Why we need to rethink the meaning of purpose

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Last month, Dinner Confidential hosted 10 dinners on the topic of PURPOSE. Spanning continents, women (and a group of men) from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires, Nairobi to Stockholm, Edinburgh to New York gathered to share and listen and hold space for each other.

First, a story from Dee, host from Toronto/New York…

“As a child, I’d hear friends proudly declare at the wise young ages of 5/10/15, “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor/lawyer/dancer/astronaut, etc”. I was never one of these kids (or even adults!) who had laser focus on what my role in life should be. And I felt envious and anxious because we’re all supposed to find our purpose by the time we leave high school, right? Especially as a first generation immigrant from the Philippines, I lived under the weight of implicit societal and familial expectations to follow in the footsteps of my parents, doctors who sowed the seeds for a better life in America and whose ancestors tilled the soil for roots to grow strong. As my life progressed, my “purpose” became less clear and less singular: from indecision in my university major, to spending 15 years as a strategist helping brands find their purpose, to pivoting into the world of wellness and now at 40 years old embracing this vacillation. But why couldn’t I land on MY purpose? How are we expected to make a life decision at 17 years old and expect to still feel connected to that same purpose years later, when change is the only constant in life?”

Reevaluating the meaning of purpose

Why do we seek purpose? To find meaning in life. But with life changing so drastically, for so many in 2020, traditional notions of purpose are starting to be challenged.

Across the globe, we heard that purpose is so inextricably linked to achievement of goals, a notion fueled by systems of oppression: capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. In a year that interrupted plans and expectations — as the pendulum swung back and forth between quiet, isolated reflection to turbulent social upheaval — perhaps the notion of singular, static purpose started to feel archaic. Like the adage “hindsight is 2020”, is purpose to be reflected on rather than something to reach for in the future?

Similar to the questioning of systems that culture and society have habitually been upholding, perhaps it’s time for purpose to be relooked at and reframed. For many, purpose has always been a future goal to achieve, rooted in perfection and extrinsic validation. A grandiose testament and proclamation of who we are and how we’re supposed to live our lives.

Many folks we spoke with shared similar apprehension and anxiety that finding your purpose can feel daunting and intimidating, especially with the expectation that this is meant to be the definitive guiding light for your entire life.

Does it actually have to be that way? How can we pin our futures on a rigid, everlasting goal when 2020 has illustrated the fragility and unpredictability of life? In a year full of constant recalibration of “the way things have always been”, can we shift our view of purpose from an absolute, measurable achievement to a curious state of being?

The privilege of purpose

For many, the prevailing cultural narrative around purpose as “meaning in life” is a privilege that feels existential and exclusionary. Something reserved for the “chosen ones”, who have the luxury of time that often comes with privileges ranging from economic to class to educational to racial to gender. But in reality, we exist in a capitalist society focused on productivity and competition that bolsters inequalities and injustices that create barriers to a quest for purpose.

So, how can we start to uncouple purpose from inaccessibility, and pair it with a more pragmatic view of living our purpose as we are at this moment in time? Can purpose simply be about the little things we do and the reverberations on other people? Perhaps we can start with standing firmly for purpose within — from our core values and beliefs to what we need to do daily to survive and thrive — in order to shift the current narrative away from purpose as a need for aspirational transformation.

Debunking purpose: can we look to nature?

As existing societal and cultural constructs that pin purpose to productivity continue to be interrogated, perhaps we can also look deeply at the systems that underpin nature to inspire a new vision of purpose: an interconnected abundance of the Wood Wide Web or the network of mycelium mushrooms or the web of fascia within our own bodies that malleably supports our structure and our core values from the inside out. How can acknowledging and celebrating your individual role in the ecosystem of the world contribute to a more fluid, resilient sense of purpose?

At the end of the day, purpose does not have to be so lofty, deep or even ridden in shame when we don’t achieve that singular version of purpose. How can your purpose adapt to the ever-shifting moments of individual and collective life?

Can we reframe purpose from seeking and achieving purpose to living each day purposefully? How can we detach ourselves from “needing” to have a purpose and instead, find meaning in the smallest of actions we take on a daily basis. Perhaps we can create a version of purpose that is simpler and truly accessible to all– one that is focused on today while holding a vision for what’s possible for tomorrow.

Leaving with a poignant quote from adrienne maree brown:

“In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. This means actually being in my life, and it means bringing my values into my daily decision making. Each day should be lived on purpose.”Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown

NUANCES

The ability to host dinners across the world revealed important nuances to consider about purpose:

  • In countries like Venezuela, the core purpose is survival and to stay out of danger. Once the first layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is covered, it opens up safety, reassurance, and space to even address other versions of purpose.
  • Across continents, we heard stories of bootstrapping ancestors (first generation immigrants who left home countries, parents/grandparents who had to scrimp and save to create better lives for their families) who sowed the seeds, planted the roots and cultivated fertile ground for our generation to live our purpose. And when we don’t live our purpose, there is a sense of guilt for letting them down.
  • Today, we are expected to share and live our purposes in real time. Thanks to social media, we open a window to the world to peer in and judge how true we are being to our purpose.
  • For years, men have been assigned the role of “providers’’. And even if times are changing, it still feels somewhat wrong for most men to step back from that role (also because we still have a long way to go to reach equal rights — but that’s another story). So one of the questions that came up was, “How can I make a living while still being aligned with my purpose?” From that, emerged the guilt or frustration: “Am I doing enough? Am I enough?”
  • Another theme that came up is that purpose doesn’t exactly translate in most Latin languages. It often translates to “goal” or “objective”. But purpose can mean a lot more. In Dutch it seems to translate to “giving essence for you to know where to go.” Yet how much should we get attached to that vision?

EXPERIMENTS

  • If living our purpose can mean living with integrity and diving into your core values, how can we tie these emotional feelings to any physical sensations in our bodies? Close your eyes or soften your gaze, ground your feet to the earth and hands to your heart, and simply notice where in your body you feel your core values light up and come to life.
  • Many of us think we need to have our purpose all figured out. But the truth is, oftentimes, we only know what our purpose is once we look back. So, think of your most recent relationship, project, or experience and ask yourself: What was my purpose there? Is that different from the idea of purpose you have on your mind?

Written by Dee de Lara in Toronto in collaboration with Julie in Rome, Roxanne in Edinburg and Veronica in Miami, with contributions from with Dinner Confidential hosts Vanina and Mariasu in Buenos Aires, Uditi in Stockholm, Esther in Caracas, Sage in Vietnam/Miami, Alexandra in Amsterdam, Alana in Lisbon and Onna in Seattle.

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A global community shifting the way we communicate across difference so we can have hard conversations with confidence & compassion. www.dinnerconfidential.org

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