Living Life on Purpose

Steven Covey (in his less well known book, “First Things First”) asks the question: “Do you live your life by the clock or by the compass?” For now I will put aside the issues arising from “busyness and time focus” implied by the clock metaphor (a future blog) and focus on the compass.

The request to consider “what do we steer our lives by” is a fundamental one and a question I have personally been wrestling with for many years in all domains of my life. For me my ‘North Star’, another navigational aid but with more romance than a compass, by which I steer my life is “Purpose”.

For me the notion of some higher frame of reference by which I make decisions about my life is my way of moving out of the current busy stream of activity with which I can so easily fill my life and lift my eyes (and head and heart) to pause and reflect and ask if what I am doing or about to do is in line with the Purpose I have set for this domain. Quite often, perhaps disappointingly so, I find it is not!

It has become a commonplace of recent organisational analysis and description to talk about being “Purpose led”. I prefer the term “Purpose drawn”, the latter having much more of a sense of voluntarily moving towards something rather than being compelled to follow a lead. This of course requires the organisation in question to have a Purpose which is both clear, shared, understood and present in day to day organisational life. It is often automatically assumed that it will have some higher more aspirational elements than just “being successful” in whatever paradigm the organisation sets itself.

And for most of us we look to Purpose to provide inspiration with which we can personally connect and indeed within which we can see some element of our own Purpose. When that happens we can feel a level of connection and agency in the world which fuels us and provides us with energy and courage to step into areas of challenge and provides us with the motivation to participate, perhaps lead, the changes we feel we want to make happen. This goes way beyond what a simple “goal” or overt incentive can achieve. When it happens the connection can be so powerful it is almost as though we cannot not do that thing to which advancing our Purpose points.  This can be on a macro level or a micro level.

In my case my main Purpose was “to reduce oppression in life and enable all people to be the best that they can be in their full authentic selves”.  It had served me well for nearly 10 years in my organisational life. But what about my life as a whole? Did that Purpose have meaning beyond my working world? That had been a small quiet voice for some time but I had suppressed it and managed to continue it seemed quite happily with the ambiguity.

This became very clear to me last year when my wife of nearly 40 years died. To say the “centre” of my world dropped away would be no exaggeration. I had had that clear Purpose in my work domain for several years: I had been able to act on this in much of the work I had been doing at an individual level through coaching or at a more collective level through consulting interventions or leadership development programmes. But in my personal life I had had no such clear connection to that Purpose. If pushed I would often say I had a Purpose in my personal life something like “supporting my family to grow and flourish in all they want to achieve”.

After my wife’s death I realised that while this had been my espoused purpose my lived by purpose (or “purpose in action”) had been rather more prosaic. I came to see that decisions I had been making in both domains were far more driven by doing things to gain sufficient money to maintain our comfortable life style than I had been prepared to admit. And indeed I came to see that this driving purpose had often trumped my declared work purpose – I just hadn’t been willing to admit the compromises!

With her death the necessity for “maintaining” that life had largely disappeared. I had to look again at why I was doing anything now. I was without direction and slowly it became clear to me that so much of my life, including my work, was tied up with the purpose I had built around that key relationship and maintaining our family life together. And I realised that much of it had been done semi-consciously and without clear intention. I came to realise that the focus of my life was that relationship and that many of the things I had been telling myself about my Purpose, especially in relation to work, were not really true or at least not the whole truth. I came to see that supporting our life together, the stories I had told myself about what was needed financially to do that and how I had to live and work to deliver that finance, were simply that – stories I had created. And like all stories I could re-tell them in a different way or tell different stories.

I had to look more fundamentally now beyond what I needed to support my domestic life (that having largely gone) and decide what I cared about that went beyond that or at least could now be identified instead of that. In conducting that inquiry I recognised my “compass” or “North Star” had become blurred and now here was a chance to redefine and sharpen that. In doing so and with a greater freedom than I had allowed myself in the past I was able to see beyond my immediate circumstances, my own small concerns and be willing to link my own aspirations to some wider ones in the world – this time without the embarrassment of thinking “who am I to have such apparent grandiosity”.

Some of the things that helped me, and might help you in a similar inquiry, was to give myself space and time to just “be”. I increased my meditation practice both in terms of regularity and duration and had as a specific inquiry within in it “what do I care about in the world?” I brought much more attention to the present that I had habitually done through my mindfulness practices. I walked more in nature taking time by deliberately slowing my pace and by often stopping just to look about me rather than walking on to a pre-determined destination.

In doing this I was able to appreciate the wonderful beauty all around in simple things – the shape of a tree; the colour of the sky; the wind moving over a field of wheat; the smile of a fellow walker as we exchanged greetings. Through this re-pacing of my life I was able to create that needed space for introspection. These practices were also essential to my “being with” my grief and loss following my wife’s death. In fact the two journeys become one journey. And this journey culminated in my walking a part of the Camino in Spain. A time of quietness, of a meditative walking practice over several days and of deep conversations with a group most open to themselves and others. All of this led me to reconnect with my own Purpose, to describe it more clearly and to recommit to having it more present in my life.


I agreed to write this several weeks ago. At that time I was full of enthusiasm for it. Then I was diverted and the immediate enthusiasm waned. I was puzzled by this – after all isn’t Purpose and the connection of individuals and organisation to their Purpose one of my own ambitions? I realised that this had become “another task”; a request I had to fulfil on; a commitment to someone else. None of those were proving enough to get it written – even as the deadline approached! It was only when I was able to pause and reflect on why this could be important and in doing so see it as a contribution to furthering my own Purpose (“to reduce oppression in life and enable all people to be the best that they can be in their full authentic selves”) that I found the motivation to write it – and to enjoy doing so!

Tim Stanyon is an Associate of Future Considerations who combines his diverse and extended organisational and consulting experience with his passion to develop others and help them to bring fulfillment to their purpose. He is passionate about Shakespeare and more generally, bringing poetry and story into organisational life.

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