The Importance of Purpose: What’s Your “Why”?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is passion alone not enough to reach your goals? What is the second key ingredient in goal achievement?

According to Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, passion is not enough to keep you motivated and disciplined in the pursuit of your goals. In addition to passion, you also need purpose. Together, passion and purpose form “grit.” When you have grit, you’ll find both motivation and discipline to keep going until you reach your goal.

Continue reading to learn about the importance of purpose in goal achievement.

Grit and Purpose

In Grit, Angela Duckworth examines the importance of purpose, which she defines as a desire to increase the well-being of others. Along with interest, purpose is essential to passion because purpose enables interests to survive over long periods. Passion may start with interest, but it survives with purpose. 

Purpose corresponds to the “high-level goals” Duckworth discusses in her exploration of passion in the first part of the book. These are the goals at the very top, for which you can’t provide an answer to the question “Why?” What makes these high-level goals special—what makes them a purpose—is that they have a focus other than self-interest. When Duckworth questions a gritty person about their high-level goals, they inevitably mention other people, either in specifics (like their children or customers) or through an abstract concept (like society, country, or science).  

She notes that some people might object that grit and purpose conflict with each other—grit means working toward your own goals while purpose means working for the good of others. However, Duckworth counters that purpose is crucial to grit because it sustains both passion (when you feel you’re helping others, you care more about your goals) and perseverance (you fight harder for goals that you care more about).

Importantly, she notes that purpose alone is not enough to create grit—purpose must be paired with interest in order to motivate you to work harder. For example, imagine you instinctively like to organize things. If you have a strong desire to help others (purpose) and you take a job as an office manager (which appeals to your interest in organization), you’ll be more likely to work hard (helping the office to run smoothly) than you would if you took a job in something that doesn’t interest you even if it also served the purpose of helping others—say, for example, rescuing abused animals, if that wasn’t something that grabbed your attention. 

Aligning Your Actions and Emotions With Your Purpose

Having a purpose is important not only for professional success but also for personal fulfillment and happiness. Some experts advise that if you are having trouble or conflict in your life, you can resolve it by examining it closely to see where your actions and desires are misaligned with your ultimate purpose. 

For example, in his book The 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson suggests that if you are upset because you want something you can’t have, ask yourself why you want that thing and why you feel that way, and continue asking until you’ve arrived at the core desire that’s driving your discontent. 

For example, if you want your boss’s job, ask yourself why. You may come up with a number of answers, each of which has a unique why behind it: You want more money. Why? Because you want to provide for your family.Because money makes you feel valued and recognized. You want a higher title. Why? Because a higher title has more status.Because a higher title allows you to direct decisions more, which will allow you to do more good in the world. You want to “beat” your boss. You feel you’re a better employee than your boss. You feel life is unfair and that you deserve it and your boss doesn’t. 

(This is similar to the process Duckworth outlined to help you find your true purpose—to keep asking why until you’ve reached the end of your whys.)

Then, once you’ve outlined all your whys, you can evaluate which ones are most important to you. Think about which correspond to Duckworth’s ideas of selfish, pleasure-seeking goals and which ones align with meaningful, purpose-driven goals. 

You might not have even been consciously aware of all of your whys in detail until you take the time to examine them, but once you do, you can either confront those that don’t align with your overall purpose in life, or you can figure out another way to achieve that purpose. For example, maybe you decide that your bitterness about life being unfair doesn’t align with your goal to do good in the world—if so, you can work on letting that feeling go. Or, maybe you decide that you can better serve your goal to do good if you take on a different role or position in your company. 

Either way, when you have consciously identified your purpose, you can better align your behaviors with it and will be better positioned to find happiness and fulfillment. 

Purpose Is Instinctive

Duckworth notes that seeking a purpose is one of two ways that people find happiness. The other is seeking pleasure. Pleasure is self-centered happiness, while purpose is outward-benefiting happiness. 

She argues that both of these are important because each increases our chances of survival: We seek pleasure because if we didn’t pursue things like food and sex, our species wouldn’t survive, and we seek purpose because a cooperative species thrives more than individuals do on their own. 

Different people place different values on each type of happiness—some prioritize pleasure over purpose, and some do the opposite. Duckworth’s studies conclude that gritty people value pleasure just as much as other people, but that they value purpose far more than non-gritty people do. 

(Duckworth acknowledges that there is a possible sample bias in her study, in that she only included people who work in ways that basically benefit others—she didn’t interview, for example, terrorists or despots, many of whom might well be gritty but are driven by selfish motives, or who might say they strive to help others but kill millions of people in the process. Therefore she acknowledges that her theory that gritty people have more altruistic tendencies might overlook a swath of gritty people who don’t have such tendencies. However, she hypothesizes that these people are probably outliers, and that overall, the data showing most gritty people to have a heightened sense of purpose is accurate.)

Purpose Enables You to Evaluate Your Desires

The conflict between the selfish and the altruistic drives in the human psyche is one of the most basic tensions we live with. How we reconcile this conflict determines in large part whether we achieve happiness and lasting success. 
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt proposes that the key to happiness is to distinguish between desires for fleeting happiness and desires for lasting happiness. Fleeting happiness comes from satisfying immediate, often physical needs. Lasting happiness comes from fulfilling your purpose.  

Haidt argues that you can only be happy when you successfully direct your attention and energy to those desires that bring lasting benefits (through your purpose) while ignoring those that only bring temporary pleasure. To do this, he advises that you work to gain control over your emotional responses, which typically drive you toward fleeting desires, and instead aim to let your more rational, thinking side steer your actions. 

He argues, further, that one of the most important sources of lasting happiness is an attitude of altruism. He notes that we’ve evolved to be altruistic because what benefits the group benefits us individually, and that studies consistently show that people who are more altruistic are happier.  

He concludes, therefore, much as Duckworth does, that happiness is a product of finding a purpose in life that makes your work feel impactful, and that this is tied directly to an altruistic instinct by which we want to make the world a better place for others. 
The Importance of Purpose: What’s Your “Why”?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Angela Duckworth's "Grit" at Shortform .

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  • How your grit can predict your success
  • The 4 components that make up grit
  • Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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