Mountain-biking and the purpose of ‘Purpose’

I was recently asked to deliver a talk on the subject of “Purpose” – what it is and how to coach for it.  When researching I was pondering how to address such a meaty, meaningful topic without being overly earnest or positioning myself as a modern-day guru!

As I reflected, I was reminded of an experience I had 15 years ago.  My husband and I were living in London at the time and had invested in shiny new mountain bikes.  I regularly cycled to work, but the thought of throwing myself down a woodland hill in the pursuit of leisure, was pushing me well out of my comfort zone.  So I booked us onto a mountain-biking course and we headed out into the Buckinghamshire countryside with a couple of friends to learn some new skills.

I started timidly, making slow progress through the forest – there were so many things I could ride into, and many I did.  (This was in stark contrast to my fearless other half who sped off in the distance.)

We regrouped with the coach and he took us through some basic skills.  There were two particular messages he imparted which have stayed with me from that day:

·      “You look at a tree, you hit the tree!” and
·      “You look at the root you hit the root, and fall off” (a particular hazard if your feet are clicked into the pedals!)

Instead, the instructor taught me to look up and ahead, through the trees, picking out the path.  He explained, as you ride along the path, towards your destination, you ride quickly and smoothly over the individual bumps.

This was a revelation for me – firstly, I had far fewer crashes, and caused less damage to the flora and fauna, but also, instead of stressing about every single little obstacle, I learnt to relax and ride over them, and travel fluidly towards my destination.

That experience, amongst the trees, became a powerful metaphor for me, for the purpose of ‘Purpose’; a guiding compass that supports us staying on track when distracted or blindsided. 

A metaphor may be one thing but it is rare to openly discuss ‘purpose’, let alone consider what it could be.

So let’s start with how it is defined; the dictionary suggests “why you do something” or “determination or a feeling for having a reason for what you do”.

In my experience with clients it is about having a set of guiding principles or a direction.  This is different to setting short-term goals (although very valuable), and equally it’s not about setting the GPS and heading off rigidly regardless of what’s happening on the roads around you.

Instead, it’s about considering what our values are, when we are in ‘flow’ (see the work of positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for more on this), when we are energised, discovering our strengths and our hopes and finding a sweet spot.

In a business setting you generally have a high level plan, a mission perhaps.  And yet, we don’t tend to do this for our personal lives.  In fact most of us manage quite fine/bumble along without explicitly exploring our purpose.  However evidence suggests having a thought out purpose brings significant life and health benefits.

In his research of long life and health Dan Buettner studied regions with a significantly high concentration of centenarians – looking for any common elements amongst those populations that we could learn from.  In his fascinating research he details the commonalities of these ‘Blue Zones’ that include diet, natural movement, connection and having the right outlook. 

His study took him to a group of Japanese islands called Okinawa where there is the oldest living female population and the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world.  In this society, where there is no word for retirement, he found people lived by their guiding principles of ikigai.   Ikigai is roughly translated as:

“The reason for which you wake up in the morning” or “the reason for being”.

He gave examples of some of the ikigai of his interviewees such as fishing daily or spending time with Great-Great-Great-Grandchildren (they are old!)  You’ll note that these are not necessarily about saving the world, although don’t let that stop you.  These are simpler but nevertheless life-affirming principles.


Dan Pink explores Purpose in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.  He attributes motivation or drive to three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.  He comments:

“Autonomous people working towards mastery perform at very high levels.  But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more.”

If you have purpose you are more likely to believe you have power and responsibility to chose between options and make decisions.  The opposite – powerlessness – is a source of frustration and stress.  Indeed, having a purpose is a key lever to pull when building up resilience.

So how do you define your own purpose? There are many exercises you can use to start you on your journey of reflection.  Here is a sample below.

1.    The caterpillar question’ 

In Alice in Wonderland the caterpillar asks Alice “who are you?” Can you distil the essence of ‘you’ into one sentence?  Start by considering the following question, “Based on all the actions and behaviours of your life so far, how would you objectively define yourself?”  This may take several iterations to build one sentence.  Once you have your current definition, reflect on whether this is the message you want as your defining motivating statement?  It may be.  If not, can you redesign it to be more inspirational and motivating for you? 

2.    Be, Do, Have’

This long-standing tool turns on its head the default behaviour of ‘doing’ in order ‘to have’ and therefore ‘to be’.  By starting the process of looking at who or what we want to ‘be’ we are taking a more conscious choice on what we ‘do’, and therefore we are more likely to create or ‘have’ outcomes that are congruent with our values.  So, put simply, ask yourself, ‘Who am I and what is important to me?’ ‘What do I need to do?  What actions do I need to take?’ and ‘What do I want to have, what outcomes’?

3.    ‘Ikigai’'

Populate your own ikigai, using the venn diagram above.

About ten years ago I wrote my own purpose as I made the career move from finance to HR.  Out of curiosity I dug it out.  I wrote of learning, uncovering self-insight and releasing potential in others; I found it quietly reassuring I am still on this path, and get much joy from doing so.

And as for my mountain biking, well, no one would describe me as a fearless speed demon, but I can cruise through woods at my own pace.  Or maybe I’ll join the masses, hit the tarmac and get a road-bike!