Purpose is not improv. You have to say “no.”
By Peter Schulte profile image Peter Schulte
5 min read

Purpose is not improv. You have to say “no.”

If you lack purpose, don't go searching for it. Simply start removing all the non-essentials cluttering up your life until whatever is most essential reveals itself.

In improv, the central guiding principle is: “Yes, and…” No matter what your fellow performers do, even if they offer something from left field or something that you can’t see any way to make funny or compelling, your vow is to accept and embrace it. You say “yes” to whatever is offered, and then build on it.

Many have expounded on the deep wisdom of this practice – not just in improv, but in organizations, creative collaborations, and life in general. In these life situations, “yes, and…” becomes about embracing the wisdom of whatever perspective is being shared. Rather than rejecting, critiquing, or dismissing an idea in some way, we receive it and go with it. Through this practice, we not only open ourselves up to more possible paths forward, we also foster collaboration, trust, and respect in our relationships. 

We have much to learn from this simple concept. 

And…

Purpose is not improv. In improv and in many aspects of our lives, we practice saying “yes.” But when cultivating purpose, the core guiding principle is: “No, period!” 

Today’s hectic world

The world today is chaotic and overwhelming. With our vast global networks, there is a near-limitless amount of news to absorb, skills to learn, urgent challenges to address, and opportunities to seize. It would be quite literally impossible to do it all. 

And yet, many of us still try. We exhaust and overwhelm ourselves trying to learn about every critical issue and seize every opportunity to do something meaningful. We take on new projects, roles, trainings, and more in an attempt to maximize our productivity and contribution.

This is largely a product of societal beliefs and norms. Modern Western society is obsessed with busy-ness, productivity, and achievement. So many of us wear our impossibly full calendars and closets full of hats like a badge of honor, perhaps even smugly looking down on those who don’t have the resolve and resilience to be constantly stressed out and pulled in a hundred different directions at once. Deep down, we believe that if we aren’t totally overwhelmed and overextended we aren’t providing value. We aren’t worthy. We aren’t enough. 

This is total B.S.

It not only often makes our lives miserable, it undermines our contribution to change.

You’ve probably already found your purpose

People often talk about wanting to “find” their purpose. They want to find the missing key that can unlock greater meaning in their lives and careers as if it were lost out in the wilderness somewhere waiting to be stumbled upon.

But if you’re anything like me, the problem is not that you don’t have the right key per se. The problem is you have a drawer full of keys. Most of them are now completely useless. You got them decades ago and now you have no clue what lock they belong to. You hold on to them fearing that if you throw them away some door will forever be closed to you. But ultimately, the clutter actually makes life more difficult and confused. When you actually need it, the right key is lost in a sea of useless ones.

We tend to collect projects, roles, and responsibilities like we collect old keys. We hold onto them far longer than they actually serve us or the world. We bury the important ones in a sea of non-essential ones.

There’s a good chance you’ve already “found” your purpose and don’t even realize it. There’s something you are already doing in your life or already feel called to, but simply haven’t had the time, space, or energy to explore. You’ve collected so many other roles and responsibilities that you can’t fully say “yes” to what you feel most called to do. Your purpose is waiting right there for you, but you can't pick it out from the clutter.

If you lack purpose, don't go searching for it

There are two key confusions regarding purpose and social impact.

First, we believe that stress and overwhelm are evidence of meaningful contribution. Second, we believe that more projects and roles equals more impact.

I believe something quite close to the opposite is true.

First, stress ultimately undermines our ability to be present, think clearly, and do good work now and over the long term. We best contribute from a place of balance, peace, and well-being.

Second, our impact and fulfillment are directly proportional to the extent to which we focus on our highest purpose. More projects means more time tracking all our various commitments and relationships, switching between different energies and tasks, and generally adding more complexity to our lives. Most of the time, more projects and responsibilities simply distract and confuse us.

In short, by doing fewer things, we ultimately do more.

“No, period!” means saying no to a constant state of stress and overwhelm. It means saying no to new opportunities that you don't feel truly excited about. It means letting go of all the existing projects and roles that feel more like “shoulds” than true callings. It even means letting go of those true callings for which we only feel a moderate amount of resonance so that we can give ourselves more fully to those with the greatest resonance.

If you lack purpose, don't go searching for it. Simply start removing all the non-essentials cluttering up your life until whatever is most essential reveals itself.

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By Peter Schulte profile image Peter Schulte
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Purpose 101