The Critical Difference Between a Purpose and a Goal

In Brand Goals, Purpose, Mission & Values

What is the difference between a purpose and a goal? Aren’t they interchangeable? The words are often used interchangeably, but we believe there is an important distinction. One proven scientifically and demonstrated again and again in the companies and leaders we work with.

Let’s look to one scientific experiment for insight …

In episode three of the sixth season of Through The Wormhole (a documentary series that explores scientific theories), the producers introduce us to a psychological study that illustrates the difference between a goal and a purpose and each one’s impact on motivation. Professor and psychologist Anthony Burrow conducts a study of motivation. He and his researchers interview students as they approach, and finally crest, a 500-foot long sloping hill that leads to classrooms on Cornell University’s campus. First the professor asks students at the bottom of the hill to articulate the goal they want to accomplish that day (one student writes, “I want to get to the gym”). Then, at the top of the hill, he asks the students how difficult the climb was and to estimate the angle and steepness of the slope. Professor Burrow and his team report  “a strong and reliable relationship between the angle that they perceived after ascending the slope and the degree of effort that they said was necessary to get to the top.” Not surprising.

What is remarkable is the second set of students. Rather than asking these students before they climb the hill their goal for the day, the researchers ask them about their long-term purpose in life. In the end, these students do not differ from their fellow climbers in their perceptions of the slope of the climb, but they report very different feelings about how difficult it was. They didn’t mind the climb. Professor Burrows concludes that being purpose-minded “frees us from feeling the full weight of the obstacles in front of us, whether a literal hill we must climb or a personal challenge we must overcome … [purpose] reminds people that where they are right now is not forever.”

Knowing the difference between a goal and a purpose is the first step in leveraging this scientific insight for your business.

Your goal is the object of your effort, and the desired result of those efforts. It has a beginning and an end and is something you can envision being accomplished in a specific period of time to enable you to move on to the next goal. Goals can be short-term or long-term, and to be effective for your business they should all be SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound).

Your purpose is not a goal. A purpose is your “why” and reason for every effort, not simply one part of a larger set of interdependent steps in a series of goals. Purpose is the reason for setting and seeking to attain all of these goals. It is your enterprise’s reason for being. It provides a framework for how your team will approach things and should become a filter for your thinking and decision making. Purpose, while it may evolve over time, should not deviate from its essence.

As a purpose-driven company, your goals should line up behind your purpose. Every employee should be able to see how their individual goals support the team’s goals, which drive the company’s purpose. When they do, the benefits for the employee and the company are multi-fold: engagement, productivity, profitability, retention and dedication of discretionary effort, to name a few. And the climb becomes easier for everyone cresting the hill.

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Haley BW smallerHaley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.