The Problem With Purpose & The Case for Expression
Posted on 11th July 2022 at 08:10
‘I know that people may not understand it and that’s ok, I am ok with that. Because I know… Ash Barty, the person, has so many dreams that she wants to chase after’₁
Ash Barty, World No.1 tennis player announcing her retirement in March 2022 at the age of 25.
As I listened to Ash Barty announce her retirement, what struck me most was this is a woman who knows who she is. She understood she was more than her work and there are other things she wanted to focus on. To make this choice while at the top of her game with the eyes of the world on her required so much bravery. But to have this insight at the age of just 25 was nothing short of inspirational. The world needs more Ash Bartys. People with the vision to see all of who they can be, the courage to make the choices needed to support that vision and the power to inspire the rest of us to do the same.
I was a lot older than Ash Barty when I began to understand this more fully for myself. Always ambitious, I would regularly joke that achievement was my drug of choice. I moved elegantly through personal and professional achievements, feeling a great sense of purpose as I went. With the benefit of hindsight, I see the flaw in that approach to my ambitions and sense of purpose. It created a linear approach to my growth rather than cultivating a more fully integrated version of myself. While I thought it was making me bigger, more successful, on reflection it was making me smaller. My sense of purpose was always connected to the next thing I would ‘do’; another mountain I would climb, the promotion I would receive. It was a road that eventually got boring. Achievement, like any drug, has a reducing effect over time. It leaves you longing for ‘more’.
The Problem with Purpose
Social media posts everywhere assert you should ‘find your purpose’ suggesting purpose is just one thing, a holy grail you must uncover. In essence, taglines like this imply you must take a singular approach to a fulfilling life. In a world in which we increasingly want to ‘own’ the day, or ‘action’ our goals in personal development; purpose has been framed as simply something we do. Specifically, something we work at or monetise. This is a gross over-simplification of purpose. In reality, we seek purpose through our work, whether paid or unpaid, because it is easy to action it. It is completely socially acceptable to attach purpose to being productive and, in most cases, for either financial reasons or because we care for others, we all have to work anyway.
Framing purpose as simply something we do raises many questions and concerns. Have we allowed the ideology of living and working ‘on purpose’ to be used to forward existing systems of commerce and work? How much have each of us been quietly convinced the achievement of purpose will be found solely through productivity, promotion, and financial success? More fundamentally, what is the cost to us, individually and collectively, if we simply accept this singular approach to purpose?
Purpose is About Who You Are
What is often missed is that purpose is not static, not one thing you find. Purpose is part of your identity, constantly evolving and alive just as you are. The person you are invested in becoming will be the greatest determinant of the sense of purpose you experience in your life. To really develop, grow and experience purpose over the course of your lifespan involves accessing and expressing your whole self, all of who you are. To understand you are your purpose. You in the largest sense. This version of you can only be fostered and cultivated through multiple sources of meaning and purpose. A personalised collection of meaningful relationships, goals, activities, and pursuits which help you become the person you are destined to be.
The ‘more’ I had been searching for was really ‘Expression’. The key to purpose in life is to fully express all of who you are and can be. What you do, how you live, your relationships and your legacy will all flow naturally from a commitment to allow all parts of yourself to be seen and expressed in the world. Your life, work or relationships simply provide the vehicles through which you express your whole self. To become the fullest version of who you can be means allowing yourself to have diversified and sustainable sources of meaning and purpose in your life. To create time in your life. By nurturing the many elements of who we are, each of us will naturally evolve into the people we long to be. Only then can we become the society the world needs us to be.
Expression: ‘To press out’
The etymology of the word ‘expression’ comes from the Latin ‘to press out’. This version is still used today when we refer to expressing breast milk, for example, or espresso₂ coffee which refers to the simple act of pressing water through coffee. Both refer to extracting or pressing out something that is already there. It is the same for you. You don’t need to find anything. Everything you need is already inside you; waiting for you to acknowledge it, nurture it, grow it and express it.
The concept of expression is bigger, fuller than purpose. There is a natural impulse within us all to grow and change. To ‘become’. When we focus on simply one or two parts of who we are, this natural impulse is suppressed. Self actualisation and human potential are not about striving for the simplicity of productivity or achievement but about blooming into the fullest expression of your innate potential. Growing the seeds already sown inside you to become the total expression of all of who you are and can be.
To embody all of who you can be begins by connecting with all of who you are. To acknowledge, even if just to yourself, there are parts you are disconnected from. We all recognise that sense of longing. The idea that there is something ‘more’. The ‘more’ you are seeking is more of you. It is a longing to be more connected to yourself. An internal recognition you want something more; that there is a bigger, more expressed life waiting for you to claim it. You cannot control whether the longing is there or not, but it remains your choice whether you decide to act on it.
Expression needs Wholeness
The circle is a fundamental symbol of human growth found across multiple cultures. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the symbol of the Mandala represents the whole universe. In Jungian psychology, the mandala is used to represent the wholeness of the Self. We all have a desire to experience this ‘wholeness’. Even children draw circles intuitively recognising their completeness. In transpersonal psychology or coaching, the belief is everyone is on a path of psychospiritual development whether it is acknowledged or not. You are either consciously or unconsciously searching for your ‘whole’ self. This is your internal longing encouraging you to uncover parts of you that are hidden and rich with potential. Abraham Maslow called this self-actualisation, Carl Jung referred to it as individuation; the path each individual takes to become whole. Wholeness recognises we are not looking to be linear through purpose but rather to be complete through expression.
One of the great problems we face today is, individually and collectively, we don’t feel whole. We feel fragmented. Focusing on one or two areas of Self rather than who we are in our entirety. When I changed career, I undertook a MSc. in positive psychology. Part of my rationale for doing this was to conduct research into spirituality as a lived experience. This desire to understand spirituality more was recognition of my own fragmentation. I did not feel whole. I recognised my soul, the spiritual part of myself, was under nurtured. Like a flowerbed I forgot to water. As I achieved things easily in other areas of my life, this overlooked part of myself began to feel like a weight holding me back. There was an internal recognition I could never really become who I was supposed to be or reach new heights of ‘success’ until I invested the time and energy to engage with and nurture this fundamental part of who I am.
Maybe, for you, it is a different part that needs your attention. It doesn’t matter. Unless your neglected parts are addressed, the outcome will be the same. When any part of our life takes up a large part of our energy and focus or consumes our sense of purpose, we become linear not whole. This part becomes like the plant which overshadows the rest of who we are; using all the water and resources so nothing else can flourish. While this version of you may achieve ‘success’ in the conventional sense, real success in the lived sense becomes out of reach. We trade our fullness, our wholeness, the real depth of potential within, the joy of being truly alive for singular success.
Feeling a lack of purpose is often simply a lack of wholeness; there are under nurtured parts of you yearning to be acknowledged and expressed. Purpose is continuously birthed and rebirthed in wholeness. In full connection to the Self. In any truly purpose-filled life, ‘success’ will never be linear or one dimensional. It must be fuller, more embodied. An experience rather than an output.
‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’
In the revival of the search for purpose over the last two decades, we have made the mistake of taking the tools we already have into this new quest; drive, the elevation of doing over being, the intellect and the perceived superiority of rationality over the power of the heart and intuition. The overuse of these traits contributed to the vacuum of both purpose and expression in the world to begin with. The overuse of these aspects of the Self has caused a lack of balance in us all, individually and collectively.
To become fully expressed requires new ways of being. A fresh approach. Expression can only be achieved when all parts of you are acknowledged and working harmoniously together. Expressing your whole self involves the engagement of all your internal wisdom. Your mind collaborating with your heart, your intuition, your gut. For the permission ‘to be’ to be considered an equal and necessary partner to the drive ‘to do’. Your desire to be fully expressed utilising your internal drive to create the work, relationships, and life you long for. A recognition that you must bring all of who you are into conversation with each other before you can be fully expressed in the world. That the correct conditions must be cultivated so all parts of your internal world can flourish.
‘I am large, I contain multitudes’ Walt Whitman
Living a fully expressed life requires bravery. To do so involves making choices unique to you and all the parts of you which deserve your attention. Taking an approach to life and work which creates the space to nurture all of who you are is a necessity for expression. To live life this way and make choices that support your full expression will require you to be different, to stand out. When we choose to stand out, we must overcome our fear of being more visible, the fear we will be considered ‘too much’. In a world with narcissism so clearly on display, we have been taught ‘larger’ is wrong. Yet, when I look at the narcissism and toxicity on display in the world today, I don’t see people who are too ‘large’ or ‘too much’, I see people who are not whole. They are acting from a place of lack and fear rather than working to become who they could be. I love this line from Walt Whitman. We are all large, all complicated, all so full of different skills and talents lying latent waiting to be explored. There is nothing to be gained by playing small.
Living a fully expressed life matters. The world needs more people who are working to become more whole and healed. The place in you which you are afraid to investigate, reluctant to expand, that place is the part of you the world is searching for. It is the birthplace of the greater sense of purpose you are longing for. Having the courage to go there and claim it is the beginning of your transformation. Choosing to become a more fully expressed version of yourself is never about being ‘too much’ but about becoming ‘more’ of who you can be. It is a powerful decision and the foundation of the contribution you can make to the world. It takes personal leadership to understand you, and everyone around you, benefit most not from what you do but from the whole person you can become. People working towards full expression become healthy, evolved, well rounded individuals. Healthy individuals come together to make healthy groups and societies. Expression is about our destiny; about who we can become, individually and collectively. And it begins with each one of us.
₁ Ash Barty Interview is available on her Instagram page
₂ Espresso vs. Expresso: Which is it? | Merriam-Webster
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