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  • Tom Birchard

Articulating Your Personal Purpose

Updated: May 22, 2021

I just got my second COVID vaccine this afternoon (Moderna) and I’m guessing I’ll start to feel a bit rough here soon. I shared this Jordan Peterson quote a few weeks back, “The purpose of life, as far as I can tell…is to find a mode of being that's so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant.” So given that I’ll likely experience some suffering in the next 24-48 hours, I figured it was timely to write about meaning and purpose.

I used to come up with a set of New Year’s Resolutions every single year and then track my progress against those goals. A couple weeks ago, I completed an exercise called Future Authoring that is another twist on this same idea. At work we get annual financial goals and then establish individual performance objectives that support the company goals. All of these are good practices, but I’ve felt as if something was missing.

The single most valuable thing I’ve ever done along these lines, was to ponder and ultimately articulate my personal purpose. Perhaps in a future blog post I’ll actually share the purpose I came up with, but I don’t have the courage to put it out there on the internet just yet. For anyone who’s interested I’d be happy to share it one-on-one as an example, just let me know. Mine is essentially a few words and a graphical representation that I tweak occasionally but stays pretty consistent. I don’t think the format matters much at all, I think the value is in taking the time to think through it and then ultimately putting pen to paper and documenting something that resonates strongly with you.

In this post I’ll outline several reasons why I think articulating your personal purpose is an extremely valuable and beneficial exercise vs. some of the other goal-setting approaches:

· Velocity – I think by defining a personal purpose, you can support both elements of velocity, speed and direction, which will ultimately help get you where you want to go in life. Direction is more obvious, a purpose can help to provide clarity on what’s important thereby orienting you in where you want to go. Less intuitive, I think if you can find the purpose that fits best with you, then you can move faster. You’ll enjoy facets that are closely aligned with your purpose and will build momentum over time.

· Compounding – To me this is what really differentiates defining your personal purpose from more traditional goal setting like New Year’s Resolutions. Benoit Mandelbrot said, “Correct methods, repeated endlessly, deliver infinite wonder.” Having a well-defined purpose allows you to focus more on the present moment and the day-to-day decisions that over time, will compound in a significant way. In my honest self-reflection, I determined I spend too much time focused on the future, and setting goals and resolutions perpetuates that even further. Having a core set of values and purpose allows you to apply that framework to all the small (or not so small) decisions you encounter. Tony Xu says “dream big, start small” and I think of this as an effective way to start small, but be consistent and therefore benefit from the phenomenon of compounding.

· Highly Individual – I really believe there’s power in thinking through this for yourself at an individual level. There are many group frameworks that link to purpose. Some of these include religion, politics, or the company you work for. I think these can be very important and a key part of what inspires and motivates you. Still, I think it’s important to create something very personal to you IN ADDITION to the groups you associate with. Better yet document how your individual purpose and actions will support that higher calling. I just think that it’s human nature that if you leave it at a group association, it becomes easy to just repeat talking points and ultimately grow complacent because you’re not fully internalizing it.

· Reduce Friction – Once you’ve defined a purpose and set of values, it can reduce friction in everyday life. Roy F. Baumeister coined the phrase “decision fatigue” and in my experience it’s a very real thing. I always think of the late Steve Jobs and how he’d wear a black turtleneck every day and his rationale was that it removed a daily decision so his mental energy could be placed on something higher value. I think having a purpose acts in a similar way, and if you do it right many decisions, especially around prioritization and where to spend your time, will become easier and you’ll get more done without that constant friction.

· Teamwork – Just imagine how much easier it would be to work together if everyone took the time to layout and share their own purpose. In a previous post I mentioned Steve Levitt’s framework of objectives, strategy, and then tactics. Too often we get caught up debating tactics and can’t find common ground, not realizing it’s because we have misaligned objectives or strategy. I admit it’s a little “pie in the sky” that everyone would have a defined personal purpose and be willing to share that openly, but I think if we did we could certainly work more effectively on teams at work and in our communication. We would probably also have a better chance of working through some of the more challenging macro-issues like climate change, inequality, and others.

I hope you consider taking the time to ponder and write down your own personal purpose and core values. If you do I’d love to hear what you came up with and if you noticed any changes in the coming weeks and months in terms of how you allocated your finite time and energy!

Here are some recommendations from the last 2 weeks:

· Article - Jeff Bezos 2020 Letter to Shareholders – In my last post I recommended Jamie Dimon’s letter and I found this one equally inspirational and well-written as Bezos steps down from being Amazon’s CEO. Bezos is a visionary and I love his motto in here of “differentiation is survival”

· Podcast EpisodeBalaji Srinivasan on The Tim Ferriss Show – I’ll start with the disclosure that this is very long (over 3.5 hrs) and certainly not for everyone. That being said if you like to have your perspectives challenged and enjoy listening to people who think very outside of the box, this is worth chipping away at over a few sessions

· BookOne Second After by William R. Forstchen – I had gone a long time not reading much fiction and I’ve gotten back into a bit more lately. This is a terrifying account of an attack using Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP). It’s a fast-paced read but also eye-opening to think how reliant we are on various technologies and how fragile that could be

· MovieRush – This is currently on Netflix and frankly I’m surprised I’d never seen it before. Very entertaining and whether you’re into Formula 1 racing or not, I think most will enjoy this

· QuoteTo all of you: be kind, be original, create more than you consume, and never, never, never let the universe smooth you into your surroundings. It remains Day 1. By Jeff Bezos (closing line from shareholder letter referenced above)

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