Purpose as a Compass

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

What is purpose? Why – particularly in business – does it matter?

In a recent podcast, Stanford Psychologist Lera Boroditsky spoke about the Kuuk Thaayorre language spoken in the Pormpuraawaboriginal community in Australia. The Kuuk Thaayorre language does not have relative spatial terms (e.g., “left”, “right”) only terms for “absolute cardinal directions” (e.g., “north”, “south”, etc.).

As an English speaker, I can use the terms “north” and “south”, but I most often orient around myself and use the terms “left” or “right”. When I turn around, “left” turns with me – my sense of space depends on where I stand. If you place me in a dark room and ask me to point “south” I’ll be lost – I’m almost completely unable to identify a direction independent of me.

But if you put a five year old child in Pormpurraw to point “east”  she can do so instantly. Whereas I orient myself around myself, the Pormpuraawans orient around those points of reference fixed by sun, space, and earth. Consequently, their sense of direction becomes second nature. To quote Professor Boroditsky:

To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, “Where are you going?”, and an appropriate response might be, “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?” If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello.

Everything in their lives is fixed by an understanding of its relationship to something else. Their artwork, their understanding of time, their place in the world. And that orientation means they’re constantly aware of their surroundings, their direction, their path.

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