Purpose and profit
For decades, businesses around the world have been driven primarily by the desire to maximize their profits. In a 1970 essay for the New York Times, Milton Friedman went so far as to say “the social responsibility of business is to maximize its profits.” The global business community has taken this to heart. Arguably, a staple of modern capitalism is businesses extracting value from society and the environment for their own benefit. They are narrowly focused on their own success and growth. They are profit-driven.
More recently, leading businesses are being called upon to usher in a new paradigm driven by purpose, not profits. Rather than conducting business in order to profit, they generate profits in order to sustain and advance their social purpose. They are focused both on their own growth as well as the well-being of the communities in which they are nested, recognizing the two as interdependent. They are increasingly purpose-driven.
Change agents are similarly purpose-driven. In fact, purpose is precisely what distinguishes a change agent from others. While others are driven by their desire for wealth, status, security, power, or fame, change agents are driven largely by the desire to make a positive impact on those around them. They are driven by something beyond themselves.
Your unique why
If change is our what and genius is our how, purpose is our why. It is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It is our reason for seeking change.
Just as we all have our own unique genius, we all have our own unique purpose. As such, the most impactful change agents articulate to themselves their unique why. In doing so, they commit themselves to the work that is most meaningful for them, and therefore where they will have the most energy and resolve to make an impact.
Unearthing and harnessing our genius is largely an inward-facing process. We look within to articulate to ourselves what most inspires us, what we truly excel at, and what we most value in life. We listen closely for the call from within.
In contrast, purpose is inherently outward-facing, at least in part. You might say that purpose is where our genius and the needs of the world overlap. Through purpose, we seek to apply the genius within us to the needs of the world around us. We listen not only for the call from within, but for calls from outside of ourselves.
It’d be easy to assume that hearing the call from outside ourselves simply means looking for the world’s biggest, most urgent problems. But this is not the case. If it were, everyone would be working on the same handful of issues.
It’d also be easy to assume that hearing the call from outside is about looking for the problems where we as individuals have the most influence and potential for impact. But this is not the case either. If it were, too many of us would focus on work that doesn’t truly resonate deeply for us.
Listening for the call from outside is about identifying where there is the best opportunity (i.e., where there is a significant need and where you have significant influence) to instill, restore, or protect your unique core values. In other words, if integrity is about embodying your core values within yourself, purpose is about building a world that more fully embodies them as well.
Giving your gift
Genius and purpose are inextricably linked together, yet still distinct. Genius is our gift. Purpose is the act of giving that gift away.
The most meaningful gifts often deeply reflect the person giving them. The giver pours themselves into their gifts. They hand-make them or think of a gift only they could think of. In doing so, they remind themselves that they have something important and unique to offer. And in turn, the recipient feels more connected to the giver.
Giving a gift that reflects ourselves can be incredibly meaningful for all involved. But arguably this is only of secondary importance. The very best gifts reflect the recipient more than they ever do the giver. They fulfill a key need or desire within the recipient, or otherwise make them feel seen, heard, honored, and loved. That’s truly what makes it a gift.
Purpose is the same way. It is the change agent’s gift to the world. The most-needed change will certainly reflect our genius. But perhaps more importantly, it will be a love letter to the world around us. It will let our families, our communities, our countries, our species, or fellow living beings know that we see them, honor them, love them, and will go out of our way to support them. While it inherently involves our genius, it also asks something more of us: commitment, discipline, sacrifice.
Purpose is ultimately an act of service. We give ourselves away to those around us. Yet strangely, the moment we do we access perhaps our deepest sense of meaning. We embed our genius and our values in the world. And through that act, we become part of something bigger than ourselves.
Many change agents have a strong sense of purpose. Simply by doing meaningful work we access the fulfillment and aliveness that purpose brings. And yet, for many of us this is somewhat vague. We sense purpose in our lives, but we’ve yet to fully articulate that purpose to ourselves. We’ve yet to make it fully conscious and explicit. For that reason, at times it eludes and perplexes us.
Writing a personal purpose statement is a powerful way to clarify and capture our why. In doing so, we better identify and focus on the work that is most meaningful for us.
A personal purpose statement can take many different forms. It is ultimately up to you to decide what works best for you. With that said, the following formula can at least serve as a starting point.
The purpose statement begins by asserting the ultimate end of your purpose, what you are intending to produce in the world. But rather than framing it as solving a particular problem (i.e., the climate crisis, oppression, etc.), we frame it as upholding and propagating your core values in the world. Often, it can be helpful to identify one core value that feels like your highest principle and your one north star.
Examples: Kindness, Courage, Beauty, Joy, Peace, Harmony, etc.
Next, we claim our areas of genius, where our passions and talents overlap. In this way, we assure ourselves that our purpose is always backed by our own unique superpower that helps us advance our values in the world. Quite often, the “essence” verb that we identified in Lesson 8 can be a useful word here.
Examples: Fostering growth, Holding space, Listening empathetically, Expressingly myself artistically, Mediating conflict, etc.
Lastly, we assert how we are going to embody our values within ourselves, ensuring that as we do our work out in the world we also uphold our own internal integrity. Whereas the genius statement is meant to empower and energize, the integrity statement is more of a commitment, vow, or sacrifice. It acknowledges the often difficult inner work that serves as the foundation for all outer work.
Examples: Practicing compassion, Practicing patience, Being gentle, Withholding judgment, Being radically kind, etc.
Through articulating our own personal purpose, we help clarify to ourselves what is most meaningful to us. But we also set an intention about how we are going to show up for ourselves and for others, regardless of circumstances or situation, whether with friends and family, in a professional setting, or otherwise. Whenever we find ourselves lost or uncertain, we can always simply bring ourselves back to our purpose to find our way out.
This lesson is drawn from our training program Change 101. To access the full lesson, including images, diagrams, exercises, resources, and comments, join Change Community and enroll.