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Being On Purpose

Updated on October 5, 2013

Living life as though you mean it

No one wants to wake up one day and wonder where their lives went.

No one wants to leave the earth a worse place than when they left it.

No one wants to spend every day in a job they hate with people they don't respect.

And yet, every day so many people choose to do just that. They fail to tap into their potential and choose a different path, one with purpose and meaning and impact.

They aren't living their lives "on purpose".

The original text of this lens was written by Susan Villas Lewis.

Photo by dbking from flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

Making choices without a purpose can leave you feeling trapped.

Making choices without a purpose can leave you feeling trapped.
Making choices without a purpose can leave you feeling trapped.

Defining the Concept

Umm, wait. What does that mean exactly?

The phrase "on purpose" gets thrown around a lot in business talk. While the words are easily understood, the concept can be a bit of puzzler. There is little debate as to the value of a purposeful existence - we all want to make a difference - but translating the concept into the concrete escapes most people.

What does it mean when we say a person is being on purpose? Just how does a company do things on purpose? How do we avoid "sheep-walking" (as Seth Godin terms it) through life?

The biggest hurdle to actually getting the concept of being on purpose lies in the way we tend to use the phrase "on purpose". Think about it. We rarely use it in a way that implies anything good. It's always in the context of an accident - "He didn't do it on purpose" - or spiteful action - "You know she did that on purpose!"

So how to define it in a way that highlights the positive aspects?

Here's my attempt (with thanks to some of my fellow SAMBA program participants):

Being on purpose means knowing your reason for being and what it takes to make that reality. Every choice you make fulfills that reason and is a conscious decision rather than just a "going with the flow" moment. An on purpose person is in control of the direction her life takes and is always conscious of this.

Are you "on purpose?

Now that you have an idea what it means, where would you put yourself?

Are you living life "on purpose"?

Your purpose sets you apart in a crowd.

Your purpose sets you apart in a crowd.
Your purpose sets you apart in a crowd.

How to become an on-purpose person

Based on the process from Kevin McCarthy's book

After reading The On-Purpose Person by Kevin McCarthy as well as a few other sources, the steps for finding a purpose for your life and learning to live it out can be distilled down to these.


This is the stage where you define your wants, your heart's desires. Start with a list as big as you can make it and then whittle it down to the key ones for you. McCarthy's system divides the wants into categories for the brainstorming, then a "tournament" bracket format to get to a core want - the champion for that category. Knowing these helps you understand which direction to go when faced by a choice because you choose what is most in line with the wants you uncovered.


Once you know what your desire is, break them down into actionable steps. If you want to lose weight, what do you have to do to get there? These steps then become the activities you schedule your day around. If exercise is part of how you will lose weight, making the choice to go to the gym meets a core want and should be a priority for the day you plan.


The last step is to take everything you've uncovered and use them to define your purpose - the guiding principle by which you make all your choices. McCarthy phrases that purpose statement in the form of "I exist to serve by ..." with the blank filled in with two words that sum you up. I'm still a little skeptical on that one, but haven't worked through the process that far. Examples in the book included Discovering Joy, Sharing Love - always an "ing" verb and a noun.

Knowing your purpose brings great joy in everything.

Knowing your purpose brings great joy in everything.
Knowing your purpose brings great joy in everything.

Personal example of being on purpose

My mom has made a conscious choice to not be like her mother in at least one way. She travels at least once a month to visit my nieces and nephews and ensures that she is part of their lives in an active vital way. To that end, she has spent the past several years expanding her skills and knowledge related to using various internet tools that allow her to teach classes online. By shifting her responsibilities from the classroom to the web, she has more control over her schedule, which allows her to continue teaching (which she loves) in a way that also allows her to visit her grandkids whenever she wants and for as long as she wants.

The on-purpose person focuses on the relationships that matter.

The on-purpose person focuses on the relationships that matter.
The on-purpose person focuses on the relationships that matter.

Business example of being on purpose

Southwest Airlines has many passionate fans, many of which try to take their planes to go everywhere. Southwest made many purposeful decisions that helped it become the airline it is today - only one type of aircraft, no meals, a fun attitude. The one most people have trouble understanding is why Southwest doesn't fly into every market where it could. Case in point: Southwest flies to the inconvenient airport out on Long Island rather than to any of the three more traveled airports in the New York area. But Southwest knew where its priorities lay - on time, on time, on time. And flying into any of the New York airports would keep them from meeting that goal. So they don't fly into La Guardia or JFK or Newark. They fly into Long Island where they can meet the goal they have decided is the most important.

Choices are clearer when you understand your purpose.

Choices are clearer when you understand your purpose.
Choices are clearer when you understand your purpose.

Don't confuse purpose with mission

While purpose and mission are related, don't confuse the two. Mission, vision and similar words are often used in creating a business purpose, but they aren't interchangable. McCarthy defines them like this:

Purpose is being

Vision is seeing

Missions are doing

Values are choosing

You have one purpose that manifests itself in many visions, each of which have several missions and all of which must be consistent with your values.

The On-Purpose Person: Making Your Life Make Sense

This is one of the books I read that helped me in understanding the concept of being "on purpose".

Photo Credits

Dog with ball – Photo by Hans Dekker from flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

Row of seagulls – Photo by RunnerJenny from flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

Are You Being On Purpose?

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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Nice work on the overview of The On-Purpose Person.

      May I encourage you to work on writing your purpose statement using the generic beginning of "I exist to serve by..." and then using a gerund and an object. While the On-Purpose Process and Approach are simple, that is the power in them. Taking a profound and powerful concept such as one's purpose in life and making it approachable, even fun to play with is no easy task. Then living into it, being on-purpose, make for an even greater adventure. Be bold!

      To learn a lot more, go to my blog. As of this writing there are over 150 video On-Purpose Minutes and Business Minutes there. Short instructive videos to help with being on-purpose.

      Be On-Purpose!


      Blog: (Look for the "Free Stuff" page. There's even a free preview of the book.)

    • hlkljgk profile image


      9 years ago from Western Mass

      being on purpose is so important. thanks for the reminder.


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