Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Why are we here? Answering the question with purpose.

My business is Epion Consulting.  Ask me why Epion exists and I'll tell you it's to enable technology businesses, investors and policy makers to do the right next thing, and to do the next thing right.  Similarly, I'm a member of a church.  Ask us why we're there and we'll tell you what we're looking to achieve.  Nothing surprising so far.

But the answers could have been different.  I might have told you that Epion Consulting exists because I took redundancy from a previous employer and decided to work on my own.  Or, I could tell you that my church is there because in late Saxon times a church building was built, and over the centuries, and through the reformation, it's evolved and adapted.

In other words, a 'why are we here' question can be answered either in terms of purpose, or, instead, in terms of how we found ourselves where we are.  For most of us, regardless of how interesting the latter might prove to be, the former is surely the more important.  Why, as purpose, begins to help me figure out what I should be doing, even how I should be living.  Organisations use purpose to inspire - with vision (the outcome sought by the purpose) and mission as ways of articulating purpose, and providing a rallying cry.  How we came to find ourselves here, on the contrary, tends not to inspire and is unlikely to prompt action.

This is so obvious, that it would not normally be worth stating.  Or so I thought.

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme (8th September) the clearly very brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking was asked what his book The Grand Design was about.  He answered (pre-recorded) that it answered the question of why we are here.  But exploring how the world came into being doesn't begin to say anything about purpose, surely?  So, I guess we're left with an answer to the 'why we are here' question that does little to inspire us to live well, however we would interpret that.

One might, I suppose, at this stage say that this was OK, that we could look to religion or philosophy to answer the 'why = purpose' question.  Intriguingly, the studio interviewee seemed to knock this one on the head too (I missed his name, sorry).  He expressed the view (if I understood him correctly) that contemporary philosophy was failing because it had failed to engage adequately with developments in physics.  Sounded to me like a scientist wanting to limit philosophy to 'how we came to be here' variants of 'why' questions and answers.  I'd rather philosophy explored 'why' as purpose.

I'm clear that philosophy and religion need to interact with science - as a fan of TF Torrance I could hardly think otherwise.  But I want to know my purpose.  I want the answer to the 'why am I here question' to inspire me.  I'm persuaded that 'how we came to be here' answers are typically inadequate answers to the really big 'why are we here' questions.  It's with that in mind that I look forward to reading The Grand Design - as I enjoyed A Brief History of Time.

And I'll continue to help businesses answer why they exist in terms of their purpose, not their organisational evolution.  They find that more useful.

1 comment:

Anita Mathias said...

Hi Nick, Wonderful to stumble upon your blog. Aldate's is truly a blogging community!