Finding a Purpose in a Gimme Culture

I was sitting with my youngest son who was looking at a new Christmas catalog that we received in the mail. He loves all things Ninja Turtles so he was intently scanning the catalog in search of what else he could add to his collection. Eventually he found what he was looking for and pointed to everything on the page exclaiming, “I want that, and that…ooohh…and THAT!”

I, self-admittedly, love to give. I truly believe giving is a great thing, but I’ve also worked with hundreds of leaders who fall into the same pattern as me and my son. You work hard, make more money, and buy more stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with enjoying life and spending your money on the things you have earned. However, I do want to challenge our focus, especially as we’re in the throes of the holiday season.

The Diderot Effect

In the 1700s there was a famous French philosopher, art critic and writer named Denis Diderot. He lived his entire life in poverty until his life changed in 1765.

Diderot was in his early 50s and his daughter was about to be married. He couldn’t afford to provide a dowry for his daughter, even though he worked hard and was well-known because he was co-founder and writer of Encyclopédie, one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the time.

What happened next would have seemed like a tremendous blessing. Catherine the Great, the emperor of Russia, heard of Diderot’s predicament she wanted to help. “When the [Russian Empress] heard that Diderot was in need of money she arranged for the purchase of Diderot’s library and for the appointment of Diderot as the caretaker of this library till his death—at an annual retainer of one thousand livres. Moreover, she paid him 25 years of his salary in advance.” ( With money in hand, Diderot finally caught a break and suddenly he could supply his daughter’s dowry and more.

Shortly after, he decided to purchase something for himself. I mean who doesn’t want to reward themselves? And so he purchased a beautiful, scarlet robe. While this is a seemingly simple reward, things got worse for Diderot after this.

Have you ever purchased something that you absolutely love, and then you bring it home and everything that surrounds your new purchase suddenly seems out of place? This is then followed by a seemingly logical, but highly irrational desire to buy more stuff? This was the exact predicament that Diderot found himself in. Compared to his new robe, everything else seemed common, ragged and out of place. He consequently bought more stuff, and this process of making reactionary purchases is now known as the Diderot Effect.

The Diderot Effect basically states that obtaining a new possession often creates an effect of consumption, which leads to acquiring more new things. As a result, we end up buying things that we previously never felt we needed to feel fulfilled or happy. This quest for more often becomes an insatiable thirst that we can never satisfy.

“I was absolute master of my old dressing gown,” Diderot said, “but I have become a slave to my new one.”

Being, Doing and Having

What happens when we focus on having more? Does having truly satisfy? Based on experience and observing others, I would have to say no. I have met countless leaders who attained great wealth and had a lot of stuff, but who were disconnected relationally and generally unhappy in life. These leaders may have had a significant title, were well-compensated, and had the house, vacations and vehicles to boot, yet found they were lonely and unsatisfied. With the leaders we’ve worked with, we can turn this around. However, the focus is never on gaining more possessions.

What about when we’re focused on what we do? Now, this is interesting to think about for me. How do most conversations start when we first meet someone? Most of us talk about what we do. What we do is often a huge part of our identity. It defines so many of our roles and titles in life…mother, father, business owner, accountant, etc. We all can relate to talking about what we do. However, how much of what we do defines who we are? Isn’t there more to us than what we do?

Have you ever considered what your purpose is in life? What, at the inner most part of your being, were you created for? I would argue that most of us would have a hard time articulating our purpose and sense of being. I recently worked with a group of business leaders and CEOs who were grappling with this concept. What is my purpose? Why have I achieved so much, and yet I still feel a void in my life?

When we are able to articulate and define our purpose for being, it does amazing things. Everything flows from our purpose. When our purpose lines up with what we do, and what we have is an end result, we will inevitably find a greater sense of meaning in the things that we do every day. Understanding our purpose allows us to evaluate everything else in our life to truly look at how congruent we’re living our life. When you start with a deeper look at yourself, you can then take an inside-out approach to evaluate your priorities. Is my purpose in line with what I do? How do the things that I have flow out of my purpose? Do they?


My son and I had a great conversation (mind you, he’s 4 years old), about why he wants all of these things. His response humbled me. He wants the ‘stuff’ because he told me, “I want to play with you.” Wow. Check out this Ikea Christmas commercial to further reinforce this point:

It just so happens that my own purpose is to love and create change in people’s lives. I am focused on living out my purpose in the work that I do, but his simple statement caused me to reflect on how I was doing on living out my purpose with my own family and in the larger context of my life.

Questions to ask yourself in defining your purpose:

  • What am I truly passionate about? What fills me up?
  • What would the people closest to me say they see me getting the most joy and energy from?
  • Does what I do line up with who I am and what fires me up?

If you need help defining your purpose, Utech offers training through the Utech Leadership Collective, executive coaching and Leadership Breakthroughs. What better gift to give to yourself and those around you than for you to get focused on living consistently with who you were built to be?  Your leadership skills impact everyone around you.  Are you having the impact you desire?