Purpose is essential to fulfillment. However, purpose is not static; it is evolving, as do our lives.
For some individuals, purpose crystalizes when facing adversity. For example, Elliot Ackerman, a Marine combat veteran and author, told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” purpose emerges from unit cohesion. “You are trying to accomplish that mission with a group of people who are probably going to wind up being some of the very best friends you’ve ever had in your life.”
Purpose in service to others is intense. Shannon Polson, amonng the first women to become an Apache helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army and who flew in Bosnia, told me in an email interview, “The military instills purpose in many ways, beginning with the mission, but strongly supported by intensive storytelling specifically concerning national history.” Unit identity is essential, beginning in training and with the wearing of the uniform.
“Soldiers fight for the person in the foxhole next to them, which is where this sense of self and unit connects more strongly to purpose in the military than it may in other organizations,” adds Polson, who is also a speaker and author of “GRIT Factor: Courage, Resilience, and Leadership in the Most-Male Dominated Organization in the World.”
Ackerman says that such camaraderie in combat induces happiness like “freebasing the crystal meth of purpose. There is nothing more intense than this sense of purpose that you’re having every day.”
Seldom does such intensity last. “When you come home years later,” says Ackerman, “you have to find your happiness. You have to re-purpose yourself.”
Polson agrees. “My first few years out of the military, I felt completely unmoored. I’m grateful for taking two years for graduate school to begin to find my footing.
“If you look for them, the stories of these challenging transitions from military to civilian life, in large part due to a perception of lost purpose, appear every day,” Polson continues. “It’s incredibly difficult to go from such an intensely purpose-focused organization to something less so.”
What happens in civilian life can then be challenging. “Whatever you’re going to do,” said Ackerman in the NPR interview, “you’re going to repurpose yourself. And when you look at those options… [the] crystal meth of purpose, well, none of those are that intense. It’s sort of more like the Coors Light of purpose. And you realize that you’re going to spend the rest of your life sitting on your front porch drinking Coors Light, and a certain depression sets in.”
Ackerman, who deployed to combat zonesfive times, is a novelist who has a way with words that crystalize his thinking. While the intensity of purpose will never be the same as in combat, it can find root in other ways. Gross alluded to this when she commented, “I think maybe writing is a way of kind of keeping the different parts of yourself integrated.”
To that, I would add purposeful.
Knowing yourself first
“Discovering purpose is a journey that invites us to become deeply introspective,” Alaina Love, CEO of Purpose Link Consulting, said in an email interview. “When we explore the things we’re curious about and pursue topics that interest and excite us, we begin to understand how those activities might ignite the purpose-driven passions within us.”
This process begins with reflection, considering what’s important to us, what we do and how we connect with others. ”Purpose is the treasure contained between the layers of reflection we commit to, and it gifts itself to us when we are willing to lean into our own self-discovery,” Love says.
Putting purpose to work
Organizations play a purposeful role. “Organizations instill purpose by committing to the work of living it,” says Love. Therefore, how leaders behave must “align with the organization’s stated purpose to create cultural environments that reinforce that purpose.”
When it comes to people, says Love, leaders must understand the “individual purpose of each employee so they can align those employees with roles that allow that purpose to be expressed.” Doing this is not easy, and it “adds one more layer of complexity in building a purpose-focused organization.”
To create alignment with purpose, Love advises organizations to “hire people who are not just skilled for the role, but are passionate, self-aware individuals who have a deep sense of purpose that they want to bring to their role.” In addition, it is essential that “their value system aligns with the organization’s values. Then, empower them to bring the best of who they are to what they do.”
In service to others
“Many veterans,” says Polson, “find a sense of purpose in finding ways to serve others, either directly or within the context of their new profession.”
For example, as Polson recalls, “At one of my jobs in the corporate world after leaving the military, I realized that I had to find my meaning in taking care of the people on my team.”
“Purpose in the military is a powerful force, supporting people through unimaginable challenges,” Polson adds. “Civilians can learn from the importance of purpose that the military has identified and cultivated, and work on their own purpose, as well as helping others find theirs.”
The point is that we can experience purpose in different ways and at other times in our lives. What we must do is define our purpose and then redefine it as our lives change. Having such focus, direction and passion enables us to live more sincerely and with greater joy.
John Baldoni is a globally recognized leadership speaker, certified Master Corporate Executive Coach, and author of 15 books that have been translated into 10 languages. In 2021, the International Federation of Learning and Development named Baldoni a World-Class Mentor and named him to its Hall of Fame. Also in 2021, Global Gurus ranked him a Top 20 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2018, Inc.com named him a Top 100 speaker, and in 2014 Inc.com listed him as a Top 50 leadership expert.
Baldoni’s books include “Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World,” “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us,” and “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.” For more information about Baldoni’s speaking and coaching, please visit his website.