What's Your Purpose?
Answer Three Questions to Bring More Meaning to Your Work
“Purpose is about what you’re wired to do that makes your work meaningful. Different people are wired to find different types of work meaningful.”
So begins Aaron Hurst, the master of helping people—and organizations—discover purpose in their jobs. We recently met in Seattle to discuss his own work, our interview held on a park bench overlooking Lake Washington on an extraordinarily beautiful day that one appreciates more for being in the Pacific Northwest.
Purpose is not about happiness, Aaron advises early in our talk. “Happiness is weird, and people put a lot of definitions on it. I think about it as a parent. You’re not always happy as a parent. Sure, there are moments—your kid farts and makes you giggle, they score a goal in soccer, they cuddle with you on the couch while watching a movie. Most of the time though you’re not happy, but it’s fulfilling, right? Think of teaching your child how to ride a bike, all the struggles and crying and falls, but then it feels great when they finally glide down the street. The hard parts are what makes parenting fulfilling, that sense of doing something that matters, caring for and raising a child to navigate the world on their own. For parents, that’s the number one job we all have, and the question is how can you have a job that mirrors that level of fulfillment, and that is the goal of identifying your purpose.
Recently, I read some studies about what is called the hedonic baseline. The basic premise is that we naturally have a certain level of happiness, and everyone’s different. So, you have this baseline. As a Jew, one of the most significant accomplishments in life is getting an Op-ed in the New York Times. That’s a thing.” Aaron laughs. “Years ago, I had my first one published, and I was in Boston, and I drove around the city with my father-in-law handing out copies to friends. I was on cloud nine. A week later, I was like ‘whatever’ and I snapped back to my baseline. The same is true of tragedy. If you’re in prison, once you adjust to your new reality, you come back to your baseline. People who chase happiness are on a treadmill because you always snap back to this level. It’s like the old saying, ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’
Now, the only thing that studies show change your baseline is focusing a lot of your time on altruism and helping others. That creates a sustained increase. That shows you the power of purpose. If you feel like what you’re doing matters and that you’re adding value, then it’s a way to elevate your baseline.”
More important, Aaron makes clear that the world would be a better, more connected, and kinder place if everyone lived and embraced their specific purpose in life.
The obvious question I then ask: if purpose is individual to each of us, how do I know what mine is? That is when Aaron gets going…
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Aaron Hurst comes from a rather storied family of entrepreneurs and academics. His grandfather Joe Slater conceived the idea of the Peace Corps. His uncle Marc Porat coined the term “Information Economy.” Aaron followed early—and eagerly--in their footsteps.
While at the University of Michigan, he created a program to teach creative writing at local prisons. Upon graduation, he worked at a non-profit in Chicago focused on inner-city education. The work was important, and the level of need was tremendous, but he was frustrated by the inability of his organization to scale to meet that need. “The problems were too big for us to continue handing out checks for teachers to buy materials for their classroom,” Aaron recounts. “That wasn’t changing the issue, and I asked myself how can I actually make a difference that matters, how can we scale nonprofits to have a chance in hell of making a real impact?”
This was the late 1990s, and Aaron decided to join the dot.com boom in Silicon Valley to learn how to build a start-up, then bring those entrepreneurial skills and lessons to the non-profit sector. After five years at two fast-growing early-stage companies, he left his stock grants and soaring salary to do exactly that.
“I started going around talking to non-profit leaders, asking, ‘How can I help you? I know all this business stuff. I’m here to save you like Jesus,’” Aaron chuckles at the memory of his youthful self. “I thought I had so much to offer, but the reality was they didn’t want me…or have a job for me. Instead, they needed someone to help with their website or branding or with technology. That led to one of those chocolate and peanut butter moments where everything just comes together. One, nonprofits need all these services. Two, I knew all these people in business who wanted to get involved in the community but found volunteering to be a waste of time. And I thought, what if I could connect non-profits with what they need, not just raw manpower? It’s crazy to get a marketer who gets paid $200 an hour and you want them to do $8 work. It's not because they're better than that, but you’re economically depriving a non-profit of valuable skills.”
With this ‘Aha moment’, Aaron started the Taproot Foundation, an organization that pairs professionals with non-profits to do pro bono work. The effort was a huge success. They grew into seven cities, collaborated with the White House, and built a whole campaign around getting companies around the United States involved with the program.
A decade into Taproot, Aaron reevaluated again. “Am I moving the needle enough?” His answer was no. Then came another chocolate and peanut butter moment. While partnering with LinkedIn to recruit volunteers for Taproot, he was amazed at the flood of people wanting to help. There were more applicants than the non-profit sector could ever use. Clearly, something was “fundamentally broken with our economic model, and companies were failing to make their work meaningful to their employees.”
Aaron had a new mission: to bring fulfillment to people and the work they do. No small potatoes. In the process of understanding what that meant and how to impact such social change, Aaron interviewed scores of employees and thought-leaders; he wrote a book, “The Purpose Economy,” labeling what he believed to be the next era of economic history; and, he launched Imperative, a platform that uses AI and behavioral science to help employees “take ownership of their work, bring their values forward, and bring courage and intentionality to what they’re doing.” Put shortly, to help them find their purpose.
Over a decade later, he continues in that work, and if there’s a “Guru of Purpose,” there’s little doubt Aaron is on the shortlist.
The lesson begins in earnest…
“There are three questions that come together to define an individual’s purpose or mission: the who, the why, the how. Let’s start with:
Who do you want to impact?
Some people, the first group, gain the most meaning from their work if it directly impacts an individual and they can see that difference. Other people, the second group, like to make an impact on a team or organization level. It’s about building something sustained that they are a part of. The third group needs to feel like their impact is on broader society.
Think about it from a healthcare perspective. Some doctors and nurses see individual patients and get meaning from that direct connective. They get value out of it even if it’s hyper-repetitive in terms of what they do. Then you have those people who become hospital administrators. While some may skeptically think, ‘You want to get into medicine to push papers and deal with human resources?’ But to this second group, they think in terms of helping a hundred doctors or a hundred nurses, right? That kind of impact gets them excited. The third group looks at health care and thinks it needs to change on a societal level. Fixing the broken system gets their juices flowing. They want to reduce the cost of health care, address certain diseases, and educate more doctors and nurses.
So that’s the breakdown of the Who of your purpose. Now…
The best way of talking about this comes from a Jewish tradition of ‘repair the world,’ which is a core tenant of Judaism. So, how would you repair the world? People are generally on a continuum between two different ends on what is their role in this effort.
On one side, you have what we term karma. For every positive action, something good will happen in return. For every negative action, something bad. Nature self-heals and the role of people is not to interfere with natural forces. On a political level, you can think of this as a libertarian mindset. Disruption of the natural forces interferes with the flow, and the system doesn’t work anymore. If you’re on the karma end, you’re about challenging people, putting consequences in place, and allowing free markets to operate.
On the other end, you have entropy. Essentially, if the world is left alone, things turn to shit, and the role of people is to proactively, constantly, make sure that people are taken care of, and we change the environment to make things work for everybody. If you’re on the entropy end, it’s a socialist mindset, we’re all in this together.
Depending on what side of the continuum you favor defines your theory of how to repair the world—or in other words, why you do the work you do. Is it to fix things by bringing care and harmony to individuals and society? Or is it to promote competition and help ensure everyone is challenged to thrive and be their own vessel?
What’s interesting is that studies have shown that people’s positions on this entropy-karma continuum are evenly distributed throughout society. If everyone was karma, it’d be a disaster. Likewise with entropy. It’s almost like two wings on a bird and nature somehow is providing even distribution to keep everything in balance and on in flight.
In defining your purpose, the final question is How?
What we have found is that when you give someone a problem to solve, they go to their superpower to solve that problem. Generally, this breaks down into four buckets. Think of them in terms of how one would go about repairing the education system in the United States, which we can all agree sucks.
The first superpower camp I call Human. These are your problem-solvers as anthropologists. They want to understand the cultural context. What is the setting? For improving schools, they like to look at what are we feeding the kids at lunch, junk, or healthy food. Are we having these students sit still for eight hours of class? Are we waking them up too early? Are we teaching them out of books when we understand most people don’t learn best that way? They want to understand the human context of education.
The second camp is Structure. They say, look, go to any city—Philly, Seattle, New York, there’s at least one exceptional school, so it’s not that we don’t know how to educate, it’s that we haven’t examined the best practices and created the systems and structures to replicate across the country. It’s an engineering mindset.
Community is the third camp. In their view, what's important is that the parents and teachers take ownership of the success of that their children’s school. The key thing is to build an ecosystem of ownership around a school system that ensures that whatever the problem is, they'll flex and figure out how to address it. This bucket tends to go out and bring together the right stakeholders to figure out how to solve a problem and move forward to an answer. It’s a politician mindset.
The fourth camp is what we call Knowledge. This person says, okay, dummies, what would good education even look like? And no one knows the answer to the question. So, you're trying to fix something when we don't even know what success is. Do you need to know a foreign language when instant translation will soon be available? How much math does a person need to know when they have a computer in their hand? The knowledge person wants to study and know what the truth is before making any decisions or taking any action.
Once we know the who, why, and how of our purpose, individuals can develop a mission statement to follow. It’s not about the kind of work they should do—the statement should apply to you whatever the job: President of the United States, janitor, doctor, teacher. If you tie your mission to a single specific job, you’ve put yourself into a box that doesn’t allow you to see the abundance of opportunities in the world.
Now, one of the ways to craft this statement is to draw out the biggest peaks and valleys in your life. Purpose most often shows up as what’s pulling you out of a valley. So, if you think about those moments when stuff was bad, and you were able to turn it around, you’ll see a pattern typically emerge which will be at the core of defining what your purpose is.
Another powerful way is the “Five Whys”. Essentially, this is just asking yourself ‘why does your work matter’ until you plumb down to the core truth of your mission statement.”
At this point, I ask Aaron to turn his focus on homing in on my own ‘mission statement,’ a thought exercise I never had done. I was eager to see if it aligned with why I started Work/Craft/Life in the first place—beyond fame, glory, and untold riches, of course.
His statement, he admits, is rather poetic: “Awakening lions so they can care for their pride.” This aligns with his who: impacting society (with a minor in organizations). His why: challenging people on the karma side of the continuum so they can thrive on their own. And his how: empowering stakeholders in a community to solve a problem.
Developing my mission statement took some struggle, which was both surprising and uncomfortable. I’ve wanted to be a writer since high school and have always found it meaningful. That I was sure of, but the hard-wired answers to the questions of who, why, and how that made my writing purposeful was a mystery I’d never tried to solve.
Aaron started drilling me on why I created this newsletter. My first answer was, “I’m super curious about people’s daily lives—and work is a lot of that.”
Why? I squirmed. “Because I want to know why people get up in the morning and how they find happiness or value in what they do.”
Why? “Work has always been everything in my family, so understanding how we’re shaped by that.”
That’s kind of the same, Aaron remarks before hitting me with another why? “Because it matters what we do, why, otherwise we’re just robots, what’s the purpose in life if we’re just cogs in the wheel? That’s horrifying.
Aaron gives me a helping hand. “So, what I hear you saying is you’re trying to connect people to their humanity.” Then he prompts with another why and another. We finally bore down on the who (individuals); the why (to inspire and move people to improve their own lives); and the how (a mix of human and knowledge, understanding the anthropological context behind work and seeking answers on what defines success).
Happily, and with a little eureka-moment pride, it aligned with my one-liner for this newsletter. “Illuminating stories of people and the work they do…to inspire, move, inform, or just make you say wow.”
Curiously enough to me (but expected by Aaron), this statement of purpose aligns with my best moments as a parent, whether guiding my kids through middle-school friendship struggles (I had my fair share of stories to relate), daring them to attempt some new challenge during one of our long weekend hikes, or in the early days, reading them a book about ‘How to Make a Poopie in a Toilet’ so they could finally be free of diapers.
Moving forward with Work/Craft/Life, I suspect this refined clarity will not only make me a better interviewer but also shape the way I craft these stories.
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For the sake of switching things up, I will end with a series of illustrations from Aaron’s book The Purpose Economy. To dive deeper into all of this, it’s an incredible resource (as is his popular LinkedIn). These illustrations highlight one last key factor of purpose. IT IS A CHOICE. Anybody and everybody, no matter the work they do, can find their own and embrace it.
Once you have time to digest and think about all of this, I’d love to hear from some folks on what their mission statement looks like. I promise to dig in and ask a lot of whys!
See you next week, where I’ll explore the #HistoryCraft life of an extraordinary, though largely unknown, pioneer in sports, Lucy Schell. Want to know what it’s like to participate in the most challenging race on earth, the Monte Carlo Rally? It’ll be in your inbox soon if you’re a subscriber.
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