On Purpose

This is the third in a series of blog posts that are based on some writing I did in the early 1990′s and a lot of thinking I have done since. Previous posts in this series are linked at the end of this post.

Chapter two

On Purpose

Point 1.  Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.

Point 11.  Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor.  Eliminate management by objectives.  Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals.  Substitute leadership.”

–W. Edwards Deming

Deming chose “create constancy of purpose” as the first of his Fourteen Points Toward the Transformation of Management, and the lack of a purpose was the first of the “deadly diseases of management.” This is how central it was, in Deming’s view, for an organization to have a purpose.

Having a purpose is also an important element of a human life.  As our society has developed to allow more individual expression–young men are no longer relegated to follow in their father’s footsteps, nor are young women restricted to marriage and children–the notion that our lives fulfill some purpose nags at us now more perhaps than in the past. In Deming’s view, a suitable purpose for a business was “to improve the standard of living of mankind.”  This example illustrates two qualities of a purpose.  First, a purpose is not an objective so much as a direction.  Secondly, it has a basis of service to others.

In Deming’s philosophy, a business is free to choose any purpose whatsoever. It is essential, though, that the long-term purpose has priority over short-term profit margins. The area in which this priority comes most obviously into consideration in the corporate world is in decisions concerning research and development (R&D). A company’s R&D expenses often offers the easiest short-term solution to profit concerns–simply cut back on R&D efforts and show more profit (or smaller losses).

But it is only through R&D efforts that product improvement and innovation is stimulated. It is mainly through R&D efforts that a company can pursue a purpose of improving the quality of life of its customers. While cutting back on R&D may improve the balance sheet in the short-term, a company cannot simultaneously pursue a long-term purpose and slack off on development efforts.

Likewise, as individuals, we are free to choose any purpose whatsoever. Power comes in our commitment to that purpose, in making the choice.  As Goethe said, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

I believe that our life energy can be described as pure, purposeless intention.  That intention responds to any purposes or beliefs we put behind it. For example, if you are ambivalent regarding what to do with your life (as I have been for a good part of my own life), you will be very good at being ambivalent; there will be intention in your ambivalence. In a way, this intention is like a fire hose–point it where you want it and incredible force is available; leave it without direction and you have incredible force all over the place.

Whether our lives fit into some kind of a cosmic plan is a question each of us must answer for ourselves. I am certain, however, that the act of choosing a purpose for our lives gives the fire hose a direction. The life force then propels us forward.

I’ve heard it said that as we pursue an endeavor that is somehow “right” for us then doors open and a feeling occurs that we are being “helped by hidden hands.” I like to think that these occurrences are not restricted to any one particular path for any individual. Rather I think it may be a result of choosing a path. The act of declaration itself marshals energies that were previously dispersed relatively randomly.

At times in my own life, for example, I have been caught by a particular career. For a time it was Biochemistry, then it was Astronomy. Later it was library work. There were others in between. The point is that for years in all cases, “doors were opening” for me. I don’t think it was because any one of them was my right path. I had simply chosen a path for a period of time and my life force acted on that choice. Perhaps this hopping around in careers has taught me something about how easily life energy can work with you that I would not have learned had I stuck with one choice.

I think it is important to make unambiguous choices and to begin to conduct all our activities “on purpose.” When we do choose some purpose, we can make a difference–certainly not in a year, probably not in a decade, but just maybe over a lifetime!

So what is a purpose and how might we choose one?

To choose a meaningful purpose, we must each explore the depth of our own life. This is the personal equivalent of “research and development.”  You must explore your own depth in your own way, be it through meditation, church activities, at the golf course, or in any way that has meaning for you. I don’t condone doing something because someone else tells you that it’s good for you. Your life is for you to express; your purpose is for you to find and follow.

Shelley Prevost offers some good advice on this personal exploration of purpose in her recent article, 5 reasons why most people never discover their purpose.

To create constancy of purpose is to keep our purpose in mind despite hard times or difficult circumstances. If a business maintains its purpose of improving the standard of living for mankind, it will not resort to substituting cheap material in its products when economic cycles slump. The quality of the product is maintained and customer loyalty remains intact. The chain reaction of quality which stimulates customer loyalty which results in long-term financial stability is the foundation of Deming’s emphasis on purpose.

In our own life, constancy of purpose serves a somewhat different end. Often we attach our identity to a particular job we hold or other circumstances in our life. We are lost if we lose that job or those circumstances change. But, our purpose is bigger than our job. Our purpose is something we can always feel good about and it may even help us see how the job we just lost has allowed a new door to open which enables us to fulfill our purpose more effectively.

Choosing a purpose and then giving top priority to the pursuit of that purpose has made a substantial change in my lifestyle and could in yours as well. However, any change is not easy, and there’s a good reason.

In his book Mastery, George Leonard discusses a marvel of biology called homeostasis.  For biological creatures, particularly warm-blooded ones, to survive it is imperative that our body temperature, levels of acidity in our stomach and other conditions stay relatively constant. Homeostasis is the process that maintains a constant environment. It is necessary for our biological survival; it is a welcome and vital part of us. And as Leonard points out, it may be this deep, biologically necessary mechanism of homeostasis that makes it difficult to make changes in our life.

It is helpful to understand that initial resistance to change is a natural part of our biology. If purposeful living is new for you, as you start to live in pursuit of a well-chosen purpose, homeostasis will kick in and it will quickly appear advantageous to return to your old purposeless self. Yet, we can learn to use homeostasis to our advantage and “negotiate with the resistance” as Leonard describes. Strong resistance may indicate too fast a change. Use the resistance of homeostasis as a tool to determine a healthy rate of change for yourself.

The wonderful attribute of homeostasis is that it can be reset. In starting to live your life “on purpose” you also begin to reset your homeostasis mechanism. If it’s set on ambivalence and “all over the place,” as mine has been, work out of it slowly.  As you become “on purpose,” the homeostasis mechanisms will reset themselves and it will be difficult to be otherwise.

A corollary to the principle of emphasizing our purpose is exemplified in Deming’s eleventh point: to diminish the importance of numerical goals. Deming was primarily referring to sales or production quotas. In our personal lives, examples of numerical goals would be a certain number of pounds to weigh or a certain level of income to attain.

There are at least three arguments against goals that are measured numerically:  first, they are outer-directed; second, they are arbitrary; finally, they more often lead us to beat ourselves up than to pat ourselves on the back.

Life comes from within us and not from circumstances. But in aiming for a numerical goal, we are choosing a goal based on how we want a certain circumstance to be. We decide whether or not our goal is met based on a circumstance. A focus on numerical goals shifts our focus from our purpose and our individuality–our life–to a focus on circumstances. We are greater than circumstances and so should be our “goals.”

The next argument is that numerical goals are arbitrary. Why do we want to weigh this number of pounds and not that number?  Why do we want this amount of money in our bank account and not that other amount?  These numbers usually come from comparing where we are now to where we think some one else is or to where we think we would like to be or, worse, where we think we should be. In drawing these comparisons and setting these goals there is an implication that where we are is not good enough. but where we are is in our heart and our gut. The heart and the gut do not deal with numbers. Anything worth attaining cannot be measured by a number.

Another argument against numerical goals is that at least sometimes they aren’t met. I don’t know of anyone who achieved every single number-based goal they ever set. We are more likely to remember the ones we do not meet (and feel badly about it, too) than the ones we have met. We don’t need to be this hard on ourselves.  We can always be “on purpose.” That is more than enough to feel good about.

I view the process of choosing a purpose as a framework for self-discovery. Is the choice of purpose my free will?  Is there some path, some purpose that is somehow inherently mine and if I choose amiss will my life be more difficult than it might otherwise be?

When I started writing this book (20 years ago) I felt sort of like, “Now, I have a lot of answers. I’ll write a book.” But in the process of writing it, and in the decades since, I have come to believe that there is no “correct” way to think about how the universe works; there are no “answers.” If I believe that I am on a path that is laid out before me further than I can see, then my life may be different than a life led from a perspective in which I am free to change the direction of my path at any time. Different. Not better, not worse, not “more in tune with the universe,” not less so. Just different.

The important thing to understand is that I can choose what I believe. I can choose to believe that life is hard, or life is a bowl of cherries. I will interpret events differently, based on my belief. But the choice is mine, and whatever belief I choose, it is never wrong.

Finally we come to the “service to others” aspect of a purpose. I believe that because we all evolved from the same material – that of the earth and the cosmos – there is much about every being and entity we encounter that is fundamentally similar. If you believe we are created by a single deity, the same applies. This transcendent unity generates a service-based nature to our purpose.  We need not impose an ethic of “service” on ourselves as we choose our purpose, but rather service will be a natural part of whatever purpose we find through our “research and development.”

The late Joseph Campbell spent his life studying the mythologies (i.e., religions) of societies around the world and across time.  In his “Power of Myth” interview series with Bill Moyers, broadcast on public television in 1988, Campbell spoke clearly on the importance of finding and expressing your purpose:

The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it. And the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.

Previous posts in this series:

Quality of Life – Introduction

Quality of Life – Chapter One – The System

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