Is There a Purpose?

By Chris Chittenden

"More men fail through lack of purpose than lack of talent."

… Billy Sunday (1862-1935) US revivalist and baseball player

I occasionally contribute to the LinkedIn TED forums and did so recently when someone posed the question, "What is the purpose of humanity?" Around the same time, Newfield Network's Aboodi Shabi also tweeted in response to the question, "Does life have purpose?" His answer, "No. Not the same as saying that life has no meaning, though."

These two events got me thinking about the relationship between meaning and purpose, which are two key elements of living a fulfilling life and being an effective leader with the capacity to create and maintain willing followers. From my perspective, the first question about purpose seems to infer that there is a greater purpose that already exists and which some of us may have found and others are yet to discover. It also infers that this purpose was not created by humanity but a deity of some description.

My response on LinkedIn suggested that rather than assuming an explicit purpose for humanity already exists, we could instead ask the question, "What could be the purpose of humanity?" and seek to create one, or more than one for that matter. However, can we do that without understanding what it means to be human? To understand what I am getting at here, it is useful to appreciate the role of meaning in people's lives.

At the heart of the ontological approach to coaching lies the idea that human beings are constantly making meaning. This distinction revolves around the concept that we live our lives constantly interpreting our experience of living and acting in response to those interpretations. In other words, we are constantly creating meaning in life and doing so is an essential part of the human condition.

In my view, discussions about meaning, or more to the point the lack of meaning, are discussions about deeper meaning. These discussions are fuelled by questions such as, "who am I?" and "what is important about my life?". Such questions speak to our values and who we think we are or wish to be. The answers to such questions are pivotal to an appreciation of ourselves in the wider context of life, our communities to which we belong and the world in general. This type of inquiry can help us see our life as a web of meaning centred on the basic questions of our values and what we value.

Purpose speaks to attainment and therefore direction. As we are constantly making meaning, it follows that purpose follows from meaning and is born of what is important for us whether this is spoken or unspoken. If we are to seek great purpose in life then we need to also seek great meaning.

In many ways, the creation of meaning and purpose is easier for an individual than for a group. We can do it by ourselves through a process of introspection and reflection. Certainly we can benefit through conversation and interaction with others but we are in control of how we create meaning and purpose.

Effective leadership also requires the creation of meaning and purpose within a community of people and therefore requires others to be part of a shared web of meaning and purpose. Accepting that purpose comes from meaning, a key skill for any leader is the capacity to engage others in the creation of shared meaning and purpose even though they are all coming from their own interpretative context.

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© 2013 Chris Chittenden