Purpose. It is a word we hear and use a lot in our daily lives. In a more general sense, we might say “what is the purpose of this?” In a more personal manner we might question, “what is my purpose?” This latter usage is what piqued my business partners and my curiosity. What is individual purpose? What drives it? Detracts from it? How does it influence one’s life? How does it influence work and the companies they work for? Does it even matter?

We believe the answer to this last question, is YES! Not only for our personal lives but also in the work we do and how we do it. However, very little research or business application exists on the role of individual purpose or even more surprisingly, the organizational purpose in the workplace.

Seeking a Connection to Your Purpose

To help answer the above questions and support our ‘yes’ answer we looked at one of the most dynamic and impactful professions, nursing. We combined our experience in healthcare consulting, with a project in which we interviewed and observed how a group of nursing professionals defines, identifies and retains its sense of purpose. Through this project we uncovered five key themes with supporting evidence that contribute to individual sense of purpose.

5 Key Themes

Theme No. 1: Identity

A foundational key theme in connection to a sense of purpose or meaning in work is Identity. Sense of purpose is in essence, part of the Identity of a person. Identity is defined through sense of purpose lenses of self-awareness, self-identification, and how you see yourself in relation to society and others — it is as unique as each person’s fingerprint. It is a combination of your nature and nurture. More importantly, Identity can only truly be defined by the individual.

Theme No. 2: Service

When asked why nurses do what they do, “to help people” was a phrase we heard from every single nurse. The desire for connection to others who have a need is at the core of purpose for nurses, and likely to be the same desire in many other professions. Service, the second key theme, underscores the connection between individual purpose and people. It is described as the way in which care is provided, serves the needs of others, and approach to relationships.

Theme No. 3: Mastery

Mastery is the third key theme we discovered in understanding the pivotal importance of being valued according to knowledge and expertise. Through sense of purpose Mastery is defined as being an expert, excelling at different stages of one’s career, drive to continuously improve and moving from a skills orientation to a systems orientation. It is the ability to learn from interactions with work – those you lead, those you teach, those who lead you, and in the nurse specific case, those they heal. In other words, growth gained through interactions with other humans is at the heart of how Mastery is defined.

Theme No. 4: Autonomy

Autonomy is the state of being independent, free and self-directing. It is exerting one’s power to influence. We found that Autonomy is a defining key theme of a sense of purpose at work and encompasses self-defining qualities that serve the experience of purpose in what you do and who you are.

Theme No. 5: System

System comprises the elements that represent supporting aspects of what we would suggest is the “purpose ecosystem” within an organization. It is defined as a group of related parts that work together to create and maintain something — the people, duties, customers, diagnoses and processes that happen within the organization. It was repeatedly the attributes of the System that facilitate or prevent purpose from being part of individual engagement.

Where Does Your Purpose Come From?

Please note that we do not claim these five key themes and their supporting sub-themes are the complete list of what purpose is and how people relate to it. Though this particular study focused on nurses, we believe these themes will likely hold true for most people. They hold true because these key themes are really human based, not industry or profession based.

Sense of purpose is as a calling, a place from which meaning is derived. Purpose is part of who we are and our very nature. Clear and memorable stories about upbringings, childhood and significant life experiences reflect the nurturing influence on purpose (see My Purpose Found Me Plog). Sense of purpose comes from something bigger than ourselves, it is defined by contributing to the greater good of society.

So what does this mean for you and your unique purpose? Some people know straight out of the womb what their purpose is. If you are like me, it is a continuous journey. Either way, these themes are a good place to start to allow for personal discovery, agreement and even challenges to your individual sense of purpose. I encourage you to look at each key theme and write down and share how you relate or don’t relate to the theme. What does this mean for your purpose? Your leadership? Your relationships? Why? By doing so, we are confident you will be more aware and clear on what your individual purpose is and from where it stems.