Reasons we do things

Iain McCowatt wrote a good blog on Exploring Uncertainty about Models of Automation.  He got me thinking about why we do the things we do.

The first reason is because someone has given us a task.  There’s nothing wrong with completing a task, but as adults we should verify that the task has purpose.  I am a limited resource and I have a responsibility to ensure that resource is being used to its best effect.  But once I have assured its purpose, completing a task is a valuable undertaking.  Managers love it and it generally feels good to get things done.

Assuring a task has purpose generally involves understanding the goal of the task.  We recognize that reaching the goal has value and that completing the task will help me or my team reach the goal.  Eventually people shift their thinking from completing tasks to reaching goals and begin to set their own tasks.  This also gives them a better framework for pushing back on tasks that don’t use their skills to their best effect.  Within this framework, success is based on reaching the goal, not completing the task.

Many people believe this goal orientation is the best way to approach your work, but I would actually encourage you reach one level deeper.  That level actually drives you whether you recognize it or not.  Recognizing it may help you to align your goals more effectively and I think it will let you enjoy your work in a whole new way.  That level is fulfilling your purpose.

Some of us don’t realize we have a purpose or where that purpose comes from.  I’m not going to address the latter – that’s for you to figure out.  But I believe you have a purpose and you will understand that purpose if you look at how you make choices.  And I’ll bet you find that “making money” or “being happy” isn’t your purpose, although either one can be a by-product of fulfilling it.

Your purpose may be creating beauty.  You may have become an architect because you wanted to create beauty.  But you may have found that purpose sucked out of you by the goal of making a profit or keeping an account.  This will take the joy out of architecture in a way that isn’t necessary.  If you keep the purpose of creating beauty in front of every effort to achieve profitability and every effort to satisfy a client you might find there is still joy in architecture.

Your purpose may be helping others be all they can be.  You didn’t decide to become a Drill Sergeant in the Army, but you did become a Project Manager and you find yourself regularly coaching and mentoring people assigned to your projects.  You may find your purpose being sucked out of you by the need to meet a schedule or rescue a failing project.  You become focused on the tasks that aren’t being accomplished rather than the people who aren’t accomplishing them.  This will take the joy out of managing projects, but you can keep the joy if you remain focused on empowering the people to accomplish the tasks.

Your purpose may be finding better ways to get work done.  You became an interior designer because you found that existing designs inhibited people or created confusion and you wanted to solve these problems.  But you find your purpose being sucked out of you by managers who focus on artsy fads to the exclusion of function.  You can keep your joy by looking for new artistic trends that don’t compete with the purpose of the spaces you are designing.

I can continue to give examples, but I hope this is enough to get you thinking about the reasons you do what you do.  Of course, you won’t fulfill your purpose if you never reach any goals, and you’ll never reach any goals if you don’t complete any tasks.  But if any of these things are misaligned you won’t find the joy that you could find in your work.  You might even think you made a mistake and be looking for a radical change when a simple re-alignment is all that is necessary.

If you don’t know your purpose, there’s no time like the present to discover what it is and begin re-aligning your work and your life to allow you to fulfill it.

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