What’s the purpose of a salesperson? To sell widgets? To sell them above a magic number?

Years ago I attended a luncheon and remember a speaker who had a dramatic impact on my life. This man among other things had worked with drug and alcoholic dependent young people in Chattanooga, TN. When he worked with these teenagers, he would ask them a series of questions. As best I can remember, here is what he told them.

Standing in a classroom, he picked up a familiar object and asked, “What is the purpose of this wastepaper basket?” “To put trash in!” a young man exclaimed with some degree of arrogance. “No, he replied with an even tone and a smile, “That might be its function – to have trash put in it, but that’s not its purpose.  What’s its purpose?”

After a few tries, one of the kids offered, “To keep the room clean?”  “Yes,” he said, “But to keep the room clean for whom?” A young man in the front row raised his hand and said, “The people?”  “Yes,” the speaker replied, “The people – the wastepaper basket keeps the room clean for the people. That’s its purpose.”

He then hugged the newspaper basket and asked, “Now, doesn’t that make the wastepaper basket feel better knowing its purpose is to keep the room clean for the people and it’s not just to sit there and have trash put in it?”

The man turned and pointed behind him, “What’s the purpose of this blackboard?” Someone called out, “To write on.” The man smiled and said, “No, that might be its function – to be written on, but that’s not its purpose. What’s its purpose?”  A girl in the back of the room raised her hand slowly and said, “To help people learn.”  Yes, he replied with a smile as he tried to hug the board, “Now, doesn’t that make the blackboard feel better? It’s purpose is to help people learn not just to be written on.”

He paused. He took a step toward everyone. In a very quiet room, he asked, “What your purpose?” After a slight pause, he asked, “Is it to have trash put in you?  Is it to be written on?”  Again he repeated, “What’s your purpose?”


People sat around me that day at lunch – people who worked as bankers, attorneys, salespeople, business owners and in various other roles.  I recognized that the best of them, the ones making a difference for their customers and clients, knew who they were, what they were about, and how they helped people. Their values and beliefs were a reflection of the purpose they lived out in their lives.  Attitudes and behaviors followed and over time created reputations of service and excellence.

For example, a financial consultant works to protect and grow the fiscal health of a family or a business so they can have a stable and planned out future during retirement or expansion. That’s his purpose. He is more than someone who buys and sells stocks or does financial planning.

Attorneys work to make sure clients receive all the just benefits that proper legal representation provides under the law of the land. They provide people with a greater peace of mind and helpful advice during difficult circumstances. Their purpose is not a job duty or task like going to court or filing a suit.

There is a difference between function and purpose.  The first relates with what you do. The second represents what you strive to be and become and the reason behind what you do for people. One has to do with what – the other with why. One without the other leads to work without meaning. One with the other leads to a life of service and value to others.

But, what’s the point? Why does purpose matter?

John F. Kennedy believed that

“effort and courage were not enough without purpose and direction.”

A nation or people at work would not make a positive impact on the world without a clearly defined purpose. Effort and courage without purpose leaves meaning out of life and leads to selling products and services without purposeful value or a win-win reward for others.

Helen Keller said it another way.

“True happiness… is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

Worthy meant being a meaningful specific in the lives of others – providing a benefit or a solution or a service in pursuit of a noble aim.

You can also make yourself more purposeful and therefore more responsible and of greater value in other roles you have in life – father, wife, coach, etc. Just think through what you want people to experience as a result of your service toward them.

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