Stop Searching for Purpose in Your Job. It’s Right in Front of You.
I recently visited Las Vegas with my son, who was playing in a sports tournament nearby. In between games, we took some time to visit the Hoover Dam. It was stunning. At over 720 ft high, 1200 ft long, and 660 ft thick at the base, its massive scale made my stomach queasy. Work began on the dam in 1931 and finished more than five years later. The project employed tens of thousands of workers, most of them transplants from far away. I found myself wondering if they felt a sense of purpose working on such a grand endeavor.
I’ve been curious for some time about the increasing volume of business writing that challenges readers to find a job or career with more than just a paycheck, but a higher purpose as well. [Read: Harvard Business Review, Apr 2019 “Why People – and Companies – Need Purpose”, or my personal favorite, Forbes, July 2019: “Rediscover Your Purpose in 15 days.”] At our firm’s offices at a WeWork facility in San Francisco, the coffee cups even say “Do What You Love” and “Thank God it’s Monday.” The message is everywhere, yet finding a sense of purpose at work is a struggle for many of us.
I think there are two problems. The first is the superhero-like imagery people tend to attach to the accomplishment of meaningful things in our society. Humans love the idea of the lone operator or small band, filled with great purpose, changing the world. Consider our common image of Einstein, working alone on relativity while shirking his purpose-less job as a patent clerk, or Bill Gates, dropping out of Harvard to found Microsoft with Paul Allen in his garage. With full respect to the courage and brilliance of these innovators, they were but sparks in a long, slow burn of progress that followed them.
The truth is that real progress is tedious and often difficult to observe in the here-and-now. The technological revolution that Gates helped catalyze is now the work of hundreds of thousands of individuals in countless organizations, making minute additions to the common knowledge over decades. Big changes in technology and infrastructure that seem magical and transformational in hindsight are most often the result of years of incremental progress and innovation made by regular people doing regular jobs in regular companies. Yet we are led to believe that if we are not curing cancer or inventing the iPhone our jobs don’t matter. It’s not true.
The second problem is a common misconception that companies should define purpose for their employees through their mission. Of course, every leader knows that people achieve more, both individually and collectively, when they believe they belong to something greater than themselves. But mission statements don’t create purpose for individuals. Hoover Dam workers moved material into the dam structure 24 hours a day for nearly two years straight. How boring it must have been to watch the concrete dry! Are we to believe that worker #1879 moved his family from Kentucky because of the miracle of hydroelectric power or the benefits of water conservation?
In my role as an executive search professional, I meet new people with considerable regularity. These interactions – collectively with thousands of individuals over the years – have helped me understand that, for most people, purpose is born and lives within a person’s everyday relationships with teammates, coworkers, and customers. It’s rarely about mission statements or achievement of grand outcomes.
Some of the people I meet find purpose in their work life easily. I have a name for these people – I call them ‘Givers.’ When you ask Givers about their jobs, they may briefly boast about their company’s mission to “help make cosmetic products safer” or “provide world-class healthcare for the elderly,” but when asked to elaborate, they consistently frame their experience in the context of other people: “our team”, “my co-workers”, or “our customers.” For Givers, it doesn’t matter if they are curing cancer or selling insurance. It’s their impact on people immediately in their sphere of influence that defines purpose for them.
I have a name for those on the other end of the spectrum too – I call them ‘Scorekeepers’. Scorekeepers perform careful, mental accounting of what they put out in the world and what they should receive in return – and it never adds up. Even when the basics of the job are positive (scope, title, pay, etc.), they seem discontented. (Everyone knows someone like this.) Scorekeepers always seem to struggle to find purpose in their work. When asked about their jobs, they report boredom and lack of ‘passion’, regardless of the company’s mission or impact.
What the Givers understand, and Scorekeepers fail to see, is that purpose is created – not provided – by the development and nurturing of relationships. Givers make their time, talents, ideas, and attention available to others, usually without any expectation of immediate or personal gain. What they receive in return is a sense of belonging – a belief that they matter to the people around them and that those people matter to them. They don’t give their best at work because they are building the Hoover Dam, even if they say they do. They do it because they want to feel connected and valuable to their immediate customers and coworkers, and in turn, to their family and friends at home. This is real purpose. It’s not sexy, but it adds up. When people with purpose come together, they accomplish great things.
So, let’s say you are a marketing manager at the country’s seventh largest insurance company. It’s a fine job – flexible hours, attractive pay – and you worked hard to qualify for it. But what’s your purpose? Why are you there? Should you reread your company’s mission statement for inspiration or meditate on the societal value of insurance? Well, that’s a tough slog. You could consider your career path and financial success, charting out the steps to your next promotion. Then what?
Take a lesson from the Givers. Don’t wait for others to define your purpose or attach it to temporary, material gains. Instead, invest in the quality of your interactions with others around you. What can you do to help your boss be successful today? Or that coworker across the hall – how can you help make her job easier? How can you go above and beyond for your customer? What can you do right now to make the new guy on the team feel like he belongs? While you’re busy, you might be amazed at how good you will feel about an insurance company and how that next promotion comes along without a sweat.
Inside each of us lives a Giver. Have faith that you have time and talents to give to your coworkers and customers, the courage to offer them, and the persistence to do it all the time, every day. Purpose awaits. It’s right there in front of you.