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Culture dictates what is “normal” in terms of purpose

Honestly, it’s a bit ridiculous to separate out history, religion, economics, etc. from culture, as it incorporates all of these things and more! However, it is helpful to speak of the system of culture more broadly before exploring its tributaries.

Culture is nuanced and permeates all aspects of our lives.

Wikipedia sums culture up as that which “encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups.”

On this page we’re concerned with illuminating cultural narratives regarding purpose, specifically. As touched on earlier, cultural narratives are ideas regarding valuable ways of being and the nature of ‘how things work.’ When we can define our cultural narratives, we may be able to see which ones we’ve personally adopted de facto and examine whether or not we want to keep them.

Take this Cadillac commercial for example:

Aired during the American superbowl, it features a wealthy man espousing the virtue of working hard and being determined. It simultaneously disparages taking time off, resting, or having “simple” ambitions. This commercial encapsulates an American cultural narrative about the value of hardwork, something like: “Hard work is virtuous and rewarding, while not working all the time or pushing yourself makes you lazy and unambitious.” 

This cultural narrative (focusing on work, a component that impacts our understanding of purpose) often trickles down into a personal narrative that being productive and industrious is related to personal worth. While it may be motivational, it could also have the negative side effect of burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, and after the height of the 2020 pandemic rates of burnout in the workforce jumped alarmingly.4

*There are ways to re-form this narrative in a manner that could be uplifting and serving, by transforming it into a “possibility statement.” Click here to learn how this is done.

*Curious to learn about Busyness? Visit the Busyness section and explore your relationship with productivity.

Just as a cultural narrative about how we should work can become a personal narrative with various behavioral consequences, there are cultural narratives about purpose itself that impact us. That being said, the below summaries of purpose across cultures are essentially caricatures of general cultural ideas. Keep in mind that while these ideas may be general or primary threads in each culture, there is likely a great variety of diversity of beliefs and also sub-threads for individuals across the globe.

Purpose Across Cultures

Purpose is a collective pursuit, not an individual one. → Identity comes from relationships and belonging to groups or organizations. Loyalty and the preservation of harmony is essential to determining actions. When understanding one’s purpose, it is influenced by the value system of interdependence. You would not understand purpose as an individual pursuit, and the value of your purpose relates to its impact on your community, family, or organization.

Purpose can be divided into professional, moral, and social realms. → One is unlikely to see purpose as an overarching life aim, but rather as a series of smaller missions in particular realms of life.

South Africa
Purpose comes from taking care of family and others, and pursuing meaningful goals.→ This conception of purpose is a mix of interdependent and independent pursuits.

The Finnish believe purpose to be having meaning, knowing your life goals, and being hopeful of the future.→ The Finnish may not conceptualize purpose as necessarily having to do with impacting the world.

Purpose is an individual mission and involves a goal and direction in life. It is assumed that everyone has one. → The American conception of purpose can lead to people searching for their purpose, as they believe they have one unique to themselves but don’t often know what it is.

Purpose comes from respecting others and the natural environment. Being responsible for our actions. → Purpose is seen as a way of living life and not self-defined.

Which Countries Value the Same Things?

The above infographic from Visual Capitalist and created by Andrew Sundell showcases similar values across the world. Values are an essential element to purpose as they help define what is personally meaningful. The World Values Survey that this map was based on showed that family was the number one value across the world- the first value for 93/94 countries (except Indonesia where religion came first). Where you’re from clearly has an impact on what you care about!

Try This: Think About It

Contemplate the following questions on paper, in your head, or discuss amongst friends (or strangers!)

Briefly, for each, write one main thing that your culture tells you is true about the following things (no need to overthink, there isn’t a ‘right’ answer. This exercise is designed to help you deconstruct cultural beliefs):

  • Purpose
  • Work
  • Yourself
  • What is most meaningful
  • Where happiness comes from and what it is
  • What passion is and its role in your life
  • What is success and what is the point of money? How should you relate to them?
  • What is your personal duty in life?

ONE:  Next to each narrative, write a ✔ if you agree or an X if you do not.

TWO:  For each narrative, write down a behavior you engage in related to the narrative and how you feel about it. For example, if your culture tells you success is being highly acclaimed and you agree with that, write what kind of actions/choices you’ve made because of this belief, like seeking highly visible jobs with a lot of social responsibility. Or vice versa if you disagree and believe success is actually having a lot of free time, write about ways you try to maximize free time.

THREE: Then, beside each narrative write a + if you think the story is helpful and enhances your life (based on the choices you made and how they felt), or a if it does not (regardless of if you agree with it).

FOUR:   Finally, look over the list. Does anything stand out? Is there anything you would like to change? Write down one small change you could make (or more if you’re inspired!)


Your culture has a specific impact on what you value and your conception of purpose, therefore it affects your behavior and choices. Examining the cultural narratives you’ve absorbed regarding the nature of purpose and determining if they are ultimately serving you or limiting you can help you move forward on your journey.

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources