“You are our motivation” Poster in the Brussels Subway


Give me an example of a true purpose that lies within yourself? If your purpose is being a loving father, than the meaning of that purpose is to offer love, protection, … to your children. If you make a self-propelled combine harvester, you do that for the farmers who use it and for the people who are fed by the grains that are harvested. If you’re a musician, you need an audience. Do you write a book solely for yourself or for the people you’d like to inspire? Surely, a book does not make you rich?

In many purposes there is also selfishness. Or vanity. Being a loving father makes you feel good. Helping someone gives you a sense of purpose, worth, identity … But that’s OK.  There’s no harm in benefiting from doing something for someone else. Viktor Frankl wrote about his experiences as a prisoner in a concentration camps. He described that there was humanity in those dire circumstances. Sharing a piece of bread with a fellow prisoner was an act of kindness. That small act gave a sense of dignity to the one who gave it. Listen to Viktor Frankl

There’s an African Philosophy Ubuntu (or is it life wisdom) that says that we live thanks to the other. Also in Western Philosophy the relationship between me and the other is a key theme (Buber, Sartre, Camus, …). Psychology has discovered that your mental development is triggered by interaction with others. You cannot healthily exist without the other. You define yourself, based on the interactions with the other.

With what Purpose?

One key element of human nature is empathy (read De Waal to see it’s more a primate thing, than only a human thing). Empathy helps us to feel what the other feels and to act upon it.
There are some ’empathopaths’ who lack that feature. They are either extremely introverted (like in autism) or psychopaths. I apologize for this diagnostic simplification.

The fact that you need others to be successful, to be happy, to lead a meaningful life comes out at the end of your life. Two of the 5 regrets of people (as described by Bronnie Ware) in the last phase of their life is about not having given enough attention to others, mostly family and friends.

Imagine that you ask only one question to people “with what purpose are you doing this or that” (I’ve learnt this from John Whitmore) and you keep repeating that question regardless of the answers, you end up most of the time on an existential level, where the other plays a significant role. Try it.


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This blog is based on a discussion in the Linkedin Group on Employee Engagement.

Purpose lies outside yourself
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3 thoughts on “Purpose lies outside yourself

  • 31st May 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Your version of the Purpose Game (inspired by John Withmore) is not that far from the version I have learned from my third Father Charlie Palmgren. This version I learned and use almost twenty years now in very different settings is the following. You ask the other person, let’s call him Person A, to think of an activity he/she regularly does out of her/his free will. When he/she has found that activity you ask Person A to communicate this activity to you (Person B). Indeed the only question Person B has to use is: “What is YOUR Purpose of doing this activity?” Be aware that her/his answer is really connected to him/her. Don’t let fool you in this game, this is crucial. Person A has to stick to his/herself and not take a flight to someone else.

    Like in following exemple: “I (being A) pay bi-weekly a visit to my mother in law”. You, David (being B) asks me “Johan, what is your purpose of doing this?”. If I answer you “ Because she likes this”, I’m cheating, I take ‘a flight’ …. You (Person B) has to bring me back… Back to ME.

    So the game has to continue USING the answer of Person A. This is different of your version: “you keep repeating that question regardless of the answers”. NOT AT ALL, YOU BUILT ON or DIG DEEPER using those answers (Got it)? And indeed you continue the game until Person A repeats, paraphrases himself. This ‘landing point of the Eagle’ is noted on a piece of paper. This ‘final’ person does NOT ly outside yourself, it is the core Purpose of your Being.

    I’ve been doing this game with thousands of persons (over 20 years), and mostly I pair up the people in the group. When A has finished (he got stuck, paraphrases himself)… A becomes B and B becomes A and we the team of two play again. In those twenty years I’ve never got a surprise, all people found their inner PURPOSE. I must admit that once I had to dig very deep with a Catholic Priest until he said… BUT then I am selfish! No, I replied, you are a loving HUMAN! (David, in Flanders I call this game: ‘Moeder, waarom leven wij?’).

  • 31st May 2014 at 9:19 pm

    My fourth father, Paul de Sauvigny de Blot SJ (in short Paul de Blot) was during years, like Victor Frankl, a prisoner in a WWII concentration camp. Victor in a German one, Paul in a Japanese one. The story he often tells about surviving (he lived more than a year in a death cell where he could not see any light, so after a while he didn’t know if it was day or night), is also about friendship. He testifies that not the strongest man survived, it were those man with the most friends. You’ll find easily some of the key note speaker lectures on Internet.
    Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to ‘hello’ in English, is the expression Sawu bona. It literally means “I am here” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence. This meaning, implicit in the language, is part of the spirit of Ubuntu, a frame of mind prevalent among native people in Africa below the Sahara. The word ubuntu stems from the folk saying Umuntu ngumuntu nagabuntu, which, from Zulu literally translates as “A person Is a person because of other people” (The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, strategies and tools for building a learning organization. Peter M. Senge [et al.] Doubleday, New York, 1994).
    Let me quote: “Psychology has discovered that your mental development is triggered by interaction with others. You cannot healthily exist without the other. You define yourself, based on the interactions with the other.” One of the philosophers who discovered this is the American Religious philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman. He writes extensively about “that creative good which transforms us in ways in which we cannot transform ourselves.”
    For Wieman our supreme devotion must be to the creative good not to the created relative goods [created by the creative good], this was an ultimate commitment to what in his later years he increasingly came to label “creative interchange.”
    In 1966, Wieman met and formed a working relationship with Dr. Erle Fitz, a practicing psychiatrist, and Dr. Charles Leroy (‘Charlie’) Palmgren, my third father. Fitz, Palmgren, and Wieman met regularly in Wieman’s home (in Grinell IA I recall) until Wieman’s death in 1975 to focus on how creative interchange could be the basis for psychotherapy, applied behavioral sciences, and organizational development. After Wieman’s death, Palmgren continued to nurture the creative interchange philosophy, identifying the conditions necessary for the Creative Interchange process to occur and developing tools to help people remove the barriers to those conditions while identifying the counter unproductive process ‘The Vicious Circle’.
    In 1992 I met Charlie and since then I’m using the Creative Interchange Process in my field of expertise: Safety. In 2001 I wrote a book about my interpretation of Creative Interchange in the field of Loss Control (Safety) ‘Creatieve wisselwerking’. In 2012 I published a new book ‘Cruciale dialogen’ (‘Crucial dialogue’) which is the application of the Creative Interchange Process during tough conversations.
    Indeed, you really define yourself, based on Creative Interchange with others!

  • 1st June 2014 at 8:46 am

    It’s always nice to see comments that are longer than the original Blog. 🙂 I think we agree.


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