Have you ever asked yourself, ‘What is my purpose in life?’ ‘What am I meant to do with these skills or this talent? Who I am meant to BE?’ Maybe you’ve been asked that question by a business coach, a speaker or a trainer and felt the pressure to come up with an answer as though the answer to that was just waiting there for you to spit it out.
Personally, I have resisted that question whenever it has been posed. I would dread the feeling of inadequacy that arose when I couldn’t identify something as simple as my purpose (ha!). I was terrible at identifying it as a young woman and even with decades more life experience, I continued to question what this magical ‘purpose’ of mine was supposed to be.
In fact, when I look back at all the things I have done, all the mistakes I made and all the learning I had thrust upon me, it seems that I travelled along many roads and ended up in places where I made a life with what I had at the time. Perhaps some things happened that were meant to happen, but I was certainly not aware of that at the time.
Destiny or Discovery?
That’s not to say that I don’t believe that I have a purpose in life, but I personally think that the question is not, ‘Who am I meant to BE?’ (destiny) but more, ‘What am I here to LEARN as I bumble around on this earth?’ which is a very different question about discovery.
The first question implies I have some destiny which is up to me to discover, that will be my ‘golden ticket’ to a life of meaning and personal success. If I don’t find this magical destiny, will I forever be wondering what it was that I missed and have a half-life as a result?
The other question acknowledges that life rarely works out to a plan. In fact, often the plan itself is the cause of our problems as we try to fit our expectations about the future into the realities of what life throws at us. Asking ‘What am I here to learn?’ gives us scope to focus on what we are doing RIGHT NOW, rather than what we think we ought to be at some point in the future.
Ask a better question…
So while I don’t ask the question ‘What is my life’s purpose?’, I do ask:
What is this (desire, plan, wish, action) FOR?
- What is my relationship with this person FOR?
- What is my desire to travel FOR?
- What is my plan to increase my bank account FOR?
- What is the purpose of my business FOR?
Consider that question for a moment. What is your business for? What do you believe it will do, for yourself and for others? What do you want it to do? And if you achieved that, what is that FOR?
What is YOUR business FOR?
Asking these questions opens me up to discovering all manner of answers. They allow me to question my intention – why am I interested in doing this thing? What will it offer me and offer others if I do it? These questions also prevent me from searching for the Holy Grail of One Right Purpose in Life and remind me that actually I don’t know what anything is really for, but I’m open to discovering it.
Here’s what I discovered when I asked myself that question last year. I started by saying, ‘Oh it’s for wealth creation. Making money so I can have a better life.’ But then I realised there are definitely easier ways to make money than to be in business. And there are times when I could make a lot more money and work a lot less hours, just by going back to a steady paying job!
I could also be making a lot more money if I just delivered content that everyone else is delivering. Writing about self-belief is hard! If I just delivered a training program on SEO marketing, I’d be much wealthier. Why wasn’t I just doing that? And if I did, what was that going to be FOR?
The end justifies the means
I do believe that in life, the end justifies the means. I realised that I had to know what the ‘end’ was if I was to discover how I was going to achieve it. In relation to ‘What is my business FOR?’ I had to ask myself if the ‘end’ that I was aiming for, was about me becoming richer? And if it was, then the means that I used to get that wealth possibly didn’t matter. Because if getting rich was the main purpose of my business, then I could do virtually anything (legally!) provided it brought in the money. It didn’t matter if it was particularly meaningful to me, or whether people found it life-changing. It only mattered that it generated as much profit as possible.
And I started to see that I absolutely had to know what my business was for, before I could work out what I was offering. Because while there is nothing wrong with wealth creation, I had to understand the means I was going to use, to achieve that end. And I discovered that I wasn’t prepared to use the means I knew would be quick and profitable to get to the desired ‘end’ of wealth creation
Is business always about the money?
Of course, profit is of primary importance if you intend to replace your day-job with a business, sustain a business or develop a nest egg for retirement. In fact, one business textbook I have explains that business planning starts by setting a goal and suggests the goal be, ‘To be rich!’. But after 15 years in business, I know that profit is never guaranteed. A hardware business in my neighbourhood that once had boomed, recently closed after 24 years because profit slowly ebbed away, even though housing was growing.
Profit is necessary but sometimes profit is not the purpose of the business. It is not what the business is FOR. Profit is one outcome that might go hand in hand with other outcomes. But if profit is the only ‘end’ then you must also to be prepared to take the means necessary to justify that end. Ask yourself if these ‘means’ (the activities you will engage in) are enough to keep you interested, engaged and satisfied in your business over the longer term.
In my case, I recognise that when I ask myself ‘What is my business for?’ and I answer, ‘To make income from my services’, then the end must be profit for my bottom line. The means to this end are the work I do ‘for the money’. This is consistent, stable work that pays my bills and keeps me afloat. I’m committed to doing it well, but it isn’t the reason I stay in business.
For that, I have another purpose where the end is so important to me that I would (and frequently do) provide the services for free. This website is part of the means I use to achieve that end and it gives me great satisfaction and many opportunities to learn from it.
So ask yourself again:
- What is your business for?
- What is the ‘end’ that you want to achieve?
- What means will you use to get there?
- Do the means that you will use to achieve that end make you joyful, excited and energised?
What change are you making?
Seth Godin in his book, ‘This is Marketing’ (2018), asks the question, ‘What change do you want to make in the world?’ This is a different way of asking, ‘What is it for?’ He says that the change you wish to make in the world is the reason, the purpose for the business; the ‘end’ that I have been referring to. This purpose will guide all your marketing efforts. Because the end justifies the means.
For example, if the purpose is to make a change in the world such as supporting women in a developing economy to create start-up businesses, then the marketing you use (the means to achieve this end) will need to match that end. For example, you might decide against sponsorship from businesses that exploit women and children in third-world garment factories. That might not be an appropriate ‘means’ to get to the ‘end’ you have in mind.
If your business purpose is helping people with a gluten intolerance to enjoy affordable and delicious food, then the end will justify the actions (the means) you take to achieve that. If you were developing this business, it might not feel right to use low quality flours that would make the food stale after 24 hours, or to advertise them as ‘gluten free’ when in fact they were low in gluten but not gluten free. If you want to achieve customer loyalty and a strong reputation for quality, you need to use the means that will achieve that end.
Strategy starts here!
Once you know:
- What your business is FOR.
- What is the ‘end’ you are seeking.
- What are the means that you are willing to take to achieve that end, then you can ask yourself:
- Does this all sit well with me? Will it sit well with my customers and supporters?
If it feels right, you have a purpose for your business. If it does not, start back at the top.
I did several rounds of this over many weeks before I felt satisfied that I had achieved a clear and meaningful purpose for this year and the next. I used to write a strategic or business plan for a 3-year period, but now I am more comfortable with an annual plan that I revise each January. It could be that this business is now ‘for’ something else in 2020 and I can adapt the plan to achieve that end.
If finding your purpose in all of life feels too big, start with exploring your purpose right now. Now is the only time you have, so your purpose in life right now might be to explore and experience what it’s like to start or run a business. It doesn’t have to be a world-shaking purpose that lasts your whole life. It is truly about your freedom to create anything you want in this moment and to keep it for as long as you want it.