Power of Purpose
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
What makes one life rich in poverty and another
unfulfilling in abundance? Why do some organizations thrive in difficult
times, while others languish in prosperity? One may also ask: What
turns an average student into an outstanding success and a gifted
student into a failure?
The answer may be found in the seriousness of
purpose. In spite of its appearance as a simple and hackneyed concept,
purpose has the potential to affect everything that really matters
in life and death. In fact, our survival, both individually and
collectively, depends on it.
I can tell you dozens of success stories of
mediocre students that became high achievers. In most cases, this
transformation occurs when someone ignites a spark in their soul
and awakens a sense of purpose.
My research on student retention tells a similar
story: Students attending university because of parental pressure
or school social life tend to underachieve, whereas students with
a clear sense of purpose tend to excel.
Purpose also plays a vital role in career attainment.
It is difficult to get excited about going to work when there is
a mismatch between one's life purpose and the job. On the other
hand, one cannot help but become highly motivated when passionate
about what work represents.
Such passion seldom comes from a pay raise or
promotion; it can only stem from a deep sense of calling and commitment
to serve someone or some cause much larger than oneself. This is
perhaps the best-kept secret in motivational psychology.
Perhaps, a good starting point for a purposeful
life is a personal mission statement. For example, the Apostle Paul
said, "To me to live is Christ." What a simple statement! And yet,
what an abundance of energy followed from this conviction!
Paul declared: "But one thing I do: Forgetting
what is behind and straining toward what is ahead" (Phil.3:13).
Nothing, not even death, could stop Paul from achieving his mission.
The same principle applies to organizations
as well. In the highly competitive global market, organizations
that have the best chance of survival are driven by a clear sense
of purpose beyond the bottom line. Recent corporate scandals have
taught us that a high-sounding mission statement by itself is not
sufficient; every aspect of the corporation needs to be driven by
a higher purpose.
Biologists and psychologists have long recognized
that purposiveness is hardwired in all animal species - the survival
instinct. A major part of animal activities are directed to the
goal of pursuing life's necessities in order to survive.
For humans, their brain is designed for purposeful
living beyond mere survival. Happiness and health depend on our
capacity to project into the future and anticipate success in achieving
cherished life goals. Such a purposeful future orientation provides
direction, energy, and satisfaction, even when survival becomes
too painful to endure.
Dr. Viktor Fankl, the founder of logotherapy,
demonstrated the power of purpose in surviving Nazi death camps.
Similarly, many victims of trauma and the chronically disabled would
not have survived without a strong sense of meaning and purpose,
which gives them certain measures of hope and joy in spite of suffering.
According to Dr. Frankl, a greater threat to
Western civilization is not the terror of physical suffering, but
the epidemic of "existential neurosis." When there is an absence
of purpose, when one's life is basically aimless and meaningless,
the brain begins to deteriorate, and life becomes unbearable because
of boredom. An existential vacuum leads to depression, violence
and addiction. Just witness the prevalence of depression among children
of the super-rich, or the high incidents of drug addiction among
Of course, the complexity of purpose cannot
be adequately addressed in a short essay. Suffice to say that levels
of purpose affect both our present life and our destiny.
What is the purpose of your life? The choice
is entirely yours. A moment's pausing to reflect on this fundamental
question may yield blessings that last more than a lifetime.