A friend of mine, Supriya, recently told me that she was co-authoring a book on ‘purpose’. And this casual remark made me think on a subject to which I had not given much thought. Purpose is an aspect of life which is missing in much of our working population. Maybe, the younger and better educated generation is an exception. At least, I hope so.
For many, purpose may end up to be ‘financial success’—to make the most in the shortest possible time. These are the ones who get noticed in the media—the richest in Asia; the youngest unicorn; the most successful start-up, etc. For a very few, it may be service to the disadvantaged in areas of health, education or any other field. But for the rest, who constitute the majority of the population, life seldom has a purpose.
We go on from one day to another, one month and even one year, to another—perhaps having transient purposes, at times of work related transfers, or marriage, or any other occasion—without an overarching purpose.
Jane Goodall, an author, says that ‘the greatest danger to our future is apathy’. She could not have been more correct in her diagnosis of the situation.
On dipping into my work experience of 60 years, I began to think deeply about a few aspects of purpose.
The first is IGNORANCE. Most people go into an activity and continue for many decades without knowing the purpose .
There is a report I read of a railway employee, who was retiring after 40 years at the railway workshop. At his farewell party, the general manager asked him if he was happy with his job through all these four decades. His reply was an emphatic yes. And what was his job? Walking alongside a parked train and hitting the wheels with an iron rod. He did this all day—every day. And he was happy doing this. Did he know that, based on the sound, one would know whether the wheel needed replacement or repair? No. So, for 40 years, passengers were lucky that there were no accidents. Because nothing was repaired as a result of his work. He did not know the different sounds because he was not trained (the employer’s fault).There was activity, perhaps 20 times a day for 40 years. But there was no purpose!
The second is FEAR. Luvvie Ajayi, an author and TED speaker, says, ‘Fear has a very concrete power of keeping us from doing or saying the things that are our purpose’.
Many people are fearful of setting goals or planning on moving forward. They prefer the comfort of the ‘status quo’. They don’t want to walk into the unknown. A relative of mine joined a large foreign company as a junior accounts clerk, and retired after 35 years as a senior accounts clerk. Same job. Slightly higher pay. He enjoyed the status quo. His life had no purpose!
The third is WEAK EARLY FOUNDATION. If there is no foundation built in the early years of life—of values and ethics, of balancing selfishness with selflessness... If there is no background where 'wisdom' was inculcated at the school and home levels, both by word and by example—then it may be more difficult to have a purpose. ‘True wisdom requires thinking with your head and understanding with your heart ‘ – Jane Goodall.
A look at India’s political scenario will show that we have a long way to go. The increasing levels of bad debts, reaching Rs2 lakh crore in 2022, is a worrying sign. When a past president of a large democracy defends his unethical role played when he was president, it is an even more worrying sign. Where and what is the purpose?
The fourth is the ABILITY TO CHANGE. The life journey will never be a straight and constant path. There will be twists and turns for most of us. With change, we must also be able to change the purpose, the goals and the vision. Sometimes, the change may be gradual; sometimes it could be drastic. One has to be able to manage with both; e.g., moving from being a corporate executive to a start-up entrepreneur The tune may change, but it will still be music!
If one can manage these four pitfalls, in search for a purpose in life, one can manage the demands of both mind and heart. From life’s purpose one can derive goals and then a vision. Where are you going, and why? To repeat a quote I read somewhere some time ago—you will be walking the path fast and steady, and yet have time to look up at the rainbow!
Of course, there will be those whose vision is crystal clear, and they are admired for the work they have done or are doing. The example of all our stalwarts fighting for Independence—Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and many others. There are those like Mother Theresa, the help for the destitutes and the dying; and Baba Amte and his family who look after the poor and the destitute over two generations . There will be thousands of others like them who are not known in the media at all—like Dr Ravi and Dr Ankuli, both post-graduates from Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, who married and decided to spend the rest of their lives in the service of tribals in different parts of India. There are also the successful businessmen, who are widely known for looking after their businesses and, at the same time, contribute substantially to the common good – like Jamshedji Tata in the past and Azim Premji now, who have got profits themselves; yet, have given a great deal to others.
All these are really the wheels on which a country like India rides – because they do what legislation has not been able to do completely.
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India- FIMC. He was a successful corporate executive for 14 years and then pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books, a business columnist and has been visiting professor in Marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia for over 40 years. His latest books are "Marketing in a Digital/Data World with Brian Almeida and "Customer Value Starvation can kill" with Gautam Mahajan. He now spends most of his time on NGO work and is presently Chairman, Consumer Education and Research Society, India