Prepare for the Leadership Journey: Purpose and Meaning

If you want to succeed, as a leader, it is extremely important to have a clear purpose and meaning in life. Without purpose, you are likely to drift away on the waves of your social, cultural and economic environment. Drifting away from your true self into a position where you don’t really want to be, like a stranded ship on a shallow sandbank. Far away from your intended course, unable to move, and completely dependent on what the environment throws towards you. Having lost valuable time, and with limited space to manoeuvre, it may be time to call in the rescue boats.

For thousand of years, discovering clarity of purpose has been a recurring theme in Eastern and Western philosophies, religions and psychology.

The earliest Taoist texts (sixth century BC) describe ways of self-cultivation to return to a mode of existence that is natural and not obscured by social conditioning. Zhu Xi, one of the greatest Neo-Confucians, who lived during the Chinese Song Dynasty between 1130 and 1200, taught that through self-cultivation, one’s conduct could be brought into harmony with the principles of the human being.

His book, The Tao of Balance describes: Those who possess sincerity or pure mind achieve the right way without effort, understand without thinking, and can naturally and easily embody the Way (Dao/Tao). Tao in this context means ‘big road’ or ‘ultimate road’, what you are destined to achieve in life, your core purpose. Finding harmony between core purpose and men is a central theme in the Confucian Way. It is a life-long journey of self cultivation, striving for perfection, but also knowing that you will never achieve it.

Having clarity of purpose and meaning means that you will be able to focus all your attention on what is important to you. You will not waste time and energy on activities that don’t align with who you are and what you stand for.

Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, is one of the great books on the importance of having meaning in life. Victor Frankl, neurologist and psychiatrist, was one of the few survivors of the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. He described that prisoners who didn’t have anything to live for, were inevitably, the first to die. The ones who saw meaning and had a purpose in their life, had the highest chance of survival. In his books, Frankl regularly quotes Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote “life is worth living only if there are goals inspiring one to live.”

New research in psychology and neuroscience starts to reveal the scientific validity of these insights. For example, Dave Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, conducted a study on goal setting.

He found that only 4 percent of Americans write down their goals and only 1 percent reviewed them regularly. But more remarkable is the fact that this small percentage earned more than nine times more over their life time than the ones that didn’t set goals.

Another piece of research from the University College London (UCL), Princeton University, and Stony Brook University found that people who had a higher ‘eudemonic well-being’ were 30 percent less likely to die during the average eight and a half year follow-up period. Eudemonic well-being measures underlying psychological needs such as meaning, autonomy, control and connectedness.

Having clarity of purpose and meaning means that you will be able to focus all your attention on what is important to you. You will not waste time and energy on activities that don’t align with who you are and what you stand for.

But where do you start if you haven’t discovered your purpose or mission in life? Where do you look for answers?

The most obvious place to start is your past.

Your life has been shaped, and continues to be shaped, by your experiences and the meaning you assigned to those experiences. Meaning consists of the mental and emotional processes associated with the key events in your life. Going back through your life and revisiting your experiences when you were most alive and excited will bring back important thoughts and feelings. You want to capture these as they are the key building blocks for your core purpose.

Another valuable place to look for answers is within yourself. The capacity for introspection, or the ability to examine your own thoughts and emotions is called self-awareness.

You can increase your self awareness with practice.

Examining your own thoughts may seem easy but, on an average day, you will be bombarded with tens of thousands random thoughts. Buddhists call this the beginners mind or ‘Monkey Mind’ to depict a mind that continuously jumps from one thought to another – in the same way that wild monkeys jump from branch to branch. As you travel along your leadership journey, you will increase your self awareness and increase control over your thoughts.

Inclinations are another area where you can find some important puzzle pieces for your core purpose. This is where you have a look at how and what you spend your attention on, when not enforced by your environment. For example, if you walk into a bookshop, what are the typical book shelfs you examine? Which books or magazines do you browse? If you have some spare time, and nothing on your mind, which sites do you visit browsing the internet? Which shops to you visit when you stroll through the shopping mall? What TV programmes do you watch in your spare time? Which movies do you watch? What music do you listen to? Look at the activities that emerge purely from yourself, not from your environment.

Your life purpose and meaning will shape everything you do; it has to be clear and alive in your mind at every moment in time. In my next article, I will further explore and help you discover your core purpose.

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“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed, by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

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