From Preference to Purpose: the Forcing Function of COVID-19
I am fortunate in this moment to be able to be in service to business and cultural leaders who are navigating the turbulence of these times. Over the past two weeks, 90% of my sessions have started with an almost identical context which I will aggregate here into one quote:
“I am looking for clarity. Everything we had planned to actualize in the remaining quarters doesn’t seem to be in the cards anymore given the cultural constrictions brought by COVID-19. I’m at a loss right now as to what to do both inside of me and outside of me that can result in positive impact in our business and in the world.”
This is an understandable challenge: We have our business or organization or simply our life itself. It has a mission and purpose. Based on that mission, we imagine what forms (products/services/actions) that mission can take to propel it in the world, we proclaim our preference and develop those particular forms, we build them, we then put them out in the world in the hopes they will move our businesses and organizations forward. Then from out of nowhere, something blasts on the scene and makes all those forms obsolete for the foreseeable future. Yet we still have a mission we need to actualize, people we need to pay, customers we need to support and service, a life we need to lead.
Through the inherited lens of needing to make our current preference and forms work somehow, this can only mean disaster. We are between a rock and a hard place in that the possibilities that we currently have in hand do not fit the nature of our new reality.
But we are also right on the fulcrum of potentially a big leap in our consciousness — toward what might be one of the most powerful inner-hacks we can learn, not just for business, but for life. The conscious awareness and shift from a preference-orientation to a purpose-orientation.
Some context: Our ego becomes fully attached to preference and its forms. To the ego, it’s not that they are a way, they are the way. It is that belief, as opposed to COVID-19 itself, that is actually causing the dread, anxiety, upset, and anger with the situation. It isn’t the circumstances, it’s our desperate attachment to our preferences of form which no longer work in those circumstances.
There is a way out.
As illustration, what follows is a conversation, greatly truncated for use here, had with a client who is a co-founder of a culturally iconic organization (his name changed for privacy):
K: “What’s your intention in this session today, Jason?”
J: “I’m looking for some clarity and peace. I’m experiencing a lot of stress and uncertainty right now. We had a number of major events planned with large numbers of people coming together over the next couple of quarters, that now simply can’t happen. This has implications not just for this year, but for big things that need funding and momentum in the next year. I’d love to somehow see some daylight here and with it some way forward.”
K: “Can you tell me more about what those events were meant to serve?”
J: “Well, being able to support all the people out there who need our help, and the overall engagement and adoption goals we set for the year that in turn enable sponsorships and funding for us keep things moving and growing.”
K: “I hear that, and I know these things are very important, but what if you went even deeper, Jason? What if you went to the very core of why your organization exists in the first place? Even before things like engagement and adoption goals, even before the current forms you use to support and help people — what is the purpose that brings you alive underneath all that — what is your foundational mission in the world?”
J: “I guess at the very, very core, we’re about showing how creating human connection and bridging divides through service can alchemize any negative in culture into something positive and be of benefit to people.”
K: “Can COVID-19 stop you from doing that?”
Here was a beautiful pause where new thought began to emerge inside of Jason. His eyes looked off into the distance as if beginning to see that daylight he was looking for in new possibility.
J: “Actually, no. It can’t. It can certainly stop the current ways we were applying to do that, but it would be impossible for COVID-19…actually, impossible for anything, except my death perhaps, to get between me and our purpose and mission in the world.”
Here was the fulcrum where Jason went from preference-orientation to purpose-orientation, and with that, a whole new field of possibility.
K: “Well, if that’s true, then…”
Jason was way ahead of me and finished my sentence.
J: “If that’s true then it’s not about how we deal and cope with blockage and failure, it’s about letting go of attachment to how we thought this was going to work [preference], re-center on our mission [purpose], and allow new ideas and actions to emerge that still fulfill…actually, for all I know, may even more greatly fulfill our mission.”
Before I could interject to acknowledge him for the leap he just made, Jason being a ten-ideas-a-second kind of guy, was off on a roll. Suddenly a wellspring of new possibility came through him — and not just new forms to replace the old ones, but even looking at the old ones differently — seeing new framings and timings for them that might even be better for sponsorships, funding, etc. In leaving an attachment to a preference of how things should go, his full power of creation and his openness to be able to see other, perhaps even stronger, solutions and possibilities, was allowed to come out and play. He clearly could not wait to get off the video-conference and huddle with his team and get going.
The epiphany and shift that transpired in the session is not unique to Jason nor his situation. Its truth and application is universal. Whenever we venture forth into creation, whether in business or life in general, the ego fairly quickly latches on to a certain form — what it’s to look like — just so it can feel safe and comfortable in the illusion that it knows what’s coming. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — eventually we do have to decide on a form and execute (while still being open to a pivot to something stronger) — the issue is about how we hold that preference until then. Do we hold it with a closed fist so that nothing new, not even more spectacular ideas, can be put in our hand, or do we hold it loosely with an open hand so that our preference can exist but not at the expense of providing space for new possibilities.
When we let go of attachment to preference and form, and focus on the original motivating purpose underneath them, our hand naturally opens to receive. Form is no longer the point. Serving our purpose to the fullest is. Our mind, creativity, wisdom, and universe respond in full to fill our hand with new possibilities.
When we move from Preference to Purpose, we move from a closed mindset from which no new possibility can emerge (“it must be my preference”), to an open and innovation-oriented mindset (“open to anything that serves the mission the most”) that was actually designed to generate possibility and newness.
COVID-19 is creating a global forcing function for us to adopt this awareness, turn it into a skill, and become much more powerful and prolific creators at a time when our planet needs us to be. In suddenly wiping so many of our intended plans, actions, initiatives, modalities, etc., right off the table for even what is hopefully a short time, it’s forcing us, if we truly want to serve our purpose and mission, to go deeper to our original level of intention that even COVID-19 can’t stop, defer or detour. And that is where we really want to be creating from.
COVID-19 can teach us to recognize that many of our old paradigms, assumptions, modalities, and artifacts of creation may be attachments to antiquated forms and preferences that are holding us back and may have been sustaining the challenges we’ve been feeling in the world even before the pandemic. If we let go of our attachments to old preferences of form, and focus on our deeper underlying purpose, we may open our personal and collective hand for new possibility and replace those outdated preferences with new ideas that give us an experience on planet earth we never dreamt as possible.
This principle, Preference vs Purpose (you can go into more depth on how to work this principle in this book I co-authored with Licia Rester), was in essence taught to me by an inmate in a maximum security women’s prison. I volunteer in a program called “The Freedom to Choose Project” that goes into prisons and does two-day workshops helping inmates resolve underlying issues so that they don’t repeat patterns that keep bringing them back to prison. To create a bond of trust, the inmates facilitate the volunteers with our unresolved issues just as we do for them. Once, while working with a lifer inmate, whom I will call “AJ”, on challenges I was having with regards to my fear of uncertainty coming from my own unwillingness to let go of preferences for the future, AJ and I had this exchange:
AJ: “Kirk, is it ok if I go off the page [workshop exercise sheet] for a second and relay something that is coming through me as an affirmation for you?”
K: “Sure AJ, that is fine with me.”
AJ: “The divine unknowing gives the universe the space to create miracles for me beyond which I could have thought, planned, or dreamt.”
AJ flipped the world around on me in that moment: With a preference, the future, the unknown, and uncertainty, look dangerous because there is only one possible outcome that is acceptable. But what AJ relayed was that without a preference, the divine unknown, the quantum field of infinite possibility, could generate something to realize my purpose so much grander than any little preference my finite ego could concoct.
Suddenly, clutching desperately to my preference felt like too great a risk when something way more spectacular may be in store for me if I was simply willing to focus on my purpose and open my hands, heart and mind to new possibility.
That this game-changing insight happened for me in the cold concrete box of a maximum security women’s prison through a lifer inmate named AJ, is living proof of it’s own exquisite truth. The medium was the message.