How to Find Your Major Definite Purpose in Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s your organization’s purpose? Does your company have a higher purpose beyond making a profit?

According to management theorist Simon Sinek, a higher purpose is similar to a long-term goal in that it takes time and company-wide cooperation to complete. However, higher purposes are more abstract than long-term goals: They usually provide a sense of meaning beyond making profits or dominating a field, and they don’t have concrete timelines for completion.

Keep reading to learn about the importance and key characteristics of higher purpose, according to Sinek.

Higher Purposes Must Be Unachievable and Selfless

When you and your subordinates are devoted to fulfilling the organization’s purpose, the possibility that you’ll fail to do so becomes enough of a threat to encourage collaboration and strengthen the supportive environment. Sinek explains that there are two conditions your higher purpose must fulfill:

1. Your company can’t currently have the resources to fulfill the higher purpose. If your higher purpose is easily fulfilled, Sinek says it doesn’t provide the necessary pressure to inspire cooperation and oxytocin production. Your company needs to continually struggle to fulfill the higher purpose. This struggle applies constant external pressure, which inspires your subordinates to collaborate and experiment with innovative ways of fulfilling the higher purpose.

2. The higher purpose must serve others. Selflessness is an important element of an effective higher purpose because it’s inspirational, and inspired people work harder and are more dedicated. Sinek implies that helping others is inspirational because it prompts your brain to release higher levels of oxytocin. The happy feelings oxytocin provides motivate you and your subordinates to continue working hard and helping others.

On the other hand, selfish goals, like becoming a leader in your industry or making a certain amount of profit, won’t inspire your employees because that goal only benefits the company, which doesn’t release oxytocin.

Amazon’s vision statement is a good example of an effective higher purpose: “to be earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online…” Amazon can’t immediately fulfill this vision because “be the most customer-centric” and “be where customers can find anything they want” aren’t static goals: Amazon must adjust its approach as technology advances and people’s expectations for customer service and products change. Thus, Amazon constantly innovates new customer service initiatives and adds products to its stores, attempting to meet that goal. In addition, Amazon’s higher purpose serves others, as the company helps customers find the products they need, which inspires its employees.

The Difficulty of Nurturing a Higher Purpose

Many leaders struggle to nurture a higher purpose for their company. Experts say this difficulty arises because these leaders view work as a contract and their subordinates as self-interested and only willing to do the bare minimum.

This is a problematic mindset because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The leaders believe their subordinates are self-interested and need to be motivated to do their jobs well, so they provide constant external motivation—for example, giving raises to people who improve their profits by 5% a year. The subordinates focus on fulfilling each goal their leaders suggest so they can receive the rewards associated with each goal, rather than looking for opportunities to improve their skills or form healthy working relationships. In turn, the leaders see that everyone is only doing the bare minimum of what’s asked of them and believe they’ve been proven right, so they rely even more on controlling their subordinates through external motivation.

To solve this problem, the leaders must shift their mindset: Rather than thinking of their subordinates as externally motivated, they must remember that people want to be engaged at work because it makes their work life more fulfilling and enjoyable. This can motivate them to nurture a higher purpose that engages and motivates their subordinates without requiring external motivation or rewards.

What’s Your Organization’s Higher Purpose?

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  • Why a leader must prioritize her subordinates’ needs above her own
  • How empathy and support can be strong managerial tools
  • Why you must see your customers, suppliers, and employees as people

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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