Economists tell us that people are self-interested. Our normal experience tends to confirm this. When we encounter a person of higher purpose, it tends to be an unconventional experience and it captures our attention. To illustrate this, consider an entry that I wrote in my gratitude journal.
A Woman of Higher Purpose: My daughter-in-law Lisa and my granddaughter Keely went to a mall. In the early evening we received a shocking text; “There are shooters in the mall, pray for us.” This led to several tense hours. Eventually they were able to safely exit the troubled situation.
At dinner the next day I asked them to tell us the entire story. Lisa shared the account of her and Keely and about 80 other panicked people locking themselves in a back room of a department store. The people pushed a table against the door and spent their time trying to understand what was going on and what to do if the shooters came to the room.
As Lisa told the story I felt upset not with just the specifics, but with the evil that seems to be growing in the world. Then Lisa added a side note.
Lisa said that as the women in the room made sense of what was happening and considered what to do, a person of her age engaged her. The woman said, “If they get in the room and start shooting, you stand in front of your daughter and I will stand in front of you.”
Lisa was shocked and asked why. The woman said, “You are her mother and you need to raise her, if I can help that happen I will.”
I stopped eating. This was so unexpected I asked for clarification. Lisa had little other information about the woman except to say, “You could tell she really had her life together.”
This woman was willing to lay down her life, not for her friends but for two strangers. Why, because she was orienting to a higher purpose. The woman was willing to die for posterity or the good of future generations. It was not even her direct posterity, but for the posterity of someone else. She wanted a little girl to be raised by her mother and if someone needed to die for it to happen, she was willing to be the one.
The next morning as I was writing this journal entry, an insight came. In her willingness to die for Lisa and Keely, the woman was willing to die for my posterity. Without knowing me, the woman was willing to die for my granddaughter.
I was not only grateful that Lisa and Keely were safe, I was also grateful for a stranger who was willing to die for me. Prior to our dinner conversation, I only knew of a story that I interpreted to be about the spreading evil in the world, after the dinner conversation, I knew a story I now interpreted to be about the profound good in the world. I am grateful to be reminded that evil and good exist simultaneously. I am grateful for a stranger, a woman of purpose who really has her life together.
What does it mean for a person to get their “life together.” It means we have organized ourselves so we function effectively. We organize and function most effectively when we have a higher purpose and consistently live from our values no matter the context or the cost.
A purpose is higher when it transcends immediate self-interest. A higher purpose is a contributive goal, or what social scientists call prosocial goals, meaning the focus is on contributing to the good of the whole. When we continually organize our life to our highest purposes, we become willing to sacrifice for them and everything comes together.
Science, for example, indicates that having prosocial goals leads to the development of the following personal characteristics: taking initiative, assisting others, persisting in meaningful tasks, openness to negative feedback, motivation of others, stimulation of new ideas and the inspiration of creative action (Grant and Berg, 2012:29).
The woman, who volunteered to die for Lisa, only interacted with her for a moment. Yet she demonstrated many of these characteristics. In doing so she was leading. People of higher purpose tend to become leaders because they have moral power and moral power draws people. When people of higher purpose lead they tend to create organizations of higher purpose. In this book we will learn of the many unusual, positive characteristics of such organizations.
Who at work most has their life together, why?
What is your highest purpose in life?
What is your highest purpose at work?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?