Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two Ways to Find Your Purpose

Thanks to a reader for sending me a couple of different items on finding the purpose of your life.

One was from a professor that I have mentioned before, Clayton Christensen, whose work I really admire. According to him, you should look at your life as an exercise in strategy. Look at the environment, and your strengths. Define your priorities. Make time for your family. Schedule. Plan. Prioritize. With enough rigor, it seems, you can make sure that at the end of your life you spent time on the things that truly matter to you, and accomplish what you want to. He warns that corporate America is hopelessly shortsighted, because it spends resources on things with a concrete (often financial) return, rather than those that are longer term but more nebulous, like relationships. But he says that this does not mean that planning is flawed. Just that we use the wrong inputs sometimes.

This is a valuable insight, and worth taking into account when you are considering spending another hour at work or spending an hour with your kids. It may be 20 years before you know if you made the right choice.

The other view is from David Brooks of the New York Times. He calls Christensen's view "The Well-Planned Life." He says it is the view of the individual asking how he can best contribute based on his own talents and desires. Another way, according to Brooks, is to look at what circumstances call you to do.  He calls this "The Summoned Life," which places the individual in a much larger societal context.

I don't think there is a right or a wrong here. There is clearly a role for goals and planning in any venture, whether business or otherwise. Perhaps the best part of planning is simply the thinking about what matters to you. We can identify values that are often hidden from view. And, as Brooks notes, this focus on the individual is very American, so there is a perhaps innate comfort that many of us in the business world will feel with this approach. Even if it turns out that strategies change, as they often do.

To me, The Summoned Life feels more like how life actually happens. As John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." No matter what we want to happen, our circumstances often require something else of us, sometimes something much more than we could have imagined. In those times, our plans, and often our thoughts of achievement, wealth, or other material satisfaction, go right out the window.

And there can be surprising blessings when that happens.


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