in Self awareness and improvement

Defining your purpose

Can you coach people to discover their own meaningful, fulfilling ambitions?

In “Building a purposeful social network,”  a new course I just started teaching, the first step I’d planned is for everyone to define their purpose – the goal that would be at the center of a new and deeper set of relationships they would build throughout the course.

I failed to achieve that first step. But something better happened.


At the start of the session, I drew on authors like Keith Ferrazzi, Seth Godin, and Gina Rudan. I told stories of people (some famous, some within our own firm) who had achieved great things by building purposeful networks.

We even watched Seth Godin’s “Tribes” video to help understand the kinds of change people could achieve. Heads nodded and people seemed inspired.

Then they started to work on defining their own purpose. 15 people listened, wrote, and worked in peer support groups to try and answer questions like “What are things I care about and enjoy?” “What are goals and dreams I have?”

The problems started when people tried to connect those answers into a coherent purpose.

3 problems

As I went around to each group, it seemed everyone was struggling.

“My goals are too big.” Some people had lofty ambitions but no idea how to draw a line from where they were now to those ambitions.

“My goals have nothing to do with work.” Many people wanted to spend more time with family or do other things they enjoyed but needed money and felt anchored to their job.

“My goals aren’t connected.” Some people’s lists were disjoint sets of wishes that they simply couldn’t form into a coherent purpose.

So, for almost everyone, all I did was produce frustration.

The best part

Luckily, we had structured the class so there wasn’t too much lecturing or too many activities. Most of the time was unstructured and reserved for people to work on their goals.

That allowed me to talk to people individually and in small peer groups. And that was the best part.

In each of those short conversations, we were able to take their lists and concerns and come up with something specific they’d like to achieve but never did. It may not have been a “this is my new life” kind of goal. But it was something that would open up new possibilities and tap into other parts of themselves.

“What’s really the point, John?”

At the end of the class (this was the first of six sessions), one of my colleagues asked whether I was trying to help people realize their life goals or trying to teach them a set of skills.

After a pause, I knew it was really the latter. What I wanted was to have people learn – by doing – how to build more meaningful relationships that would help them accomplish something.

There’s a lot written about “doing what you love,” but for the 15 people in the class, their first goal could and should be something small and achievable. I needed to let them learn the skills, put them into practice, and succeed at something. Then, their new network would open up possibilities they’d never have considered at the beginning.

Going forward, we’ll aim a bit lower, put more time and energy into peer support and one-on-one coaching, and prepare for the next class.

I’ll let you know how it goes.