Accidentally or on purpose? Purpose is a Stream not a Compass, and you’ve the Agency to Direct it. #33 #cong22


“when live gives you lemons, hand the lemons back to life and tell life you want something better to work with”

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Your purpose is not defined you have agency to chose it

  2. Its ok for things to be messy

  3. Think stream rather than compass or rock

  4. Purpose will shift and evolve, ebb and flow

  5. If you’re not following your purpose you’re following someone elses

  6. Remember the lemons

About Dermot Casey:

Dermot is into fourth role since he first came to CongRegation. A husband of one and father of three he  helps people imagine, figure out, and then create the future. At work he’s an Advisor, Innovator, Investor, Teacher, Mentor. In life a Catalyst, Synthesist and ever Curious. 

Contacting Dermot Casey:

You can connect  with Dermot on Mastodon, Twitter and  LinkedIn or contact him on by email

By Dermot Casey

Purpose. The word hangs there like the sword of Damocles shouting “WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE?”. While the softer voice whispers “if you don’t have a clear one are you even playing the game of life?” At 18 we put students through a mill where they need start defining the purpose of their lives. That has been brought sharply back in to focus recently as our eldest just finished school and our second in sixth year. To try and ease the pressure I point out that its OK to be uncertain and to reassure them that things will work out. The difference now with the younger version of me is that I’m comfortable with that.

Purpose is often seen as an external scaffolding, an exoskeleton for life. The magic formula is to find your purpose and meaning, do what you were meant to do, and bingo, be happy. The US talks about the pursuit of happiness almost as if it’s something that must be hunted down and captured and clung on to tightly. Life (and psychology) teaches us otherwise. Happiness– as opposed to pleasure – is not to be pursued but is a by-product of living life. It comes from getting absorbed in the work that that you do. Even this connection between purpose and work is a curious one.

One tale about work and purpose is the three bricklayers. A traveller came upon three people working. He asks the first person what they were doing and the person said they were laying bricks. He asked the second person the same question and she said she was putting up a wall. When he got to the third person and asked them what they were doing he said he was building a cathedral. Theres a similar story is about John F Kennedy touring NASA and asking a cleaner what he did “I’m sending a man to the moon Mr President”.

These tales are used to push that transcendent concept of purpose, that defining mission that North Star. Colour me a little sceptical. I like the first-person laying their bricks. They’re a great bricklayer. I imagine they take immense pride in their work and in their tools. They’re good at it. Have you ever watched a skilled bricklayer at work? It’s quite something.  Their work gives them the factors that people find fulfilling, a sense of autonomy, mastery and relationships. An internal motor, a chosen purpose, rather than an externally driven one.  And that OK.  I suspect some element of the attraction of purpose is that it creates an illusion of order and control in our lives, an illusion that was once created by religion.

You have no defined purpose. Really. There’s no fixed purpose of your life until you pick one. There are gurus the mystics, the self-help and wellness people, selling you on Purpose, (possibly along with some apps for a mere €7.99, some books or other faux-spiration nonsense). What you do have is agency.  The power to choose in each circumstance, the bit in your life between sense and response. In Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” in the opening scene he describes being tortured by prison guards and realising that he has the power to decide how to respond in that moment, to decide how he feels about the people who are torturing him. And it redefines his life.

The purpose of your life is what you chose it to be. Taste, habit and circumstance may circumscribe it. In many ways the world conspires to take away your agency. Culture and society force you down certain paths and certain choices sometimes quite brutally sometimes even using the law as a weapon of brutality. How many women’s careers were cut short before the marriage ban was removed by the EU. And purpose doesn’t have to be static or singular.  Viktor Frankls notion is that “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” Life can also be made bearable by people as well as purpose and purpose can be many things large and small. You get to choose.

The regrets people have at the end of their life “working too hard”, “not having the courage to express their feelings”, “not living life true to myself not to follow others expectations” are regrets of denial of their own agency, whether it be through circumstance, custom, family, society or fear.

We need to allow for and celebrate the messiness of life.  The advice to “follow your dreams” can be the worst sort of advice. It can also be the best. It depends. Sometimes purpose comes at the start of something, sometimes it can come after. Sometimes the small p leads to a bigger p. Sometimes purpose is good. Sometimes it can be bad. Sometimes it’s in reaction to things that have happened. Covid ripped open the fabric of our lives and we weave it back differently with the threads we have. Be careful as the old Despair poster goes that it not the case that “the purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others”. Purpose shifts and evolves. You don’t have to start with why. You can start with what, when, where, why or “oh that’s interesting”.

My own superpowers include curiosity and persistence. I went to college to study Physics and fell in love with Computer Science. I joined the ESB out of college thinking it’d be fun to work on power systems. I spent the first six months putting entries into a data dictionary in a job that was in many ways more awful (if also considerably less smelly) than my job as hospital porter.  I did an MBA partly because of a bad snowfall where we were the only couple to turn up at a 30th birthday party. And I ended up top of that class because of my own internal motor. I started lecturing after the MBA as I thought “I can do a better job than the guy who taught us Information Systems”. I did. I had to get over my own naivety and had to develop a whole new set of skills to do so but that’s a different story.

Curiosity led to Twitter, and redundancy and Twitter led to Storyful. There’s a lesson in there too. If you’re not following your own purpose, you’re following someone else’s. That led to NDRC and finally where I am now, which links way back to questions I posed when I did my MBA. As Liam Neeson might say “what I have are a very particular set of skills that I have acquired over a long career”. They haven’t been assembled with a single grand purpose. Each in its turn has been developed purposefully.

We’re told “One who has a ‘why’ to live for can endure almost any ‘how’” which is fine for when we’re in extremis. But optimising for the habits of life that will allow you survive a concentration camp is probably not the best approach to living. Agency says to hell with enduring the why and lets make things better. Or as my second child says “when live gives you lemons, hand the lemons back to life and tell life you want something better to work with”

I have a set of statements that I borrowed from @RowanManahan and have used a few times over the years. The original is here My own version of it now reads.

  • Follow your curiosity
  • Build and master your tools
  • Share your toys
  • Find playmates (and some who are) smarter than you are
  • Leave every place better than you found it
  • Make magic

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