Finding your ‘why’: How to dig deep and define your purpose

How you think about your work alters your relationship to it.

DAN CABLE: It seems that this concept of purpose is uniquely human. It's a really interesting one. It's this idea of having an answer to the why of what we do.

We know that that is one of the activators of the seeking system. We know that the concept of looking for the outcome or the effect of our behavior is something that our seeking system is urging us to do. But it's also interesting to take a step back from that and just think about how all of us have stories running around in our brains about why we do what we do.

For example, if I'm talking to a class I sometimes would say to them, "You know, what are you doing right now?" And it's possible to think about sitting. A lot of times when I'm teaching a class full of MBAs or a class full of executives they're all sitting and that would be a truthful answer. But they also could say "I'm listening." And if they're listening that's a slightly different story because it moves the emphasis off of the bum and into the ear and engages the brain a little bit. But they also could say "I'm learning." And the idea of learning is a big different again, because that implies that I'm listening to what you're saying but I'm also comparing it to what I used to believe and then I'm deciding if I need to do any updating on what I believe.
You also could say "I'm trying to learn how to be a better leader so that I can ignite the people that I lead." Each one of these is just a different purpose. They can all be true. They all have the opportunity to be a true story in our brain.

But we as humans have the ability to shift that focus. And sometimes that work, especially menial work that we feel is repetitive we start to think about the behaviors. And so when somebody says what are you doing? They might say "What do I do at work? I put these screws on that machine." "What do I do at work? I process this film and I clip this out and I upload it." And those are the behaviors of the work. You also can think about the why of that work. "What do I do? I delight customers by putting this film online that they can watch and enjoy." "What do I do? I build an automobile which is a piece of equipment that moves 80 to 100 miles an hour." Those can all be true stories, but what we're finding is a lot of time this sense of purpose, the higher order of purpose, is lost. And it's lost and it's nudged out by the lower level: What do I do with my body all day long.

The evidence and the research suggests that when we think about our work as a set of behaviors, scripted behaviors that we do in a repetitive way, we lose stamina, we lose resilience. When we think of it at a high level of construal, the why of the work meaning what is the impact, the final result of this on the world it really makes our stamina higher. It makes us much more resilient to difficulties in accomplishing that effect.

  • Purpose is one of the activators of a network in the human brain often called the seeking system. It's what fuels our thirst for new knowledge and pushes us to explore.
  • The question "What are you doing right now?" has a myriad of valid answers, some more involved and layered than others.
  • Shifting your response to be about the "why" recontextualizes the action and speaks to the purpose of the work rather than the behaviors.




American education: It’s colleges, not college students, that are failing

Who is to blame for the U.S.'s dismal college graduation rate? "Radical" educator Dennis Littky has a hunch.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • COVID-19 has magnified the challenges that underserved communities face with regard to higher education, such as widening social inequality and sky-high tuition.
  • At College Unbound, where I am president, we get to know students individually to understand what motivates them, so they can build a curriculum based on goals they want to achieve.
  • My teaching mantra: Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

LIVE AT 2 PM ET | Lead your team toward collaborative problem solving

What does it mean to "lead without authority"?

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

Keep reading Show less

Planet Nine will be discovered in the next decade. Here’s why.

The planet that we are searching for is a little bit smaller and closer than we originally thought.

Videos
  • Years ago, California Institute of Technology professor Konstantin Batygin was inspired to embark on a journey of discovering what lurked beyond Neptune. What he and his collaborator discovered was a strange field of debris.
  • This field of debris exhibited a clustering of orbits, and something was keeping these orbits confined. The only plausible source would be the gravitational pull of an extra planet—Planet Nine.
  • While Planet Nine hasn't been found directly, the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. And Batygin is confident we'll return to a nine-planet solar system within the next decade.
Keep reading Show less

The mystery of the Bermuda Triangle may finally be solved

Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.

Surprising Science

One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.

Keep reading Show less

Neanderthal bones: Signs of their sex lives

Inbreeding leads to a problematically small gene pool.

PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP via Getty Images
Culture & Religion
In a cave tucked into the limestone hills of the Asturias region of Spain, there lie the remains of a group of 13 Neanderthals that date to between 50,600 and 47,300 years ago.
Keep reading Show less