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.

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