RAMPS – Purpose is Service to a Greater

This entry is part of 15 in the series RAMPS

RAMPS: P is for Purpose, the sense one is serving a valued "greater".

Those who rate this band of the motivational spectrum highly can be go-to workhorses, but only if we keep them connected to their valued greater.

If rhythm is largely focused on the distribution of "feels good" through one’s working life, purpose works to carry us through the "feels bad" part of it, by transforming the local discomfort into an instrument for the higher goal.

Have you ever been helped by a four-year-old, maybe in the kitchen, or with the yardwork? Your young friend is seeing a greater end than her own. She’s finding a role for herself within it. She’s transforming tedium into fuel. She’s helping, and manifesting purpose-in-action.

(By the way, if you answered "no", then you should rush right out and try it. It’s comical, it’s exasperating, it’s renewing. Revealingly, it is both receiving service from your young friend’s sense of purpose, and giving it from your own.)

None of the bands in the RAMPS spectrum is "the" band. Not only do they all interact with each other, but the relative motive power of each band varies from one individual to the next.

Curiously, purpose seems to be the band most often assumed to be central. As such, it’s the site of a lot of misunderstandings and over-simplifications, and those often result in misplaced effort, and even anti-motivation. Let’s take a look at some of these ideas.

1) Some folks deny purpose altogether.

Seeing the world as a war of all against all, they seek to convert every motivation to a measured transaction. Their motivational technique is to offer reward and punishment explicitly and directly.

There’s a blindness to this take that I find, frankly, pity-filling. It is nonsense, a denial of reality, and a harmful one at that.

All healthy human beings are extraordinarily selfish and extraordinarily altruistic. We take, and we give.

Purpose is about what & how we give.

2) It’s easy to see that some purposes can be arranged in to hierarchies.

And to slide from that observation into believing that all of them do, and to slide further to believe that there’s a top purpose, the master purpose, and all others are merely instruments to it.

A well-known western text says "You can’t serve two masters." Lifted from its context, it suggests just such a "one ring to rule them" idea. If we can just find the master purpose, and connect each activity up the hierarchy until it gets there, we’re good to go.

In fact, multiple masters — several purposes being served at once — can be taken for the general rule.

When I’m working, I am surely playing a role in my project, to my team, which is playing a role to its host org. But the host org itself is serving multiple purposes, and so is my team, and so am I.

The org is in service to customers, to shareholders, to employees, to rent-seekers, to its larger community. I’m in service to my team, my friends, my family.

Multiplicity of purpose is ubiquitous.

3) Purpose has a strong temporal dimension, a spread across time that can only be called historical.

(That’s one of many reasons the atemporality of thin culture in the geek trade is such a bogeyman of mine.)

A great deal of purpose, for instance, is about relationship. Relationships aren’t isolated transactions, but long sequences of interactions across time. Supporting those relationships can be and often is its very own purpose.

Similarly, with role, another key concept in purpose. A role is the result of a purpose that calls for a repeated behavior. The role of "product specialist", for instance, exists not because we have one place where we need a domain answer, but because we have many, over time.

4) Purposes can be opaque to people who don’t have them, or don’t have them yet. I can be serving my team in ways my team doesn’t even know.

Maybe the highest praise I’ve received as a coach happened when one of my victims moved on, and became the de facto coach of his own set of victims in another team.

A few months in, he said to me, "I now see all that invisible shit you did."

That was an awesome boost for me, of course. We don’t, though, want to shape all our thinking about purpose around recognition and reward. After all, I’d coached that team with some fervor — fulfilling among other things my need for purpose — long before that praise.

Looping back around, purpose can be a tremendous sustainer. It can take otherwise tedious, uncomfortable, even painful labor, and somehow transmute it into the very fuel needed to continue that labor.

Like all the bands in the RAMPS spectrum, manipulating purpose to alter motivation is a delicate business. We’ll talk soon about some more concrete advice on ways to approach that.

In the meantime, I recommend we start thinking about purpose by thinking about the many communities in which we participate. Community, one’s multiple founts of identity, is deeply intertwined with purpose as a motivator.

Why list your communities? Purpose in its colloquial sense can just mean "reason for". But in RAMPS, all five bands are "reasons for", and purpose specifically refers to the reasons that derive from service to a greater. Communities are our most common greaters. So list them.

Cold and clear again on this Saturday, the very opposite of purpose, with its warm and clouded nature.

No matter. I hope you have a warm clouded Saturday, and I’ll talk to you later!


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