The first line on the career page of the world’s largest tobacco conglomerate reads: “Change the World #MakeHistory.” It couldn’t be more clear that job-seekers are being lied to…on purpose.
As our generation denounced, delegated, and postponed many of the traditional pillars of purpose such as religion, child-rearing, and elder-care, we found ourselves with a purpose vacuum.
Recognising this vacuum as an unmet need and thus an opportunity, HR teams at even the more nefarious organisations—missile manufacturers, oil producers, and slaughterhouses—all proffered the promise of filling it. With a 9-5.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this promise has not been upheld. We now see millions of workers—in almost every industry— bearing the consequences of an expectation-reality gap in their work. It’s now time that we reclaim ‘purpose’ from the confines of the Zoom room.
The Power of Purpose
Purpose is a natural, human need; we need it to survive—both as a species and as individuals. Research shows that a high sense of purpose can produce positive health outcomes from reduced cholesterol,1 lower cognitive impairments,2 reduced risk of alzheimer’s,3 and even lower levels of inflammatory response (a precursor to many diseases).4 Most impressively, a high sense of purpose is even shown to reduce risk of all-cause mortality.5
Purpose is powerful.
The Purpose Vacuum
The evolutionary basis of our innate, human desire for purpose dictates that for something to feel purposeful it must be in service of others and therefore the survival of our species as a whole. In essence, purpose is found in community—with other living beings.
Prior generations found purpose through child-rearing, religious affiliation, connection-with and caring-for our natural habitats, and intergenerational, care-giving relationships. Today, however, we are postponing having children by up to five years,6 denouncing religion,7 delegating caring for elders, and living in concrete-laden, mega-cities devoid of natural life.
As shopping malls were built over places of worship, town squares, and public wilderness – consumerism replaced the traditional pillars of purpose.
Advanced by our increasingly digital-only communication, the erosion of public life, community, and connection has left us with an urgent search for meaning. This has created a purpose vacuum – a 21st Century ennui. And there is no shortage of people telling us how to address it.
In his TEDx talk, How to know your life purpose in 5 minutes, Adam Leipzig notes that Amazon lists “151,928 books that refer to how you can learn your life purpose.” On Medium, the popular blogging platform, articles such as: “Your Life’s Purpose is More Obvious Than You Think,” “How To Find A Life Purpose That Will Put A Dent In The Universe”, and “How ‘One True Question’ Will Clarify Your Life’s Purpose” are three of hundreds of thousands on the subject.
With a quick Google search I find thousands of purpose coaches, purpose-identifying courses, purpose retreats, and purpose finding how-to guides all promising to not just help you find your purpose, but misguidedly profess that you must find your purpose within the context of a career path.
HR Takes on Purpose
Research shows that 9/10 people will happily accept a pay cut if they believe that their job fulfils a greater purpose.8 Owing to this finding, HR departments began advertising jobs as opportunities for purpose-fulfilment.
Spend a few minutes on a company’s career pages and you might think you’ve accidentally landed on a series of zealots’ websites; each promising their own flavour of purpose. Now you can choose from belonging (Airbnb), freedom (Uber), or community (Facebook).
Even organisations that you wouldn’t expect to be able to crowbar purpose into their employee marketing efforts manage to do so in service of their sales pitch for talent.
Shell tells candidates to “make the future by providing more and cleaner energy solutions”; Battelle, the missile manufacturing company, states that employees can fulfil their vision to “keep [their] country and those defending it safe”; and most brazenly, Tyson Foods, the food company with the most COVID-19 cases and deaths among workers has a whole page on their website about purpose; stating that they’re “raising the world’s expectations for how much good, food can do.”
We only need to look at the Glassdoor reviews or PR crises of these companies to see that their promises of purpose are empty.
This broken promise leaves us feeling disconnected, numb, miserable, stuck, and frustrated: 70% of Americans and 92% of Brits are disengaged at work.9,10 What’s more, 40% of workers believe that their jobs are not just purposeless, but actually “bullsh*t”; that they make absolutely no difference to the organisation or world at large.11
The Purpose Myth
The suggestion that we must fulfil our purpose through our paid jobs is to say that one’s individual purpose can be matched with a corporation’s purpose.
A corporation’s purpose is to increase its valuation. It is to make money. When a company claims a purpose it is a strategy to make money; not the other way around.
With this in mind—unless an individual believes that their core purpose is to make money—a company can never and will never be truly aligned with their purpose. It is almost offensive to suggest that it might be.
Someone erudite might argue that their purpose is to make money so that they can give it to those in need. Here is the clear distinction: with individuals, wealth might be a strategy by-which one achieves purpose. With corporations, purpose is a strategy by which owners achieve wealth.
But There is a Solution.
If we disentangle purpose-seeking from income-generating then we no longer need to make excuses or cast blame. If we take this approach, purpose is the cherry on the cake — not a disappointing cake in and of itself where the cherry is health insurance, a lousy 401(k) match, and the clock striking 5pm on a Friday.
When we let go of the limiting myth that you might—and indeed, should,—find your life’s purpose between the hours of 9-5, in cubicles, and on zoom calls we are able to open our hearts and minds to where purpose really lives: in activities that result in profound emotions, in human connections based on shared experience and mutual respect, in projects that illicit thank yous that come with an instinctual hand to one’s heart.
The answer to finding purpose in your life doesn’t exist on LinkedIn or a conference call with a career coach. It’s within you. The challenge is that we’re distracted. Purpose® is shiny where purpose-within hurts, is dull, and asks more questions than it answers—to begin with.
The beauty of true purpose is that you can act on it without permission, without ten interviews, or a post-graduate degree. Purpose is the qualification and so, whenever you are ready you can translate the tears, anger, and love into action. And maybe even reduce your cholesterol by doing so.
Buy #1 Bestseller, ‘The Purpose Myth: Change the world, not your job’ by Charlotte Cramer, here.
1 Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., & Love, G. D. (2004). Positive health: Connecting well-being with biology. Philosophical Transactions-Royal Society of London Series B Biological Sciences, 1383-1394.
2 Boyle, P. A., Buchman, A. S., Wilson, R. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2010). Purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of incident disability among community-dwelling older persons. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 18, 1093-1102.
3 Boyle, P. A., Buchman, A. S., Wilson, R. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2010). Purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of incident disability among community-dwelling older persons. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 18, 1093-1102.
4 Ryff, C. D., Singer, B. H., & Love, G. D. (2004). Positive health: Connecting well-being with biology. Philosophical Transactions-Royal Society of London Series B Biological Sciences, 1383-1394.
5 Boyle, P. A., Barnes, L. L., Buchman, A. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2009). Purpose in life is associated with mortality among community-dwelling older persons. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71, 574-579.
6 The Age That Women Have Babies: How a Gap Divides America.(August 4, 2018). The New York Times. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/04/upshot/up-birth-agegap.html?mtrref=www.google.com&assetType=PAYWALL&mtrref=www.nytimes.com&assetType=PAYWALL&mtrref=www.nytimes.com&gwh=C9C638248D3E8ADD929E448DC862D825&gwt=pay&assetType=REGIWALL [Accessed September 28, 2020].
7 Phillips, D., Curtice, J., Phillips, M. and Perry, J. (n.d.). (2018) British Social Attitudes. The National Centre for for Social Research. [online] Available at: https://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/39284/bsa35_fullreport. pdf. [Accessed October 7, 2020].
8 Harvard Business Review. (2018). 9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do More-Meaningful Work. [online] Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/11/9-out-of-10-people-are-willing-to-earn-less-money-to-do-more-meaningful-work [Accessed 13 Jan. 2021].
9 Harter, J. (2018). Employee Engagement on the Rise in the U.S. [online] Gallup.com. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/employee-engagement-rise.aspx#:~:text=The%20percentage%20of%20actively%20disengaged,the%2018%20years%20of%20tracking [Accessed 13 Jan. 2021].
10 Crabtree, S. (2017). Weak Workplace Cultures Help Explain UK’s Productivity Woes. [online] Gallup.com. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/219947/weak-workplace-cultures-help-explain-productivity-woes.aspx [Accessed 13 Jan. 2021].
11 Graeber, D. (2018) Bullshit Jobs; a theory. New York: Simon and Schuster.