Is purpose a Red Herring?
Is purpose a Red Herring?
Purpose is a distraction. When we think about purpose, we think about where we want to go, how we ought to behave, what we ought to achieve, and not what we can and should do here and now.
It feels to me more and more that looking for purpose (both personal and in an organisation) is mounting the cart before the horse. Purpose emerges from the things we do and how we do them, not the other way around: the things we do should not emerge out of our purpose. If they do, they loose relevance for the context in the here and now.
Purpose is nothing static. Purpose is alive, constantly emerging from action and interaction. It is dynamically negotiated between people at any given moment. Once we write it up, when we pin it to a board, it looses its relevance; it dies.
Dynamic purpose is manifested in the minute particulars of our every-day actions. It happens when we do things not because we need to achieve something greater or get somewhere, but because they matter here and now, in this moment.
Living meaningfully in a complex and dynamic world is about seeing the minute particulars and how they matter, indeed how they are often more important than the big stuff. Taking meaningful action is not about achieving scale - rallying everybody behind a purpose. It is not the scale that counts.
What is more meaningful: to put billions of dollars into a malaria vaccination programme in Africa or to build up permaculture gardens in a refugee camp with nothing but the humanpower that is there? Maybe the latter is more meaningful. We might not save as many lives as with the vaccination programme, but we focus on every-day interaction between people and make them more meaningful.
One relationship at a time, taking what is there in the moment and doing something meaningful with it. Not something grant that serves our status and ego. But something that matters and makes things better.
But how do we ever achieve something in this way?
Maybe achieving stuff is the problem – human society has achieved so much. But what is the cost for that? We are causing catastrophic climate change, we are destroying the world’s soils and forests, polluting the world’s water, chocking the oceans with plastic and noise, driving millions of species into extinction and allowing billions of people to live in poverty. Oh, and we are generally not very happy.
Yes, that is exactly why we need a strong purpose: to make good for these things! To fix them!
Hasn’t Einstein already said that we cannot solve a problem by using the same type of thinking that caused it? Trying to solve stuff, to fix systems, has gotten us where we are. Narrowing down our purpose and pushing harder is not what is going to help us out of this one.
So how do we know then what is the right thing to do in the day-to-day interactions?
Yes, that is a good question. I am not sure how to answer it. We could say that decisions need to be based on our shared values but I’m not sure if there are so many shared values left in society. What I would say is that it is about caring. If we make decisions form a point of view of caring for stuff – other humans, animals, the environment, the planet – we are on the right track. No need for a magical purpose.
He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars. (William Blake)
The Paper Museum
I have been inspired by Nick Parker’s recommendation on starting a Paper Museum. He wrote in his book ‘On Reading’:
EVERY CHRISTMAS, in lieu of a greetings card, the writer Ian Sansom used to send out a little booklet called the Paper Museum. It consisted of 52 extracts from books he’d read that year — books he’d reviewed, books he’d bought, books he’d encountered in libraries, favourites he’d re—read. Fiction, poetry, philosophy, articles from newspapers or magazines, anything and everything.
This seems to me to be the perfect companion to a reading life — not least because of the constant small pleasure of being able to mull over the question ‘is this one for the Paper Museum?’‘ And then! To have a record of one’s reading year captured so beautifully.
They weren’t particularly fancy things. A5 in size, simply typeset; totally achievable with modest word processing skills and a stapler. Perhaps we should all build our own Paper Museums.
Parker, Nick. 2020.On Reading: Provocations, Consolations and Suggestions for Reading More Freely. Independently published.
From next week on, I will be sharing the extracts from my paper museum.