Purpose as a Compass

What is purpose? Why – particularly in business – does it matter?

What is purpose? Why – particularly in business – does it matter?


In a recent podcast, Stanford Psychologist Lera Boroditsky spoke about the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in the Pormpuraaw aboriginal community in Australia. The Kuuk Thaayorre language does not have relative spatial terms (e.g., “left”, “right”) only terms for “absolute cardinal directions” (e.g., “north”, “south”, etc.). 

As an English speaker, I can use the terms “north” and “south”, but I most often orient around myself and use the terms “left” or “right”. When I turn around, “left” turns with me – my sense of space depends on where I stand. If you place me in a dark room and ask me to point “south” I’ll be lost – I’m almost completely unable to identify a direction independent of me.

But if you put a five year old child in Pormpurraw to point “east”  she can do so instantly. Whereas I orient myself around myself, the Pormpuraawans orient around those points of reference fixed by sun, space, and earth. Consequently, their sense of direction becomes second nature. To quote Professor Boroditsky

To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, "Where are you going?", and an appropriate response might be, "A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?" If you don't know which way is which, you literally can't get past hello.

Everything in their lives is fixed by an understanding of its relationship to something else. Their artwork, their understanding of time, their place in the world. And that orientation means they’re constantly aware of their surroundings, their direction, their path. 

That’s a pretty good metaphor for “purpose” – particularly professional purpose – isn’t it? “Work” is just something I do. It’s an action. And like the directions left and right, it’s wholly dependent on me. My work is basically whatever I’m doing at the moment; but it does not orient me or give me place in the world. 

Purpose meanwhile, is like a cardinal direction. It doesn’t depend on me. It doesn’t change when I change. It’s something immovable –around which I must orient myself. It can’t be “work” (a process) or “money” (a temporal and changeable end). Maybe it can’t even be a person or a thing at all, because all people and all things can change or fade away. Purpose, rather, is something immutable and permanent – an ideal, a direction. It may be unique to each of us (as Bill George encourages, our “True North”), but it doesn’t depend on us. 

The metaphor isn’t perfect, but I think it highlights a few things about purpose that those aspiring to leadership should keep in mind:

  • Communication matters. Lara Boroditsky is a linguist. She writes about the Pompuraaw because it turns out that their language about direction drives their ability to navigate their world. What they say determines who they are. Is your business communicating its cardinal direction or its left and right? Are you just telling people what you make or are you telling them why you do it: “Giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”; “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet”. Are you talking about your own life in terms of your purpose, or are you settling for process? 
  • Our personal and professional purposes should be aligned. The comforting thing about cardinal direction is that it doesn’t change. It’s not one thing from 9am to 5pm and another after the workday is through. It’s consistent. Does your direction at work lead to behaviors that make it more difficult to live your purpose at home or vice versa? Are your purposes at work, at home, and in your community complementary or disorienting? Can you describe how they work together? 
  • The right purpose can help you lead. Left and right are different for you and the person facing you; but north is north no matter your position. Great leaders – in business and elsewhere – lead people not to themselves, but towards a shared goal. For that a leader needs to be able to point to something outside herself – something more permanent than her, something to which others can also orient. That’s why many of the great business mottos are not statements of process (e.g., “We’ll make great products”) but statements of purpose (e.g., “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet”). How are you thinking about purpose and leadership? Are you asking people to focus on you or on a goal you can share together? 
  • Purpose can keep you oriented in troubled times. Because they’re so constantly attuned to their place, the Pormpuraawans are never lost. Think about that. Some of the toughest moments of my life have been when I’ve lost direction – when I’ve become so self-oriented (“my life”, “my performance”, “my job”) – so focused on the “what” that I’ve lost sight of “why”. And recovery has always necessitated finding an anchor point outside of me around which my compass can be fixed. Does your profession give you that orientation? 
  • Purpose is a difficult concept. Many of us will have multiple purposes. Some of us may not find them for quite some time. But seeking and finding our purposes – in business and life – can keep us oriented. It can be our cardinal direction and a way to orient our values and actions. Without it, however, we can lose ourselves. We can walk impatiently, even furiously forward without ever asking where our path leads. 

    Image courtesy of Shutterstock

    John Coleman earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was a Dean's Award winner, and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was a Zuckerman Fellow and a George Fellow. He is the author of Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Leaders. To learn more, visit Coleman's blog at Harvard Business Review

    Purchase this book here.


    3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

    What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

    Northwell Health
    Sponsored by Northwell Health
    • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
    • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
    • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
    Keep reading Show less

    Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

    The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

    Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

    The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

    (MsMaria/Shutterstock)
    Surprising Science
    • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
    • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
    • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
    Keep reading Show less

    An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

    Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

    University of Colorado Boulder
    Surprising Science
    • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
    • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
    • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

    Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

    Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

    The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

    The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

    Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

    "The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

    University of Colorado Boulder

    Christopher Lowry

    This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

    Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

    The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

    Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

    What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

    "This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

    Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.