Black and white close up of eye

Harnessing the power of purpose

by Françoise Gallet, coach & facilitator
November 2023 

When a personally meaningful goal guides us through life, it offers us a sense that our actions matter. This sense of purpose — having a vision for what we do or who we are in our community — is powerfully motivating.

It invites us to contribute positively to something greater than ourselves. It encourages us to learn and grow. It offers hope and fosters resilience.

Just ask any South African, deeply disappointed and beleaguered by the enormous economic and social challenges we face, who sat white-knuckled through the last three games of the Rugby World Cup in 2023.

In each heart-stopping game, the Springboks, stared down defeat. Then, when it seemed almost impossible, they came from behind to win each of their last two games and the final, by one point!

Springbok Captain Siya Kolisi said it, and every South African knew it as we watched our players put everything they had — and more — into how they showed up on, and off, the field: the Springboks were on a quest to bring hope to South Africans.

As one of those South Africans, keenly aware of the stakes and yearning for a little ‘hope’, I’d even wager that it was precisely this sense of purpose that gave the Springboks the winning edge.

It was certainly why their win mattered so much to so many of us down south. And why winning felt so good.

But beyond its feel-good factor, a sense of purpose is also associated with mental and physical wellbeing and positive life outcomes — for individuals and organisations.

This is especially true, when the goal is pro-social in nature (goals that go beyond our individual lives).

Purpose linked to
positive life outcomes

For older adults, the research of Patrick Hill at Washington University finds that a sense of purpose promotes healthy aging in older adults.

Professor Andrew Steptoe’s 2014 study in the Lancet links a sense of purpose with a longer lifespan and lower risk of heart attack.

While at the other end of the age spectrum, youth with goals — no matter what those goals are — report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.

And a purposeful lifestyle can be a healthier lifestyle, as people with purpose tend to make healthier life choices — like exercising and getting to the doctor.

Just like the Springboks, who had the people of South Africa in their sights, the workplace is the very same.

Organisations that have a culture of purpose sharpen their focus on delivering meaningful impact for all their stakeholders — customers, employees, and communities.

And this, in turn, may yield all sorts of dividends.

A 2013 Deloitte online survey on core beliefs and culture in the workplace, found that respondents working at companies with a strong sense of purpose report a history of strong financial performance.

Meanwhile a 2007 study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that managers who help their employees connect to a job-related higher purpose, boost their employees’ sense of wellbeing and work satisfaction.

Purpose is more creative curation,
than singular calling

But, a sense of purpose isn’t always obvious, evident or alive. Equally so, over the course of an individual or organisation’s lifespan, it’s also normal for a sense of purpose to wax and wane or even morph over extended periods of time.

It’s a myth that you can only have one purpose. What fuels a sense of purpose in your professional life might be different to your personal life.

Contrary to popular belief, purpose is also much less a radical discovery of one’s calling than a deliberate creative process and reflective practice.

So, it’s better to think of purpose as more journey, than destination. To reap the rewards of purpose, it helps to be purposeful about purpose — to deliberately reflect, curate, and contemplate.

Luckily, as many factors contribute to a sense of purpose, there are several steps you (or you and your team) can take to cultivate and renew a sense of purpose. (For starters, you could try our Insight reflections).

When I spend time with individuals, teams or organisations intentionally cultivating their vision for what they do, who they are, and how their contribution matters, there is an unfailing yield.

It might be a sense of feeling more connected to others, improved focus and direction, greater clarity, a sense of renewal, increased resilience or an upswing in energy and motivation.

Perhaps this is because having a sense of purpose could, at its very essence, be adaptive.  A sense of of purpose helps humans come together to achieve big goals — to connect. Like a North Star, it offers a compass, instead of a map. 

This helps individuals and groups navigate the actual territory. Strengthened by connection and direction, groups and individuals can meet the unmapped or unexpected obstacles on their path with greater fortitude and resilience. 

*Note on the research: Influenced by the thinking of Professor of psychology Kopano Ratele, I view psychological research as bound up in the values, beliefs, and culture of the researchers doing the research.

As a scientific field, psychological research — and its researchers — are beginning to think much more explicitly about bias, worldview, and the hidden assumptions that might infuse study and enquiry.

Additionally, researchers from different parts of the world are claiming space for psychological thought and practice beyond the hegemony of what has largely been a Euro-American lens on psychology and sociology.

As a coach, I live and work in Africa.

The studies I quote in this blog, come out of American Universities (with thanks to the Greater Good Science Center and Magazine for making these studies available).

Of course, I don’t dismiss this information. And, there are other ways of knowing and being.

So I’m keenly interested in thinking and research from this continent. Because this research is much less readily available, if you’re a psychology or sociology researcher in Africa and have thoughts or input to share on purpose, please reach out. thrivelife would love to interview and feature you in our writing.

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Insight is the place where we prompt you with questions to catalyse your own ah-ha moments. You can try these activities before musing on the information we share in our blog. Or after.

Cultivating purpose – prompts for individuals & teams

Contrary to popular belief, purpose is much less a radical discovery of one’s calling than a deliberate act of creative reflection. 

Using these exercises — as an individual, or a team — you’re welcome to return to this contemplation on purpose over, and over, again.

To powerfully and dynamically harness the power of purpose, as part of your personal, organisational, or team strategy, please reach out for Purpose Coaching.

Purpose – a self-reflection

Any self-reflection is best done by:

  • Setting aside some quiet time.
  • Being curious about what you discover, as best as you’re able.
  • Being gentle with yourself, rather than harshly critical.
  • Allowing insight to emerge in its own time, rather than striving for answers and solutions.

Below are three different ways to explore what is meaningful to you.

You could try all three reflections. Or just one or two.

At the end of each reflection, take a moment to ponder these four core questions: 

Self reflection:
Four core questions

You can return to these questions, repeatedly, until a sense of purpose begins to emerge):

  1. What roles do I find myself playing in the lives of others that offer me fulfilment?
  2. What contribution can — or do I already — make to the lives of others? (This question invites you to reflect beyond the material. Could your contribution be kindness, support, mentoring, guidance, humour, or hope…?)
  3. How might this contribution impact others?
  4. What thoughts, feelings or sensations arise, when I imagine contributing in this way?

1. Reflecting on your strengths and skills

Over the course of your life, you may have worked hard at developing a skill. You may have been gifted with a talent, perhaps through ancestry. You may have been taught something valuable by a mentor, teacher, friend or loved one. Out of adversity, you may have discovered strengths or renewed values. 

If you’d like, take a moment to consider your unique strengths, skills, and talents.

If you find this question tricky, you can ask a few people who know you well. Get them to share their thoughts on what they think you are particularly good at. 

Watch Simon Sinek, the self-described unshakeable optimist, offer some great prompts for how to have this conversation here.

After reflecting on strengths and skills, scroll back up to reflect on the core questions.

2. Identifying what matters to you:

If you’re human, you probably care for something, or about someone.

This could be family members, colleagues, friends, clients, your larger community, animals (like a beloved pet or endangered species), plants (like pot plants, plants associated with your heritage or spirituality), the environment, or even spiritual figures or more abstract ideals or values — like beauty or truth.

Perhaps you could spend some time identifying the things you care about:

  • Who do you care for?
  • What do you care about in your community?
  • What are some of your most important values – the attributes that speak to the person you want to be? (e.g.: loyalty, honesty, patience, humility, tolerance).
  • How do you live out these values in your daily life? Write up an example of this.
  • What does this tell you about who you are?

After reflecting on what matters to you, scroll back up to reflect on the core questions.

3. Reflecting on turning points:
Trying, failing, learning, and trying again

Think about some of the inventions that we now can’t imagine life without… the light bulb, Penicillin, the pacemaker, the lubricant WD-40.

All were the results of failures, mistakes, and setbacks.

If it feels right for you, consider reflecting on some of the setbacks, crossroads or turning points in your life.

Perhaps begin by picking a time when an unwanted challenge or mistake led to something positive – a strengthened skill, a valuable insight or a new and helpful path.

  • What obstacles or setbacks did you encounter?
  • What did this reveal about what you value in life?
  • What did you learn?
  • In what way did these events and/or your choices shape your life?
  • Is there something to be appreciated or grateful for from this ‘turning point’?
  • What does this tell you about what is important to you in life?

After contemplating some of life’s turning points, scroll back up to reflect on the core questions.

Purpose – a team reflection

Any team reflection is best done by:

  • Setting aside some time to intentionally slow down and focus on key variables.
  • Being curious about what you may discover, as best as you’re able.
  • Being encouraging with each other, rather than harshly critical.
  • Being purposeful about equality: Allowing for all voices to be heard; giving equal time and attention to each other as you share and listen.
  • Allowing insight to emerge in its own time, rather than striving for answers and solutions.

Purpose prompts for team reflections

There’s value in making time, as a team, for these reflections:

  • Invite founders or partners to share their founding inspiration or vision. Getting clear on your organisation’s purpose helps a team clarify its purpose.
  • Ask yourselves (as team members): what does our organisation ‘stand for’?
  • Take a closer look at who your organisation serves (its clients, stakeholders, customers, community).
  • What does the organisation offer these groups and what inspires you about this?
  • Now, consider: who does your team serve and what is the impact of your work?
  • Gather evidence of your impact – examples of how you have delivered excellently as a team?
  • What does this tell you about what is important and meaningful to your team?

If you found this useful, our Purpose Coaching for teams will help you break new ground, unearth unexpected insight, and steer the conversation to greater clarity.

Please reach out.

Connecting with purpose – a practice

Having a sense that what we do matters can be a source of great meaning and fulfilment in life.

Too often, having a sense of purpose is portrayed as a profound and great calling. But connecting with a sense of purpose is much more of a creative, ongoing, and deliberate reflection.

Try our insight prompts to help surface what is meaningful to you.

Or use the next 15 minutes to be led through a guided visualisation on purpose.

Your purpose is in the people

Our individual sense of purpose is inherently personally meaningful — or subjective. 

But our individual sense of personhood is ultimately bound up in our social relationships and in the social conditions in which we live and work.

“A person is in the people,” to borrow the title of a March 2024 exhibition at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

In other words, a personal sense of meaning and purpose emerges through both our subjective relational experiences and our collective opportunities and limitations.

That’s part of why purpose can be such a strong force for a shared sense of social connection and meaning.

Given the rich plethora of social identities, one group’s sense of purpose may put it at cross purposes with another.

Being at cross-purposes creates opportunities. If we can risk seeking to understand others, we can benefit from the learning inherent in difference and enrich our perspective.

But, if purpose fuels the destructive tendencies of ‘othering’, it can foster great suffering. The Nazis had a sense of purpose. As did the architects of South Africa’s apartheid.

It’s worth contemplating what motivates your sense of purpose. Anger, greed, fear? Or a commitment to humanity.

It is equally worth contemplating the visible and invisible ways in which we are bound up in a web of interdependence.

When we see our purpose through this lens of interdependence, then personal meaning and flourishing cannot be separated from that of the collective.