Finding a New Central Purpose

Do you have a purpose, in your life, or in your work, or both? Perhaps this is something you never ask yourself. Or perhaps it changes from day to day as you try to grapple with the challenges that life seems to throw at you. I have found that having a clear purpose is immensely powerful. Let me try to explain why.

It is a little known fact that one of the most effective ways to change anything – be it a nation, an organisation, a community or an individual – is to change its central purpose. So, if you, or your organisation or community really want to change, you probably need to decide, very clearly, what your central purpose is. Not sure about this? Well, the fact is that everything, including you, is a system. And it is the central purpose of any system – a business, a national health service, a colony of ants – that determines everything about that system.  If, for example, the main purpose of a business is to make as much profit as possible, then everything about the business will be in service to money, and all other considerations, such as the wellbeing of society and the planet, will be secondary. But if its main purpose is to provide excellent services to its customers, then it will be a very different business and it will attract very different people to it.

New life next exitSimilarly, if we wanted to fundamentally change a national health service, then we should change its central purpose. Looking around the world at various national health services, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the central purpose of all of them is “to provide medical services”. This is why nearly all their money and energy is channelled into medical treatment (doctors, drugs, nurses, hospitals, surgery), and it is why the people with the highest status in the system are those at the top of the medical profession. If, however, the central purpose was “to maintain the population in good health”, then money and energy would be put into very different things. Medical treatment would be a last resort, not a first resort, as it so often is today. And there would probably be no concept of high status people!

There is little doubt in my mind that the current central purpose of most countries today is material growth. For nations, this is expressed as perpetual economic growth. In mainstream political and economic circles, this has acquired a quasi-religious significance. For businesses, it takes the form of ever increasing profits. And for large numbers of individuals, it is all about trying to get more money and things. Although economic growth has been useful in some respects – it raised the living standards of billions of people – it is well past its sell-by date, because it now brings more problems than benefits. As Clive Hamilton points out in his book Growth Fetish: “Growth not only fails to make people contented; it destroys many of the things that do. Growth fosters empty consumerism, degrades the natural environment, weakens social cohesion and corrodes character.” It is clear that we urgently need a new central purpose, at so many levels. Our major systems (economic, political, business, education and health) are just not working. They are producing more problems than solutions. We urgently need systemic change. Just to be clear, this does not mean trying to make current systems function more efficiently. That would be reformation. It means replacing them with completely new systems. That would be transformation.

Imagine how different things would be if the central purpose of society was to develop people to their highest potential and to care for this planet as if it really mattered. If this was our central purpose, our lives would change completely, as would the way we work, the way we govern ourselves, and the way we relate with each other. It would be a very different world. There is important work to be done here, in developing and promoting a new central purpose.

So, do you have a central purpose. Are you clear and sure about it? If so, good. If not, you probably need to take time out to figure out why you are here on this particular planet at this particular moment. It could be time well spent.

What do you think?

by Chris Thomson

[email protected]

See Chris speak at the SMN Annual Meeting