Vail Valley Voices: The difference between purpose and goals |

Vail Valley Voices: The difference between purpose and goals

John Horan-Kates
Vail, CO, Colorado

I define purpose as the quality around which you shape your life. It’s your reason for being or why you get up in the morning. Purpose influences goals, but it’s actually broader and deeper. Here’s why!

Purpose is about a direction. Richard Leider, author of the “Power of Purpose,” says, “Purpose answers the question: What am I trying to do with my life?”

It is clearly something beyond your job, and encompasses thoughts and ideas broader than any self-serving interests and desires.

Leider says, “It’s the cradle-to-grave, round-the-clock unifying principle that you organize your life around.”

Your purpose is influenced very directly by the values and beliefs that you hold dearest. It’s deeply rooted in us, but evolves in its articulation over time. One of your most important tasks as a leader is to uncover what’s already there.

Goals, on the other hand, are measurable end results that you want by some particular date. They’re aims you seek, that when achieved, give cause to celebrate. Goals are critical to leadership, and to your life. Your goals are those specific things you really want to accomplish.

A purpose is much larger than goals because it represents the underpinning of a meaningful life. Being an “on-purpose” person is a very powerful asset in any organizational setting.

One of Leider’s most influential statements about purposeful people is that they are “doing the work they love, with people they care about, in a place where they belong.”

Essence is another word that reflects on purpose. What is at the essence of your being or the fundamental nature of who you are?

Rick Warren’s extremely popular book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” brings focus to God’s eternal purposes with his very first line: “It’s not about you.” Integrating an earthly purpose with an eternal purpose can be very powerful in creating that meaningful life.

To uncover your purpose, begin by examining your history, your gifts, your strengths, passions, callings, and ultimately, identifying your legacy. One of the best questions to ask yourself that points toward your purpose is what do you lose yourself in? What is it that you are obsessing about?

Once you’ve done much of this thinking, then write out your sense of a purpose statement.

The revered management consultant, Peter Drucker, recommends that it should be short, about five words, and certainly no more than can easily fit on a tee-shirt.

The Harvard professor Howard Gardner says there are three questions people can ask as they are seeking purpose through “good work”: Does it fit your values? Does it evoke excellence? And does it bring you that subjective barometer of engagement — joy?

At the high school level, we’ve traditionally asked students to identify their goals for the next few years.

But the author of “The Path to Purpose,” Bill Damon, is an advocate of initiating a dialogue on purpose at home in the teenage years to give focus to whatever on-going learning and development a young person might pursue.

Probably the most important things you can do to develop your purpose is to know your values and beliefs and to follow your passions and dreams. Everything else will fall into place.

Given all of this, how would you describe your purpose?

This column has been written in connection with Exploring Potential, a character development program offered in Eagle County high schools. John Horan-Kates is the president of the Vail Leadership Institute in Edwards. He can be reached at 926-7800 or

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