the path we tread when we’re on course.

Living a sustainable, purpose-driven life is simply trying to be the best we can be at all times, or as Nick Haines from The Five Institute calls it, the “highest version of ourselves”. Doing fewer things better. Aiming for a balance that we can sustain. Aiming for a measure of happiness that we can achieve.

When I talk about ‘purposeful marketing’ I mean balanced, measured, focused, intentional. Marketing that is “full of purpose” (not full of myths).

Some companies use the term ‘purpose marketing’ – which has come to limit the descriptor to social and environmental ambitions. I’ve adopted the term ‘purposeful marketing’ so it can be embraced by any organisation that wants to promote themselves with honesty, authenticity and mindfulness. Purposeful marketing works for any company and any leader who is willing to explore “the central, defining theme that guides all aspects” of their work.

The perfect work/life balance

We’re all very familiar with the principle of work/life balance, but why is it so difficult to achieve?

We’ve been sold the dream of perfecting life with and through our work, fuelled by ‘love-my-life’ smiles and pleasantries and filtered social media activity. It feels like we’re being told constantly to find freedom as entrepreneurs, start-up innovators, or by running a side-hustle in our off-hours. But the reality is, many of us are exhausted: seeing busy as a sign of success, trying to keep up with every new trend, and feeling misled by false images of what entrepreneurial life should look like.

Preventing burnout

I’ve just read Karen Skidmore’s True Profit Business: How to play your bigger game without burning out, where she beautifully tells of her own business journey, through burnout and out the other side. I love the straight-forward structure she sets out to running a business in the way that’s right for you – the happy way. But what particularly resonated with me was how to design your business around your own vision of what success looks like, by honing in on your value and the difference you make. She asks us to tune in to our own energy, rhythms and routines – in other words, “the central, defining theme that guides all aspects of your life – across all areas – and at each stage of your life” – and design a business that fuels us and allows us to thrive.

Often we are swallowed up by tasks and requests that don’t align with our own, or our business’ values and purpose. I kept saying yes to projects and businesses that had conflicting values, focused on different measures of success, and demanded an unsustainable approach; I learnt the hard way that 7-day weeks, endless worry, constant communication and the inability to step away leads to burnout. In hindsight, there were warning signs. Identifying and staying connected to what’s most important is one of the best decision-making tools in our gift.

Being clear on my purpose, and the value and difference I make, allows me to live and work in a way that truly respects and honours my energy. With the right tools we can all be empowered to craft the life and business that’s right for us.

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