Purpose – the hardest topic? #57 #cong22


A look at purpose from the mundane, to the important to the profound.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Understanding purpose can be hard work, but we should never shy away from or ignore seeking understanding.

About Joe Kearns:

Now in life’s “third phase” where working for money is no longer central to existence, Joe has spent much of his paid career in US and other multinational companies managing various IT teams from local to corporate levels. He also had an earlier life as a volunteer engineer in Ethiopia in the mid-80s. Today life centres around many unpaid activities particularly in the field of Intercultural communication specifically focussed on Africa.

Contacting Joe Kearns:

You can contact Joe by email.


By Joe Kearns 

It is rare that I struggle to write or talk about any topic, but this has really left me struggling to know where to start – or end.

One can go all the way from looking at the purpose of day-to-day items, the purpose of human organisations to the purpose of human existence itself.

How many of us actually do think about purpose? It was a big part of my life in management. With every team I led throughout my career we spent time defining our purpose. No team of any size can be successful without have a clear understanding of its purpose.

My own understanding of what purpose is is “that which would or could not happen if the item or group did not exist”. So, the purpose of wheels on a car is to enable to allow the car to move easily over the ground – without wheels we’d be left with a lot of dragging and friction.

I led various IT teams at all levels and time spent understanding purpose was vital. Not only did it allow us to be focussed on achievement and to set goals, it also forced us to engage with management and stakeholders and understand their needs.

But it is not always easy to define purpose. I led several Enterprise Architecture teams in a large multi-national company from business unit level up to corporate. Because not everyone, including senior management, fully understood what we could do for the business, defining a purpose that everyone “got” was a challenge.

But what about much bigger questions like the purpose of existence?

I have spent some time looking at philosophical and religious writings on Purpose. While, I can’t claim to have understood everything, they all led me to a place of deep thought and questioning.

Some of my own thinking on purpose leads me to believe we often end up in “circular” logic. For example, if a parent says that their purpose is to care for their children until they can look after themselves, this can lead down an infinite path. While caring for one’s children is a laudable task it cannot be the purpose of existence

Maybe a bigger purpose is to “make life better for everyone”. Akin to teams in business defining their purpose as “to make the company better”, or some such, these kind of “purpose” statements lead inevitably to questions about what specifically should be made better or what is “better”.

All this eventually leads to questions about God or a greater existence outside of this life. In my mind, and I don’t claim to be right on this, it seems that if one doesn’t believe there is a God or an existence after this one, one must struggle to define purpose other than in short term, self-indulgent ways.

If one believes in God and life after death, purpose can be defined in relation to our seeking of God.

St Ignatius Loyola said: “The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.”

While I relate strongly to this definition, given my own beliefs, I know too that for those who don’t hold these beliefs the above is meaningless babble. In the end your understanding of life’s purpose will depend on what you believe or don’t believe. But we must all, within the confines of our beliefs, spend time thinking about purpose, not to do so is to drift aimlessly.

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