4 Threads of Deep Purpose

To inspire your work and enrich your life

Closeup of hands making cat’s cradle

People who feel a sense of purpose, according to recent studies, are more productive and happier in their work. According to a recent Deloitte survey, 90% of Millennials want their work to contribute to social good while 50% said they would take a paycut to work with a company that aligned with their values. They want their work to serve some social good, build a sense of community, and encourage their personal growth. They want to do work that matters with companies and brands that make a difference. 

That;’s noble, but there’s a problem some journalists have identified in our current pursuit of purpose in work. Many Millennials – and they are not the only ones – over-value their work as their sole source of purpose. Why? In some ways, the workplace has become many people’s last outpost for community connection. With the crisis of faith in American institutions and declining membership in community organizations, work has become the only outlet for meaning-making. But you are not your work.

Deep purpose is more than the title we hold, or the work we produce. Deep purpose is the unifying force that infuses our work, life, and creative activity with meaning. Without it, we can drift. A job or a business or a personal brand is a chore. Few moments stick in our memory. Days blur. We wake up to realize we’ve been sleeping through our work, relationships, and lives for months.

In this Age of Distraction, it can be difficult to find the time to do the deep work of self-reflection required to find your purpose and pursue your ideas. I’ve studied the ways in which people who feel fulfilled over several years and decades pursue purpose. These people are both exemplary innovators and everyday geniuses. What they hold in common is that they do not place purpose solely in one category – such as work, family, relationships, or creative projects alone. Instead, they consistently seek meaning through four threads of deep purpose. You also can strengthen these threads to deepen your work and enrich your life.

1. Identity

Honor all of you and your selves. We flip naturally among the roles of entrepreneur, parent, partner, friend – and still, the question arises, “Who are you?” It is a myth that we possess one “self” that is complete, whole, and consistent. Our identity is made up, in part, of our personalities and our character. In an era of personal branding, numerous public luminaries have felt trapped by their brand personas. That’s understandable in part because the human personality is complex and multi-faceted. Every relationship and every activity naturally brings out different parts of how your personality is experienced. 

Our identity is fluid and complex. Complex personalities are even contradictory. In his seminal study, Creativity, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes creative personalities as possessing certain paradoxes. They can be extremely feminine and masculine. They can be extremely playful and extremely serious about their work. They can be extremely innovative and extremely respectful of traditions. 

The people who thrive over the long game acknowledge their complexities. 

Character, on the other hand, includes the values and virtues we consciously hold dear and that guide our priorities, decisions, and actions. 

The people who find fulfillment over the long term often take stock of the following:

What are my strengths? What activities and relationships are bringing out my best qualities?

How do I allow other parts of myself that the public doesn’t see be expressed?

What do I stand for? What do I stand against? How do these stances show up in the priorities and decisions I make?

Dedicate time to deep, introspective work looking at where you’ve been, where you want to be, and the principles that will guide you there. Question what you think you should value and instead reflect on experiences that have taught you what really matters to you. Next, think about how you can realistically translate those values into your everyday priorities, decisions, and actions.

Self-knowledge can give you the courage to forge ahead with your most impactful work, the confidence to persist, the discipline to master your self.and the skills to shape your days with intention. You can feel confident standing in the authority of your ideas to become an effective, empowering leader, and invigorate your brand or business with purpose.

2. Creativity

We often buy the myth that true “creativity” necessitates a solitary hero: an individual genius in solitude staring at white walls until visited by a mysterious muse. We inherited this story in part from Renaissance culture and the Romantics and the Modern cult of personality. 

But everyday geniuses frame creativity differently.

Creativity is the capacity to derive and follow through on both novel and useful solutions to challenges or problems. You face challenges in your work, life, and relationships every single day. So each day is an opportunity to feel creative agency with some of those challenges.

Creativity is not an innate talent but rather, a skill that we can all cultivate, and when we learn to play it well, it becomes a gift we keep on giving to others to provoke someone to think differently. To help someone feel more deeply. To challenge the status quo and to come up with new, more humane ways of doing things.

This inner power to make life and work new and useful in turn helps us make meaning. 

3. Impact

When you change the way someone thinks or acts in a beneficial way, you have impact. One surprising discovery in my work with exemplary and everyday people who feel fulfilled over the long term is that quantity of impact matters less than the quality of impact. Someone who sends out Tweets to 100,000 people does not necessarily feel more purpose than the teacher who touched 30 children’s lives today. 

If you can influence the way numerous people think, consider how in your leadership position you can impart impact by inspiring other people with a sense of purpose.

The most effective and wise leaders, affect change via story in a two-fold way.

In the words of Howard Gardner, Co-Director of Project Zero and thought leader in multiple intelligences, “The art of the leader is to create and refine a story so that it engages the attention and commitment of followers, thereby changing their views of who they are, what they are committed to, and what they want to achieve and why.”

But the second part is equally if not more important: Effective leaders, according to Gardner, live that story through their actions and decisions – and they inspire people within organizations and on teams to do likewise.

But profound change can start with a single seed. On three acres in Hawaii, barren from chemical-laden soil and deforestation, renowned poet W.S. Merwin and his wife Paula Dunaway planted palm trees day after day for over thirty years. A single tree became a grove, which became a forest composed of species from around the globe. 

Once you’ve done your deep introspection, and shaped your Story, think about the impact you want to have on your work, your community, the world at large, and celebrate the small steps you make toward your goal each day to imbue your actions with meaning. 

4. Community

At Tracking Wonder, we adhere to a Do It Together #DIT model of collaboration and community. Collaboration – be it through conversation, community, or working with another person – can be electric, offering a powerful stimulant for your creative brain. Yet too often, we think the search for purpose must be done in solitude. But take a moment to imagine the alternative:

Imagine your heart’s desire links with that of other people. Imagine you’re surrounded by people who care about you and whom you care about. Imagine some of those people are not exactly like you, that they hold different views than you, and might even hold different values. Such a community can be all the stronger for its diversity, like a wild social ecosystem.

In the Internet age, it’s ever more essential to push the boundaries of your comfort zone and connect with different-minded people who can benefit from your work, inventions, or insights. Human connection remains essential to the construction of our individual identities and ultimately, the formation of our sense of purpose and belonging.

Find an inspiring community outside of your work – whether it’s a yoga class, book club, or a volunteering group – and you’ll undoubtedly find yourself drawing new inspiration and meaning from unexpected places.

Ready to start defining and advancing your deep purpose? 

Look at your calendar of planned priorities, actions, habits, and decisions this week and ask yourself these questions:

  • Identity: How are my unique attributes and talents coming into play and being recognized this week?
  • Making:  What am I making that is new and useful? How am I assuming creative agency in my work and life?
  • Impact: How am I making a meaningful difference in lives around me and beyond me?
  • Community:  How am I fostering fulfilling relationships among people – live or remote – who care about me and I, them? What common drive or vision do we share even if we hold different views and backgrounds? 

Share your answers in the comments section or on our Facebook page to start sharing your Story and forming your creative pack of peers. #DeepPurpose

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