What’s your purpose?

Flowers by the side of a path

What's your purpose? (Photo source - http://www.sxc.hu/photo/867083)

I recently listened to an interview with author Daniel Pink (via Elizabeth Marshall’s free Author Teleseminars) about his new book Drive. (Confession: I haven’t read it, so I’m basing this blog post on the author interview, which ran about an hour. If you want to learn more about this, you should read the book, which has exercises and, I’m sure, a lot more detail and insight. The book is going on my to-read list.)

Drive examines decades of research on what really motivates people. Pink says that there are two kinds of activities — algorithmic and heuristic. Algorithmic work is anything that can be broken down into a set of rules. Heuristic work is more complex, more nuanced, and requires judgment, creativity, intuition and analysis. Heuristic work is what many of us spend a lot of time doing.

Pink says that the overwhelming evidence from decades of research on motivation was that carrot vs. stick type approach to motivation (penalizing people for mistakes, rewarding them for successes) work well in motivating algorithmic work. But for heuristic work, penalties and prizes have the opposite effect. So long as people are being paid at a level they believe is fair, paying them a lot more in hopes of motivating them for heuristic activities doesn’t work.

What does work to motivate people to accomplish heuristic work? Three things: autonomy, mastery, purpose.

  • Autonomy, obviously, is the ability to make your own choices about when and how you do things.
  • Mastery is the desire to achieve a high skill level.
  • Purpose is the belief that you’re acting in service to something greater than yourself (not money).

It’s the last one I’m particularly interested in. If you have a purpose, it can bring fresh reserves of motivation into your daily life. And that’s a good thing. Worthwhile things are frequently difficult to achieve, and achieving the difficult requires motivation.

Which brings me to — What is your purpose? Have you ever thought about that question?

For that matter, what is the purpose of your company? Your brand? Your blog? Your social media activities? Your marketing?

Are you doing it just to make money? Or is there something else that motivates you?

Google, a company that has made lots of money, says its mission is to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That is a grand purpose, and I wonder if it doesn’t play a role in motivating people at the company. A cynic would say that words like that are just clever PR, spin designed to pretty up Google’s real purpose, which they would claim is to make the founders and shareholders rich. Google has made its founders (and many shareholders) rich, but I don’t think that excludes the company having a purpose beyond that.

Most marketers (myself included) would urge the typical company (or product/brand/service/whatever) to clearly define its USP, its unique selling proposition. That’s the one thing that makes that product or brand different from everything else and desirable to some group of buyers.

But before you ask yourself what your USP is, maybe you should ask yourself what your purpose is. You with me? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. says

    Thanks for the recommendation for Pink’s latest book I’ve enjoyed some of his others. Love the topic of purpose and you’ve done a great job of exploring it, thanks for sharing. I came across your blog from a google alert I use with the word “purpose”

    • says

      Hey Mike, glad you liked the post. I’m ashamed to say I have somehow failed to read any of any of PInk’s previous books (though I’ve read magazine articles and other things he’s written). But I am going to have to spend more time with his work, getting into his ideas. The coolest thing is that his latest book apparently has exercises and ways to apply the theories to your own life in it, something that’s missing from a lot of theory books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *