How to understand purpose in any situation

A general theme in my blog posts is how many people lose touch with a sense of purpose or meaning at work or in their lives in general. In a work setting we can often be distracted from what matters to us by economic pressures, which are not to be ignored, but will not generate meaning in and of themselves. Why is it so difficult to figure this problem out?

In this article I explain a simple mechanism of how meaning interacts with our work and objectives. Once you understand this it will be easy to start resolving conflict and find meaning or purpose in every situation in your life.

It all starts with defining your vision of the Good
Facts – values – action

Most messages that are aimed at instigating action, whether it is this blog post, your sales pitch, your organisation’s strategy, an op-ed in a newspaper or a parliamentary motion, are all constructed with the same elements. They enumerate facts or observations, they interpret these facts and express considerations on what these facts mean, as a consequence of which a certain action is proposed. Sometimes the order of these elements is changed. Without these elements no ‘logical’ argument can be created. I call this the ‘logical cycle’.

The logical cycle: if reality (facts), values and action are in harmony with each other, you will experience a sense of meaning

See below the fictional example of a parliamentary motion to demonstrate this structure.

Parliament, observing (reality):
- the increase in coronavirus infections (fact);
- the often detrimental health effects of the resulting COVID-19 disease (fact);
- that the virus is mainly transmitted by other people in close proximity (fact);
considering, that it is to be preferred to not contract the coronavirus due to its health effects, but stay healthy (value);
moves to recommend the general public to keep a safe distance (considered to be 1.5 metres) from other people (action).

The key point to understand is that we employ a logical cycle in our own heads too as we move from situation to situation, living and trying to make sense of it.

Simon Sinek has approached this cycle with ‘why’ (values), ‘how’ (action) and ‘what’ (facts). But I believe he has placed them in the wrong order and he also seems to avoid exploring the source and nature of meaning (why) in order for his approach to be truly useful. It rings a bell for many people, but then most are at a loss about what to do next. Keep reading on and you will know what to do next.

Values are key in informing action

Whereas most people understand ‘facts’ and ‘actions’ it is not always easy to understand people’s considerations. These are actually expressions of their ‘values’. Values are (desired) states of things that we hold dear and that we think of as representing the good. We all strive towards the good, but we may have differing ideas of what form it should take in reality.

To illustrate this I refer to Plato’s illuminating explanation of the good in his dialogue Republic where he compares the good to light as informing us of the truth. “The sun is not sight, but isn’t it the cause of sight itself and seen by it? Let’s say, then, that this is what I called the offspring of the good, which the good begot as its analogue. What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things” [508b].

“Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the good is other and more beautiful than they. In the visible realm, light and sight are rightly considered sunlike, but it is wrong to think that they are the sun, so here it is right to think of knowledge and truth as goodlike but wrong to think that either of them is the good – for the good is yet more prized” [508e].

So we can never really define the good but only describe by referring to goodlike things. As such it is obscure, yet it is the main thing that makes us ‘know’ what is right and what motivates us to take action.

The sower by Vincent van Gogh – 1888.
Only in the light of the good shall our actions bear the fruit of meaning.
How meaning is achieved in action

It is a scientific fact, but also very common-sensical that we experience a sense of meaning and fulfilment (i.e. happiness) when we accomplish goals or strive towards reaching objectives that are informed by what we consider good. Knowing and understanding what you truly value in life is therefore key. Comparing this to what you currently spend your time on and to what degree your current activities contribute to realising the good in your view, allows you to deploy your energy with a greater sense of purpose. Consider what happens if there is a mismatch in your logical cycle.

Logical cycle. When imbalance occurs between reality, values & action, respectively; various types of stress can be the result.
Fighting reality

When there is a mismatch in your logical cycle stress arises. This can be about something important as the lifestyle you wish to have. But it can also be about something as mundane as meeting your business targets. If reality (the facts) doesn’t match your values, your vision of the good, you will start experiencing ‘emotional stress’ (anxiety, anger, sadness) and you will feel compelled to take action. However, if your actions can’t seem to change reality sufficiently (e.g. you can’t achieve your target or goal) you will start to experience ‘physical stress’ (as well as emotional stress) leading to physical pain in your body, exhaustion etc. This ultimately stems from your fight with reality. Sometimes your boss needs to lower your targets so the discrepancy between reality and ‘good’ becomes smaller. Sometimes the solution lies in accepting reality and detach from it, in fact amending your view of what good looks like. Sometimes it’s about obtaining more means, tools or ‘control’ to make your actions more effective.

Fighting the wrong war

What can also happen is that you’re not in a fight with reality, but your actions deviate from what you consider to be good behaviour. Your actions don’t seem to contribute to your vision of good, or you may feel coerced to act in conflict with your values. For example because your boss tells you to dedicate al your time to goals that are meaningless to you or even go against your own values. Or because you need to perform your work in a way that goes against your view on ‘how it is supposed to be done’. This mismatch between your actions and your values causes ‘moral stress’. You may start to feel guilt or shame for what you do. You may feel lonely and abandoned in your struggle to do the right thing. You may deal with it by repressing what you think is important, causing a feeling of emptiness and being devoid of inspiration. This is because indeed your ‘soul’ is absent from your actions. You continue working merely like a robot.

A lot of contemporary  stress management is focused on the ‘fight with reality’ through two-way communication on targets, improving employee efficacy and resilience or using mindfulness to detach. However, judging by the high levels of burnout, depression and increasing criticism of capitalism, I am convinced there is a silent moral crisis that has robbed people from a sense of purpose in their work or life in general.

On Spitsbergen (Svalbard) in 2009.
If your actions don’t match your values a feeling of abandonment and loneliness may ensue.
The world’s moral crisis

Speaking from a western point of view now only: with our dominant and all-pervading religious institutions, historically there was never a lack of a moral source to inform our actions. However, these religious institutions have failed in all steps of the logical cycle. The advent of science proved that religion’s factual basis was incorrect and unreliable. At the same time these institutions were corrupted and abused by those holding religious authority at the expense of the vast majority of people, eroding its moral basis.

The western world has therefore since the modern age starting around the year 1500, embarked on a journey relying on science and increasing personal liberty. We have abandoned striving for a common morality in fear of provoking disputes. Morality has been banished to the private domain. It has led to moral relativism or nihilism. What common morality remains has been diminished to the cause of survival and procreation, which is what the economy is ultimately all about.

But many people who have attained a reasonably secure level of existence start to wonder what life is all about. Is life merely a perpetual struggle for survival? Or is there more to it than that? It is built into our human natures to strive towards the good, albeit that we may have differing views on the forms that it should take. But ultimately it is the only thing that will truly energise us.

This is why developing your own morality is a prerequisite to a fulfilling life. You need to ask yourself ‘why’ (perhaps up to five times in succession) to define meaningful action.

On Texel at Paal 9 in August 2020.
Searching for direction in a shimmer of light. Where will your path lead you to?
If you consider that in alchemy the element of water represents the soul, this picture becomes even more metaphorical.
Moral dialogue

Humans are social animals and although we focus greatly on individual liberty and autonomy we can accomplish very little on our own. We need to work together with others, which we actually often enjoy. But others don’t always share our values, our vision of the good. This is why figuring out your own morality is the first step; bringing it alive requires concerted effort with others as the next step.

As has been explained by reference to Plato above, values cannot be argued for and against. They can only be ‘attuned’ to those of others usually by having the will to peacefully coexist, through tolerance and through empathising with your interlocutor, such that you might find common ground. However, there is no guarantee for success.

As a means to overcome moral disputes democracy was invented such that where values remained disputed the majority decides. However, democracy as a dispute management system can only sustainably work in the long run if the values of all stakeholders are taken into account. Because not doing so will only result in the majority dictating its will at the expense of the minority and exacerbate differences as such. The true underpinning principle of democracy and of living together in harmony is dialogue. A dialogue that is not merely exchanging points of view on an ‘fyi’ basis, but one that strives to define a common ‘space’ that promotes the good whilst not suffocating others that are not ready (yet) to enter that space. Only then can justice be done to as many ‘visions of good’ as possible to foster meaning in life and work. I believe the root cause to the crises we see today in politics and the workplace is the absence of empathetic dialogue instead of only asserting our rights without regard to others. Wasn’t that the main message all religions have in common?

Only together can we realise our vision of the good

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4 thoughts on “How to understand purpose in any situation”

  1. Hi Rik! Thanks for yet again a great post and your continued openness about your journey in your new life. Really fascinating inspiring and insightful. To your point on finding a deeper morality/ meaning through empathic dialogue – fully subscribe to that. I believe this is key factor to succes wherever people work/ live together. Would be interesting to reflect some time on why this seems so difficult in many organisations/ current environment, and also, look at where it did happen and resulted in magic indeed. Thanks and I’ll keep reading! 👍

  2. Dear Rik,

    Thank you for these insightful blogs. I am looking with awe to your road to freedom. I am 30 years old and have a crystal clear vision to what I want. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in my job. My applications in the last 1.5 years did not result to change, and actually, there is no job descriptions to what I want to provide. I know the answer, and that is to follow in your footsteps and choose freedom. I have savings for 8 months, low expenses, and no kids. Iron discipline, combined with a crystal clear, are available. Still, I am hesitant in making the leap.

    For the past 10 years I lived in financial instability. The situation of financial stability is comfortable and assuring, both for me, and my partner (who prefers stability over freedom). That is why I try to build my dream in the 05:00 morning, evenings, and weekends. But it is not the same. The forced focus to my job distracts and drains me. I am sure with the added hours without work I will not only double my production, but triple it. The ultimate freedom of being my own boss sounds like paradise.

    Those around me advise stability over freedom, and a repition of my past financial situation is something I fear. But when I read your blog again, I realize how my life could me if I just took the jump.

    What would you advise a 30-year old version of yourself, based on your own experiences.

    1. Dear Erik,

      Thanks for your courage to share your dilemma online.

      Nobody is born for a certain cause I think. We pursue causes because they represent something good. It is our vision of good that makes the cause good, not the other way around. So you need to distinguish the cause from the values.
      I think that if you determine for yourself what these good principles or values are, I think you will also be able to apply them or seek them out on more mundane levels and perhaps even at work.

      I don’t believe it needs to be a choice between either financial stability, or pursuing your values, but that you can pursue your values at work. Of course others at work need to be willing to engage in a dialogue with you on these values. There is no guarantee for success on this, but not trying is guaranteed failure. It might actually open a door for many more valuable initiatives, because I think you are not alone. The first step is initiating the dialogue.

      Of course if it doesn’t work out you may have to find a different place to work, but before doing so I think it is important to get clear on what it is that you are really looking for.

      I’ve come to see that I can serve the values that I hold dear in a way that both satisfies me and allows me to make a modest living.
      Hope this helps.

      Best regards

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