Why Meaning and Purpose are different

This blog is about leadership and identifying your why, meaning, purpose, legacy and so on. It’s a long one (you’ve been warned) so I’ve added the formula below, in case you just want the punch line. If you’re up for a bit more exploration read on…

So, why is ‘why’ important? Well, it’s an important part of a business owners marketing conversation, thanks in no small part to the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek. While, for me, this book (and the message in it) is about leadership, the dialog it often promotes seems to be dominated by those wishing to use ‘why’ as a marketing trigger. Sadly, exploring an organisations ‘why’ in order to sell a few more widgets, is unlikely to meet anything other than short term objectives. Attaching a righteous strap line to your marketing message changes little about your business and frankly, lacks both imagination and authenticity. You’ll get found out in the long-run and possibly sooner in today’s connected world.

Exploring ‘why’ from a leadership perspective is far more useful as a starting point to any kind of real change (for an individual or business). The point of this kind of exercise is to find a deep-rooted motivation to act. To identify yours as a leader, to align it to other key individuals in the firm, to use it as the context for your Vision and Mission and to make it your true north when facing difficult decisions, now and in the future. When you communicate an authentic Vision through your marketing messages, it often helps attract other, like-minded people to you (clients, customers, colleagues, suppliers etc) but it’s important to put horse before cart and to be able to back-up your words with actions.

So what is your ‘why’? Well, it’s often defined as your meaning or purpose. And here’s the problem. Many people treat meaning and purpose as the same thing even though as nouns they are not interchangeable; they don’t mean the same thing.

So what’s the difference between meaning and purpose? Well, meaning is humanistic and largely psychological – what meaning have I attached to historic events in my life, what do objects or settings mean to me and so on (tip – the ‘I attached’ part of that last sentence is rather important). As such, the meaning of one’s life is contextual and changes over time, as we have new experiences and discover new perspectives along the way. You can’t nail it in one session and tick a box, which makes the search for meaning a lifelong pursuit.

Understanding that you are able to control the meaning you ascribe to historic events, relationships, experiences and so on, is a critical step towards personal accountability, which is in turn a very important attribute found in most great leaders.

In contrast, purpose is largely transpersonal. To be clear, there is a difference between the purpose ‘of’ life and the purpose ‘in’ life; the former being bound up in existential pondering and the latter relating to an individual, in this case, you. Anyway, purpose in life is action orientated and chances are your actions will be felt by others (thank Newton and his third law in particular for that). You don’t necessarily need to wrap your head around the meaning of your life to date in order to find your purpose but it does help. Use your exploration of meaning, to inform your pursuit of a worthy goal (purpose).

Now, there are (at least) 2 schools of thought regarding one’s (grand) purpose; 1. everyone has one or 2. only the chosen few have such a destiny. Those of a religious persuasion often suggest that their chosen deity has endowed them with certain talents and a specific mission, which they must discover and accomplish, in order to find fulfilment in life. Regardless of what you believe (and whatever it is, if it brings you comfort and strength while leaving the rest of us alone then I’m all for it), there is an obvious attraction to doing something with your life, that others perceive to be useful, entertaining, or just plain awesome. The late great Earl Nightingale nailed it when he said “Success is the progressive realisation of a worthy goal”.

Personally, whenever I’ve felt a bit lost, this quote has brought me right back on track. I’ve found the greatest sense of fulfilment, when my words and actions are aligned and directed towards something positive, where my primary benefit is the gratitude of those I’ve had a positive impact on, not material items.

Hopefully, over time, you achieve goals and move on to set new ones. Your track record of achievement (or failure) and the lessons you take into your next adventure, start to define your legacy. Leaving the world a better place for your presence within it and all that. Legacy is a natural consequence of pursuing one’s purpose. It can be good or bad but the point is that people noticed, you mattered, had an impact and will be remembered from time to time, which is rather important from a personal fulfilment perspective. And that brings us back round to my formula.

Your legacy equals the meaning you ascribe to your life, multiplied by the purpose you decide to pursue (to the power of your passion), divided by the number of distractions and the impact you let them have on you. That’s it – simple eh?

If you need some help getting started read this excellent blog by Bronnie Ware about the top 5 regrets of the dying – http://bronnieware.com/regrets-of-the-dying/ and then ask yourself whether you should perhaps consider some of these issues a little sooner, while you can still do something about them and while you can take the lessons you learn and have a positive impact on those individuals that look to you for leadership (tip: Legacy Lists are infinitely more positive than Bucket Lists – think about it…).

And finally, don’t worry if you explore your past to find that it’s all doom and gloom. Remember you’re in control of the meaning you attach to your past and you don’t need to define yourself by historic experiences, relationships, emotions, decisions or failures. You can redefine yourself. Here’s a stand-up comedian, mixed martial arts fighter/ commentator and expansive thinker to explain what I mean – take it away Joe


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