Tension between Purpose and Safety

Now that I described the tension between agency and belonging, I’d like to look at how the tension between Purpose and Safety plays out.

Within the framing of the the Four Needs framework, there’s a story being told, and I find that looking at the story through the eyes of the character of the story is helpful to zero in on the definition of the needs.

The need for Safety is usually the easiest to spot. It’s the one that drives the character to seek stability and order, where it wants to make sure that things are “predictable”, “coherent”, “legible”, “stable”, “certain”, “well-defended”, “supportive”, “at home” and so on. It’s the need to self-protect, to endure, to continue being. It’s easy to spot because this need’s most powerful manifestation is the survival instinct, an embodied response to a threat of existence. Based on my understanding, this is the most basic and first-acquired way of making meaning about the surrounding environment: will I get hurt? People and organizations alike take steps to ensure that they can see another day, whether through thoughtful accounting, planning, following laws, diet, or hygiene.

When craving Safety, there’s a sense of wanting protection, having capacity to defend oneself, the desire to predict and react appropriately to any external circumstance. The aversion to Safety feels like judgements of inflexibility, decay, obsolescence, boredom, and resistance to change.

If the need for Safety aims to reduce the risk, the need for Purpose moves in the opposite direction. Through the lens of the Four Needs framework, it’s that sense of wanting to be more, to expand, to grow. Purpose is about wanting to matter.

When people talk about Purpose, they usually say words like “change”, “hope”, “revolution”, “achievement”, “delivering”, “growth”, “outreach”, “destiny”, “challenge”, and alike. Purpose sometimes feels aspirational, carrying the implicit hope of tapping into the character’s full potential. In such situations, high moral principles and ideals tend to be at the center of organizational discussions or individual reflections. The need for Purpose could also animate something entirely self-serving, as it sometimes happens with communities that merely want to expand and consume or destroy everything in their path, like malignant cancers. In itself, the Need for Purpose is neither positive nor negative. It’s just a fundamental need that lurks in questions like: “Why am I here?” or “Is this all there is?”

When craving Purpose, there’s a sense of dissatisfaction, impatience, restlessness, desire to do something, to change the circumstances. The aversion to Purpose feels like seeing something risky, unwise, not-well-thought-out, and just plain stupid.

In a weird way, both Safety and Purpose are trying to achieve the same thing: to continue character’s existence. The Need for Safety takes the approach of prolonging existence, and Need for Purpose wants to redefine what it means to exist. While Safety takes existence literally, Purpose seeks immortality. Be it the scores of thriving descendants, enduring memories or actual physical artifacts representing character’s glory, Purpose is about making a mark on the world that transcends physical existence.

This desire for leaving a mark comes at the expense of Safety, producing the tension. To change the world, our character must interact with the world, which means putting itself in situations where there’s risk, spurring the Need for Safety’s protests.

I found James Hollis’ formulation of the tension enlightening: “we need to remember that these twin agendas of progression versus regression war within us each day.” Here, James assigns a more optimistic, high-minded sense of “progression” to Purpose, and uses a somewhat negative word of “regression” to describe Safety. Notice also the hostile juxtaposition of the needs in their tension in the use of the “daily war” analogy.

Arthur Schopenhauer has a more dour take: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom,” situated in the perspective of begrudgingly seeing Purpose as the animating force.

Organizations experience Schopenhauer’s pendulum as they cycle through the innovator dilemma’s S-curves: Purpose-driven disruptive innovation gives way to protecting the user base animated by Safety.

As our characters persevere through their struggles, swinging back and forth between Safety and Purpose, I can’t help but observe that one output of these undulations is suffering. As one need is sated, the other is aggrieved, setting up the next round. The unending tug-of-war is certain and present in every moment of our collective being. What if this is also how we learn to transcend it? What if every battle in that daily war is a small step toward learning to see this tension as a polarity to be managed, rather than a battle? What if the other output of these undulations is development of the character’s sense-making capacity?

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