Our world hungers for purpose. People constantly seek greater meaning in their lives and careers. Many are living longer, feeling fit, healthy and energetic into their mature years, eager to take on new challenges and give something back. Yet, we’re immersed in important problems, needs and unfulfilled human wants. So, how do we discover purpose? How do we go about transforming our life and career to that end?
Opening Up to New Challenges
Taking the first steps is critical. When we choose to seek purpose and meaning, it is an act of will. David Jones is a great example of this. While serving as Global CEO of Havas, one of the world’s top advertising agencies, he opened a fresh chapter with renewed purpose. David co-founded One Young World, now the preeminent global organization dedicated to developing young leaders. As he puts it, “If you can’t find a purpose you’re passionate about in your career, then you can set out to change the company. And if that doesn’t work, then change companies.” We do so by asking questions, challenging assumptions, taking the time to pause, stepping into a new space. And building on prior experience and insight. But seeking a greater purpose does not mean you currently lack one. The challenge is to go above and beyond, finding even deeper meaning and purpose.
To live and work with purpose, we must look beyond what is obvious and easy, and step out of our comfort zone.
Psychological research shows us that purpose thrives on having stretch goals and overcoming obstacles, both in the world and within ourselves. Having to struggle heightens our sense of engagement and value. In contrast, when things are too easy we are less engaged. Action becomes routine, not energizing. To live and work with purpose, we must look beyond what is obvious and easy, and step out of our comfort zone. This is exactly what we should be doing. Meeting social needs and solving important problems requires discovery and active engagement with reality. Many solutions are neither obvious nor easy—it often takes time and effort to find purpose in the world.
Indeed, the journey is purposeful in itself, a way of being and becoming, day by day. Purpose is not just about the goals we set, or whether we reach them. The truth is, we find purpose in the very act of striving. Purpose is not a destination—we discover it every day. My own research on entrepreneurs demonstrates this: Many derive a sense of personal fulfillment from how they live and work, not the specific goals they achieve. In fact, this partly explains why entrepreneurs often absorb and grow through apparent failure.
A Collaborative Journey
The journey of purpose can be deeply personal, but so is community, collaboration and teamwork. In fact, when purpose is embedded in the social world, it takes on additional meaning. We don’t strive and stretch alone, but for and with others. Most people know this already. Our families and close communities are journeys of shared purpose and meaning. We are now invited to imagine this on a larger scale. In our teams, companies, institutions, our one world. And as David Jones asserts, you don’t need to choose between making money and doing good. Individuals and companies can do both; his purpose is to prove it.
So, where to begin? First, venture into the world to actively seek new horizons and welcome challenges. Second, develop the capacity for creative striving, finding satisfaction in overcoming, regardless of outcomes. Third, explore and experiment, to find the path and identity that are most meaningful to you and your community. And fourth, connect and empathize with fellow travelers, those who share the passion for purpose. Once again, David Jones provides an example. He was greatly supported by his mentor, the late Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations. David quotes Annan, who said: “You are never too young to lead, and never too old to learn.” Working together on global climate change, he learned so much about experience, purpose and meaning. We do not travel this path alone.
When purpose is embedded in the social world, it takes on additional meaning. We don’t strive and stretch alone, but for and with others.
Past, Present and Into the Future
In the past, purpose could be inherited, adopted from social custom or culture. Purpose was bestowed by faith, family or function. Granted, these remain deep sources of meaning for many. But for others, they are not enough. In today’s complex, ever-changing world, purpose is to be discovered and nurtured. As David Jones challenges himself and his children to do, we must live life by the following motto: “Did I live, did I love, did I matter?” In fact, he discovered that doing what you love with purpose doesn’t feel like work. It feels like being truly alive.
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