You build your purpose

When I graduated from school, there was no graduation ceremony, no wise words to never remember, and no fanfare. We finished our exams and that was that. We parted ways, got merry (some more than others), and then we got on with the summer holidays and waited forlornly for our exam results to come in.

I wonder how much different things would have been had there been a Graduation ceremony for me to mark the end of school, to leave well, and perhaps to hear some last words of wisdom? I was told to “find a job” when I finished my exams, but these days, I hear graduates being told to “find your purpose”. Wow, that’s a big ask isn’t it?

The idea of sending our kids off to find their purpose is something that I wanted to explore when given the privilege of giving the closing address to our graduating class this year. I have met a few people on my travels where their purpose is so clear I haven’t needed to ask…but really…it’s the exception and not the rule.

For many of us, purpose is unicorn we are left to find.

——

Extracted from my Graduation speech to the UWCSEA East Class of 2022:

So, what thoughts to leave you with? I have one story and then some gratuitous advice to offer…

A story is told of a man who visits a building site.

He sees three builders busily working away. Curious as to what they are working on, he approaches the first builder and asks, “What are you doing?”

The first builder looks up and answers, “I am building a wall”.

The visitor nods and moves on. He finds the second builder; a woman toiling at the corner of what looks like a large wall. He asks her the same question. She responds, “I am building a school”.

Finally, he spots the last builder working on a similar-looking section on the same building site and once again asks, “What are you doing?” They respond, “I am building our future”.

Profound.

Three people, same site, working on the exact same building. Fundamentally though, they have three very different comprehensions of the work they are doing. 

The first only sees a literal meaning in his work. He is not contributing to something bigger than himself. He doesn’t see his colleagues working side by side him building something monumental. Where his work stops is where his interest and vision for the project ceases.

A lot of people are like this. 

If I asked you a few months ago, whilst you were preparing for a science test, what your purpose was, what do you think you might have said?

Nailing the exam? Gaining your IB Diploma? Winning your university placement? Preparing for a life of meaning and purpose…?

All of the above? None of the above?

What if I asked you again today?

The ‘building a wall mentality’ is such a limited mentality. 9 to 5. Clock in, clock out. Go home. Whatever role you are doing, your work can matter but it’s up to you see that for yourself.

The first builder failed to see the impact of what his work was doing.

The second builder sees the functional reason for her work; she is building a school. Nice. She understands the bigger picture of things even though she’s only working on a wall. She will be building a place where children learn. Now, will she be building this school alone? No. She has colleagues, other specialists who will be enlisted for the roof, the plumping, the electrics etc. But she recognises the end goal and the crucial part she plays in it.

This is a good mentality to have; to understand the end goal and know what you’re contributing to. It’s understanding the impact of your work and the “why” behind it. It’s knowing what you do, why you started and why it matters.

But the third builder? They blow me out of the water. Their work mindset is incredibly rare but is the kind that is revolutionary. This builder, although they are just working on a wall, see their work as transcending humanity itself.  Now that’s big picture thinking.

Perhaps the aim for our work is just that then — to find work that goes on to influence bigger things, transcends generations and has lasting impact. That kind of work matters. 

But don’t just take my word for it. For many, COVID has triggered billions of people around the planet to ask some existential questions of themselves. What’s important to me? Am I spending time on the things that matter? What’s my purpose?

I’ve been reading about the Great Resignation too. More people are leaving jobs than ever before; perhaps struggling to find meaning or fulfilment in their current work. And without meaning, they can not find satisfaction or sustain their interest in doing what they are doing. So they are moving to jobs where there is more flexibility, more work-life balance and where they feel that their work matters.

And so the first piece of advice I want to share with you today, is that whatever paths you may take from this wonderful arena, make sure that you do work that is meaningful to you – and to do that, you need to find your purpose.  Not mine.  Not your parents.  Not your friends.  Yours.

OK.  So how do you find your purpose?  What does it look like?

The short answer is I don’t know.  

However, John Coleman, writing in the Harvard Business Review, might be able to help us out here.  Coleman suggests that we suffer from a series fundamental misconceptions about purpose and that challenging these misconceptions can help us develop a more well rounded vision of purpose.  

He shares 3 misconceptions, which I would like to share with you:

Misconception 1 – Purpose is only a thing you find. We hear so many inspiring stories of how people can meander through life waiting until fate delivers a higher calling to us.

But I think…and speaking to many of you here…it is more rare than you think.  For the average 18 year old (being told to find your purpose) or a 40/50 year old in an unfulfilling job (sorry folks), searching for the silver bullet to give life meaning is more likely to end in frustration than fulfilment.

In achieving professional purpose, most of use have to focus as much on MAKING our work meaningful as in TAKING meaning from it.  Put differently, purpose is a thing you BUILD, not a thing you FIND.  Almost any work can posses remarkable purpose.  Sure, some jobs more naturally lend themselves to senses of meaning, but many require at least some deliberate effort to invest them with the purpose we seek.

Misconception 2 : Purpose is a single thing

The second misconception I often hear is that purpose can be articulated as a single thing.

Sure, some people genuinely do seem to have an overwhelming purpose in their lives. But most of us will likely have multiple sources of purpose in our lives. For me, I find purpose in my children, my marriage, my work, and my community. For almost everyone, there’s no one thing we can find.

I would argue that It’s not purpose – but purposes – we are looking for: the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives. Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose takes the pressure off of finding a single thing to give our lives meaning.

Misconception 3: Purpose is stable over time

It’s common now for people to have a number of careers in their lifetimes. I myself started as a teacher, founded two start-up businesses, been an army officer, and then found myself back in school as a headteacher.

This evolution in our sources of purpose isn’t flaky or demonstrative of a lack of commitment, but natural and good. Just as we all find meaning in multiple places, the sources of that meaning can and do change over time. My focus and sense of purpose at 18 was dramatically different in many ways than it is now, and the same could be said of almost anyone you meet.

How do you find your purpose? That’s the wrong question to ask. We should be looking to endow everything we do with purpose, to allow for the multiple sources of meaning that will naturally develop in our lives, and to be comfortable with those changing over time. Unpacking what we mean by “purpose” can allow us to better understand its presence and role in our lives.

So my final piece of advice is this – It’s possible you will be lucky enough to FIND your purpose. But it’s much more likely that you will have to BUILD it.

But if you are looking for something a little bit more straightforward today…Eleanor Roosevelt offers this:

“The purpose of life is live it, to taste experience to the upmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience”.  That’s good enough for me.

So to close, Alumni – adulthood will, over the next few short years, be settling on you.  As you come to terms with this reality, let me summarise by suggesting that adulthood might mean asking the right questions; which are likely to be about your purpose across your lifetime.  The questions may be a little scary, because there is no perfect information, no perfect rationality as you make your choices.  Life demands that we take actions and make commitments even though the future is uncertain.  Anyone who has given their heart in love, brought a child into the world, watched them walk across a stage like this, headed into an uncertain future, knows this to be true.  And now it’s your truth too.

Our UWCSEA goal is to educate individuals to embrace challenge and to take responsibility for shaping a better world. I know I speak for the entire College when I say it has been a pleasure, and a privilege working with you. As well as the great hopes we have for you, we have even greater trust, in you; that you’ll ask the right questions; and build your own purpose.

It really is over to you now.

—————

I’m very grateful to Nick Alchin for allowing me to borrow many of his wise words in pulling this speech together. Thank you, Nick.

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