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🦊🧙‍♂️ // The Perils of Declaring a “Purpose”

To name something is to rob it of its power.

Dr. Jason Fox
Dr. Jason Fox
15 min read

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I am noticing a trend amidst the engagements I have been summoned for: many leaders are beginning to wonder if their official declared purpose, vision, mission and values are still relevant. Many are considering that these need to be reconsidered, or at the very least “refreshed”.

This is wonderful—breathing life into what ought be an evolving field of enquiry. Yet there is also a whole consulting industry that has emerged to service this need, and we have been collectively groomed to believe that the messy, organic, nebulous, intersubjective, contextual, contingent, paradoxical, emergent and enlivening conversation about ‘purpose’ ought be rendered into neat, pithy platitude-statements. Which will arrive sanitised yet already stale.

Of course, there’s a Machiavellian propaganda wing to all things—I get that. But I’d like to help ensure that purpose, vision, mission and values remain a living conversation. Not fixed. Sometimes composted—but never undead.

But—before I go banishing the necromantic powers that sap life and imprison vim in stasis—I have some updates for you.


Purpose Conference

I will be contributing to this year’s Purpose Conference. Possibly an opening presentation. I had the joy of speaking at the inaugural Purpose Conference put on by Sally Hill and her wonderful team, back in the wayback. The landscape of purpose-driven business has matured a lot since then, and I am keen to not only share my own thoughtful provocations—but to attend as participant as well. Mayhaps I’ll see you there?


The Rekindling

We are rekindling The Rekindling this month. This time we have Sally Hill joining us as we explore the themes pertinent to the Purpose Conference: regenerative systems, transforming capitalism, responsible tech and climate countdown—and more. As ever, The Rekindling attracts the bright minds and warm hearts keen to explore regenerative futures.

5:30–7:15pm + 7:15pm onwards · Thursday 24th of August
at United Co. (425 Smith Street, Fitzroy)

Then—as one collective skulk—we stroll to a local brewery for warm speakeasy salon vibes until whenever. This is really the wondrous part—relaxed generative dialogue at depth amongst a warm atmosphere of newfound friends.

Get your ticket (+ bring a friend)*

* Our tickets are very accessible, but if you’re in a tight spot let us know and we’ll sneak you in anyhow.


Intellectually Honest (like a fox)

Here is a musing I wrote last week in response to folks wondering what I mean when I say that it’s challenging to be intellectually honest whilst also being commercially effective in the distraction economy. I conclude with some draft thoughts on how to dance amidst bullshit with grace.

(I felt a bit funny after writing it, so decided not to share it as a museletter but to instead just sneak the musings into the world without any announcement.)


And now to the Porpoise of this Musing

I belieb in a higher porpoise (conjured with midjourney)

Seven years ago I wrote the following in a museletter (lightly edited). Of course, the origins of it are now lost thanks to my proclivity to periodically delete most of my old work—but those who have been with me for this time will find it in their inbox archives.

The Perils of a Neatly-Defined Purpose
When words get in the way of meaning.

Having a profound sense of purpose has become Quite The Thing now.

You wouldn’t want to leave home without one. It’s now almost essential to have an answer to the question: “What’s your Purpose?” or “What’s your Why?”

Hip agencies, startups and solo consultants love this question. So do I, kind of. It’s sometimes quite fascinating to hear the internal narrative behind people’s behaviour.

But… I’m not sure we need the answer to this question—‘what’s your purpose?’—to be served ‘neat’. In fact, I worry when it is.

A brief encounter with ‘The Purpose Cop’

A couple of months ago I was at a fab event in which—during Q&A—a photographer of international acclaim was asked: “what’s your Purpose?”
You could hear the capital ‘P’ in her tone.

I’m pulling this from memory—so don’t quote me—but I remember he started his reply with something authentic like: “I don’t know.” He then proceeded to describe—with raw and perfectly imperfect truth and elegance—the intimacy amidst the subtle play of light, and his love of capturing rare moments and the raw honesty of the people he works with.

But that wasn’t good enough. “No... but what’s your Purpose?”, the Purpose Cop drilled. She had been given a handheld mic, and was drunk on the power. Each attempt he made to answer the question was interrupted with further probing. “No, that’s not big enough. Tell me: What Is Your Purpose?” In the end he conceded beneath the barrage and was later handed a business card by Purpose Cop. “I Can Help You Find Your Purpose”.

I feel a tad bad about this tease—she was probably very nice and earnest of intent. But it left me wondering: what would I have done in that situation?

Now, I have me a capital-p ‘Purpose’ which I actually, truly, deeply, feel an affinity to. It would make for a great bumper-sticker.

“To create a world that’s more curious and kind.”

It lights me up, perpetually.
But I wonder…

Is it perilous to have a Pithy Purpose?
I daresay, sometimes, yes.

If we’re not careful—or, ironically, if we’re too careful—the noble yearning and the burning aspiration that comes from A Clear Sense of Purpose can be rendered inept in our attempts to neatly define it. Just as over-rehearsing an ‘elevator pitch’ can trigger you to activate a kind of glazed-over robotic auto-parrot-bot mode whenever presented with the opportunity to pitch, the words of a Pithy Purpose might similarly get in the way of the meaning.

I see this happen in senior executive teams. It’s now known that Purpose is an important element for Engagement, particularly as we Attract Talent and Embrace the Future of Work. But what this looks like is a bunch of superficial word-smithing alongside the Vision, Mission and Values. Topical buzzwords get jammed in, and then after much compromise and angst, there comes a point at which we can dust our hands and declare “DONE! Good. We now have our Purpose. Quickly—get it laminated before we change our minds.”

But does the neat conclusiveness of a Pithy Purpose actually shut down the very thing that connects us to a sense of purpose—the curiosity to ask questions and pursue meaning? Does it become too tempting a default—something to fall back to, when confronted with any angst, uncertainty or doubt? Is this how a blind or non-thinking adherence to dogma begins?

In the exaggerated example above, quite possibly.
But is there any need to have a neatly-defined purpose?

I daresay, sometimes, yes.

As with all important things, purpose is paradoxical

A well-crafted and neatly defined Pithy Purpose gives people something to rally around if (and it’s a big ‘if’) it serves as a statement for a much deeper and impassioned conversation.

But any such statements have a shelf-life—they get stale. Habituation kicks in, and we run the risk of becoming disconnected to the why behind our why.

What to do?

Periodically prod and perturb your Pithy Purpose

Do not settle on a Pithy Purpose. Sure—roll with it if it serves you. But be attuned for the day it does not.°

° And this is perhaps, the most difficult thing to do. In How to Lead a Quest I describe the concept of The Progress Delusion—a phenomenon whereby the things that provide the richest sense of progress are the very things getting in the way of meaningful progress. Where productivity, ironically, inhibits progress. It makes me wonder—is there such a thing as a delusion of Purpose?

And besides—it’s the conversation that sits behind the label that really matters most. The living expression of purpose, in its most raw, real, and imperfect form.

If you don’t have the label for it yet, that’s fine.

Keep searching. Keep questing. Fumble your way through the dark.

Don't let words get in the way of meaning.

An authentic and yet imperfect expression of purpose trumps a well-polished and neatly-defined Pithy Purpose any day.

fin

I like it that I don’t hate it. I wish I didn’t use the concept of ‘label’ but: I was a simpler mind back then.

But I really still quite like this sentiment:

Don’t let words get in the way of meaning

I know: this is coming from the one who has conjured The ‘Choose One Word’ Ritual of Becoming—which is all about finding an apt word to serve as a nebulous semiotic beacon to help hold you true to your own unfurling. But, to my defense: it’s very much a fluid conversation, not fixed. And it’s something like 69 videos in order to help you arrive at this distillation.

It takes time. We cannot approach it directly; nor can we optimise. The way reveals the way, and the work in reflection, introspection, and projection cannot be sidestepped. We must approach it gently; warmly; surreptitiously. Like a unicorn in a glade.

Yet my experience within Enterprise Land is that the dehydrated, sleep deprived and time-poor leaders that gather together to rework their purpose propaganda typically do so via a linear ‘double diamond’ design process. Possibilities are expanded out (imagine: someone hovering by the whiteboard with marker in hand; no such thing as a bad idea). Then they are pruned down and distilled with post-it notes and wordsmithing. Then some folks express prudent concern about the wording. And then, at the end of a long and mostly fruitless process, folks agree upon an innocuous and inoffensive yet underwhelming generic tepid limp-wristed milquetoast platitude that is The New Thing To Rally Behind!

Until a few years later, where they accept that it’s not quite relevant and so... they do it all again! ᕕ(ᐛ)ᕗ

Propaganda & Purpose

I do believe there’s a both/and to this. Have a placeholder purpose statement that broadly covers what you’re about, sure. Even better—gather clusters of stories in response and relation to the proposed purpose statement from the people actually doing the work. Complexity sage Dave Snowden drafts some very pragmatic steps as to how to go about genuinely engaging with the topic of ‘purpose’ in a meaningful and effective way.

But even if you ‘land’ on a neat piece of propaganda—keep the real conversation about purpose alive. That is: messy, developing, complex, adaptive, fluid and ever in flux (as it quests to exist in right-relation to its context; just as all living beings ought).

For only that which can change can continue

...this is the principle by which infinite players live. (James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games).

But, wait—Simon Sinek says that your purpose—‘your Why'—is ‘something objective’. “It’s who you are. It’s who you are at your natural best... We are all fully formed when we are young... fundamentally who we are is who we are... there’s no changing it. So if you’re changing it every year, it’s probably not your Why.” This reeks of fixed meaningan eternalist ploy.*

* “The antidote,“ David Chapman writes, “is curiosity. Wonder what things mean; investigate without presuppositions. Allow things to mean whatever they do, or to remain mysterious or meaningless if that’s what they want. Avoid premature judgements of meaning”.

But I have wondered off on a tangent—let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Disambiguation: purpose, vision, mission, values

“Don’t let words get in the way of meaning,” he says.

—What’s the point of purpose?

Purpose is how we orient towards contribution and relevance-realisation. It’s a nebulous meta-narrative that allows for our activities to ‘make sense’. Purpose works best when we feel as though we are contributing to something larger than ourselves. The more omni-win, the better.

—What does a vision look like?

Ideally we have a constellation of visions, rather than a singular vision. This constellation looks like a cluster of potential stories—glimmers of worlds that may be. Each glimmering story stands distinct, yet exists in relation to those around it. From a removed distance, the constellation exhibits a pattern in that common qualities can be discerned across each ‘vision’—thus putting the visions in relation to each other (and putting the constellation of visions itself amidst other such constellations). Something to navigate by, whenever you feel you are losing your way.

—Must we have a mission?

No—but gosh the world loves a good mission. This is where the men get excited because, finally—amidst all this babble of words and meanings and nebulosity and flux and whatnot—finally we can point to directly do. Something to win at. Missions are narrow in focus, linear in path, binary in outcomes (success/failure) and easily measurable throughout. They’re finite games and thus: the opposite to a quest. (But that’s a tale for another time.)

—Are values valuable?

Kinda? Again; values are emergent properties of complex systems that guide the standards of how we interrelate. Yet they are still situational/contextual. In fact, we often experience conflicting values—something Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey write of in Immunity to Change. For example, many in Enterprise Land experience a conflict of values between stability and change. The mantra, as Scott Belsky puts it in Making Ideas Happen is: “We want you to innovate—but don’t you dare innovate.” Part of the dance of life (and leadership) is in navigating the oft-times paradoxical nature of values; knowing when to oscillate, suspend, or double-down.

Most ‘declared’ enterprise values are deplorably bland—integrity, innovation, excellence, customer focus, quality service, responsibility, safety and care, etc. I mean, why bother? Because of course these things are to be valued.

But the best values are polarising. They’re a distinct stance adopted that’s meant to spark debate. Are values always rigidly, dogmatically upheld? Heck no: life is messy. Our values are—again, much like constellations—beacons to refer to when we otherwise find ourselves lost. When the decision is not clear, they serve as a guide.

A Return to Ambiguity

Why do I make such a dance of these topics? Why do we hesitate to declare values that may be polarising (or at least something other than the mundanity we otherwise purport)?

I suspect we—each of us—intuitively know:

To name something is to rob it of its power.

And we so love to hallucinate knowingness.

This recalls to me an excerpt from Richard Feynman in What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character, (1988) edited by Ralph Leighton.

The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, "See that bird? What kind of bird is that?" I said, "I haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is." He says, "It's a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you anything!" But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: "See that bird?" he says. "It's a Spencer's warbler." (I knew he didn't know the real name.) "Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it's a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it's a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing-that's what counts." (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

Most of us cannot grasp the true name of phenomena that we observe. And so we flatten the vast complexity into words that reduce the subject into something we believe to be knowable.

“It’s the articulation of tacit understanding where things go wrong,” writes complexity sage Dave Snowden. “Tyranny of the explicit.” To which, in a display of contextual grace, Paul Cristofani adds—in haiku form—“fixed stable labels // bind form and function. // Damming flow.”

All of this alludes to why I so love oral lore—knowledge is kept alive through this process. It also might explain my ongoing discomfort with the enshrining of my own writing. And my discomfort in whenever someone attempts to put a Name to the implicit—turning the yearning of a quest (with all of its potent mysteries) into A Declared Purpose.

I recall the words overheard by Tyson Yunkaporta—Indigenous scholar, and a friend I don’t actually hang out with anywhere near enough. Here he is, revealing some of his mercurial sensibilities on episode 321 of the Green Dreamer podcast.

I don't know, I try to avoid naming anything. And I try to avoid making too much sense, and I try to say things a bit differently every time and to mix it up. And I'll make points that you can't put together. I do that quite deliberately because I don't want the things I'm thinking or working on to become an ideology or a brand, or something that people can use as a name. I have seen that happen before with a few things I've done: People have grabbed it, and then it's become their thing. You've got to avoid that packaging and repackaging of ideas and let these things be free-range. (source)

“But, but—packaging and repackaging ideas is what 42.0% of us LinkedIn Thoughtleadery Influencer Types do!” someone near me decries over their extra-hot latté. “How are we to profit from ideas if we let them be free-range? Someone else will just take them!” Sigh. I know; I know. This is the multipolar trap that leads to the proliferation of bullshit and the enshittification of everything. You could, perhaps, just not?

Back to purpose. And, to a lesser extent: vision and values.

If the issue is in the attempt to articulate the tacit—and if the outcome is the tyranny of the explicit which is damming to flow—what are we to do? How are we to grasp at a sense of purpose—without naming it and otherwise reducing it, and robbing it of its potency?

A sense of the mythopoetic

“The correct response to uncertainty is mythmaking,” writes Martin Shaw. “It always was.” Purpose—like myth and lore—has an emergent quality to it. When glimpsed, or felt, it is something to behold with wonder.

“Move from seeing to beholding. To see a situation is to catch the facts of the matter. To behold it is to witness the story. If you dwell entirely with statistics and data, you will be a burnt match within months. Move from just seeing the world to beholding the world. Seeing is assessment and analysis; beholding is wonder and curiosity.” – Navigating the Mysteries

In the introductory post of Lands of Lorecraft (a millennial/metamodern management science), Venkatesh Rao speaks to this sense of beholding (in his own way).

“Lore is something you witness, and attempt to shape as it emerges, if it emerges, not something you design and execute. You cannot, for instance, set out to write an origin myth. At least not one that will work as lore (though it may work as part of a grift). You can only recognize and institutionalize one.”

My sense, going forward, is that neat and pithy ‘purpose statements’—along with vision, mission and values—will always hold a place as a kind of ‘propaganda placeholder’. And, in the same way that stock photography is almost never arresting nor stirring—and rarely calls to be beheld—so too these pieces of propaganda will sit; largely doing nothing at all. Except for—like stock photography—occasionally serving as a source of cringe.

But betwixt it all, and in the penumbra, lore will emerge. “Lore is the story insiders tell themselves to manage their own psyches”, Venkatesh Rao writes. So too, our sense of purpose serves in a similar way. It makes the work worthwhile by suspending a nebulous narrative in which your sacrifices make sense in the context of serving a bigger story. How potent this is will depend upon those who notice and tend to the lore. It will depend upon the oral-ish* traditions that are maintained as an enterprise-egregore grows and/or matures.

* I say ‘-ish’ because lore can now emerge in the casual domains of chat threads, now.

But: that’ll do for now

I’ve gone too deep again. This museletter is another hefty one. There is so much to write about with regards to: purpose, vision, mission, values, myth, lore—and everything in-between. But I am going to stop now before I burst.

I really ought to be packaging these ideas into my next book. “ /s ” <— or is it?

My hope is that this musing may give you some pause to consider how you relate to the notion of ‘purpose’. And that you might be a little more deft and crafty with how you navigate the tension of needing some sort of external propaganda piece—whilst also preserving the potency of purpose from within. How this all might remain a living conversation, and not merely something to be packaged.

That’s the hope anyway! Thank you for reading.


Glimmers ✨

Oh yes, I nearly forgot.

I found this 2007 piece by Mary Oliver titled Don’t Hesitate to be quite moving. (with thanks to Kim for sharing it with me)

Joy is not made to be a crumb!


Thank you so much once again. Please feel free to comment or ask questions below; it is always lovely to hear from you. Oh and if a friend forwarded this to you (how nice of them!) you can join the many thousands who subscribe to The Museletter.

Much warmth
—fw

leadershipvalueslore

Dr. Jason Fox Twitter

A wizard-philosopher masquerading as a leadership advisor.

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