Most of what we understand about purpose at work comes from Hollywood. Stories are a powerful way to learn, but most of the stories we see on a screen give us a romanticized view of the role of purpose in our work. They build myths about purpose that actually make it harder for us to focus on what matters. But perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of these myths is that they imply that purpose is not something for everyone, which – based on my experience working with thousands of professionals, as well as emerging research on the topic – couldn’t be further from the truth.
Myth 1: Purpose = cause
In working with thousands of professionals seeking purpose, the greatest barrier has been the ubiquitous belief that they have to find their cause. When business professionals leave Taproot’s pro bono consultant orientations, they are usually fired up and want to get on a project immediately. They can’t wait.
That being said, on one of our earliest projects, we were having a difficult time getting any of our largely gen-x, pro bono marketing consultants to join a team. The project was branding and naming work for a critical organization serving low-income seniors in one of San Francisco’s most challenged neighborhoods, the Tenderloin. When I pitched the project to our pro bono consultants, they begged for a different project.
“I totally get that seniors are important, but I am 32, and it really isn’t an issue that gets me excited,” they said. “Do you have anything focused on kids or the environment? I am really passionate about helping kids and the environment. That is our future.” We shared with them the dire needs of the organization, and asked them to be open-minded and give it a try. If, at the end, they were unsatisfied, we would give them first dibs on the next round of projects. They reluctantly agreed.
Nine months later, I received a surprising email. The leader of the pro bono consulting team was urging me to attend a session at City Hall to protect funding for seniors in San Francisco. It turned out they had not only done a world-class job with the organization’s brand, but they had become an ongoing marketing committee for the organization, and several of them had become donors.
So many of us who are looking for a cause think we have to find our one true calling. We want to know that our mission is to help save one-legged kittens or find a cure for cancer. Hollywood stars helped popularize this notion with their high-profile focuses on particular issues, such as George Clooney (Darfur), Brad Pitt (New Orleans), Angelina Jolie (refugees) and Matt Damon (water).
I am also guilty of feeding into this way of thinking. When you are seeking resources or attention, being able to point to your success as part of your destiny works incredibly well. People want to hear that you knew you were going to be a doctor/basketball player/president/entrepreneur the minute you took your first step, still wearing diapers. Once you’re successful, you’re expected to tell a version of your biography that supports this mythology.
Destiny makes for a powerful story, but this concept is not only misleading, it also does the next generation a great disservice, as it sets unrealistic and unhealthy expectations. Nearly all the early-career professionals who seek an informational interview with me lament that they haven’t found their cause yet. And while there are certainly people who are driven in this singular manner about a cause, it is almost always the result of a personal tragedy or an experience that inspired them to act. Maybe they were touched by the death of their mother from cancer, or their child died from gun violence. Still, this holds true only for a very small percentage of people, and it is by no means the only way to find purpose.
For the rest of us, seeking our purpose is about finding a direction, not a destination. Purpose is a verb, not a noun. We may never find one true calling, but we can understand the color of our purpose, which can help us have much more meaningful careers and lives.
Myth 2: Purpose = luxury
Why do the poorest Americans donate 3.2% of their income to charity, compared to the wealthiest, who donate only 1.3%? Why do people living in wealthier neighborhoods appear to be less generous?
Why also are those with the least money, education and prestigious jobs more likely than their wealthy counterparts to say that they would keep their job even if they suddenly were financially set for life? Why would a janitor continue to work if he won the lottery and an investment banker take an early retirement?
If you talk to people in less prestigious jobs and in poorer communities, they aren’t surprised by these facts. They see it every day and experience it firsthand. As a reverend in south central Los Angeles told me, “Being poor isn’t so bad; it’s just inconvenient.” Purpose isn’t a luxury only for those with money and security. Purpose is a universal need, and even those in challenging situations still make it a priority.
Arguably, the most famous advocate for purpose in history is Viktor Frankl, who wrote about the importance and presence of purpose in Nazi concentration camps, where he lived during the Holocaust. He found that purpose was key to his survival. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Frankl famously wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.
It turns out that in many ways, the prioritization of purpose is inversely correlated with wealth. Money often conflicts with finding purpose, as it creates a false substitute for defining success.
Myth 3: Purpose = revelation
Connected to the myth that purpose is about a cause is the myth that we discover our purpose in one fell swoop. We’re just walking along, minding our own business, when – bam! – our life’s calling is transmitted to us like a bolt of lightning from above.
True, this is usually how superheroes find their purpose. Batman saw his parents murdered, and it became his purpose to fight crime in Gotham City. Superman discovered that his people were wiped out because of civil war and found his purpose in fostering peace and civility. But the reality is that this is not how it usually happens for us mere mortals.
“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us,” Marcel Proust famously observed. When I shared this insight with a group of international graduate students at Oxford, they suddenly became visibly disturbed. Noticing the change in mood in the room, I asked them what had happened. After an awkward pause, one woman raised her hand and answered that she had come to graduate school looking for a revelation. She didn’t know what she wanted to do in her career but figured that she would leave with clarity about her purpose.
Slowly, everyone started nodding their heads. They had had the same realization – that one of their main reasons to attend graduate school (and go into debt) was to have a revelation.
Most of us will work for 45 to 50 years. Think about that for a second. That’s the same amount of time it would take to attend college 12 times. And it’s increasingly true that during that time, we will hold many different jobs, and for more and more of us, those will be in a range of fields. We have so many opportunities to find the work that best suits our perspective on the world and the way we most enjoy contributing.
Myth 4: Purpose = only some work
Administrative assistants spend their days supporting executives and have little autonomy or control over their workflow. Much of their work is repetitive and stressful, but it pays the bills and enables them to have the income they need to support the rest of their lives. It’s just a job – a 9-to-5, right?
Well, yes and no. It turns out that this is true, but only for about a third of administrative assistants, and perhaps more surprisingly, it’s also true for about a third of every occupation. What we do is not nearly as important as how we do it and what attitude we bring to the work. As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” What we get from work has more to do with us than the work itself.
Work plays very different roles in people’s lives. For some people, a job is simply a job. For them, work is a paycheck, and they don’t seek anything else from it. It enables them to have the money to enjoy their lives outside their job – they aren’t looking to derive meaning from their work. Those with careers care more deeply about their work as a way to get ahead within their profession or function. It brings social status and power, which boosts their self-esteem. Finally, those with callings fully integrate their work into their lives and values. They see work as integral to who they are and part of their lives.
Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues found that across occupations, there were fairly even divides between people who saw their work as a job, career or calling. It reinforced previous research that demonstrated that the ways individuals view work may be more tied to their psychological traits than to the work itself.
Another study by Wrzesniewski showed correlations between experiencing work as a calling and overall well-being and health. This implies something very important: It is in your best interest to see work as a calling, and as a society, we need to shift more toward calling-based work.
Myth 5: Purpose = easy
Running a marathon hurts. There are the blisters, the chafing, the body aches. And yet, completing a marathon is something that many report as being incredibly meaningful. It pushes runners to their limits, both physically and emotionally.
Professional athletes make it look so easy. When we watch them, they appear natural and effortless. In reality, athletes work incredibly hard and endure tremendous pain to be successful. As fans, we rarely witness the injuries or watch the thousands of hours of monotonous practice. Winning the race or game is amazing, but their satisfaction stems from their deep investment.
With athletes, the relationship between pain and gain is clearest, but the same holds true of doing any work where we are experiencing high levels of purpose. Even when doing work that is making a big impact, if there is no skin in the game, the depth of purpose is diminished. Viktor Frankl also said, “Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
As Jennifer Benz put it, “Purpose doesn’t free you from working hard and being challenged – it will actually inspire and drive you to put yourself further out of your comfort zone. The falls will be harder, but the wins will feel so much better.”
The truth about purpose
Purpose is for everyone, regardless of our profession or socioeconomic status. It is not about a cause or something that we discover by revelation. It is a challenging and rewarding journey.
Aaron Hurst is the foremost expert on the science of purpose at work. In 2014, he brought global awareness to the rise of the fourth economic era in history, the purpose economy. He is the author of The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World and the co-founder and CEO of Imperative, the technology platform for leaders in the new economy. Previously, as the founder of the Taproot Foundation, Hurst catalyzed the $15 billion pro bono service market. For more information, visit imperative.com