As I talk with a lot of my executive coaching clients, many of them are looking for a sense of purpose in what they are doing. We seek to connect with something greater than ourselves to give our work meaning. If we don’t find it in our jobs, we volunteer. Many of us yearn to leave our workplaces in search of more meaningful work where we feel we can make a difference that’s important to us. Some dream of “retirement”, a chance to take a sabbatical, or a chance to “do good” in our second careers. I did that. Here are surprising lessons I’ve learned since then that may give you a new way to look at your purpose.
We don’t need to seek purpose in a different workplace, in a different career, or working for a non-profit. We can find purpose where we’re planted. Purpose is not found without, it is found within. It is found in who we are being in this very moment.
My Purpose Story
I was inspired to seek purpose by a young Nepali prostitute. It was January 2006. I was living in Mexico City at the time and had just returned from a work trip to Switzerland. During this trip, I was one among ten leaders in our company of 90,000 people to be recognized for our business results. Of course, I was excited for this recognition. But it also felt a bit anti-climactic. I had thought that this achievement would make me really happy. But I couldn’t shake off a feeling of emptiness.
It was about 1am and I couldn’t sleep. As I flipped channels on Mexican cable TV, I landed upon a documentary about a Nepali prostitute. She had been trafficked when she was ten years old into the brothels in Bombay. The documentary was about this terrible violence that happens to young children, about the spread of AIDS, and how traffickers seek younger and younger children because of the threat of AIDS. For someone who is not prone to outbursts of emotion, I found myself crying that night. Certainly, it was for the children I saw. But some of the tears were also those of self-pity.
The young Nepali prostitute had managed to escape her pimps and had created a half-way house on the border between India and Nepal to help others escape and create productive lives. She had managed to not just escape her pimps. She had also managed to escape her small self to find a bigger self. I envied her that night because with all the external trappings of power (a large organization, a P&L in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a bullet-proof vehicle), I didn’t feel half as powerful as she was. I realized that what was missing for me was a sense of purpose –the pursuit of an end that was in service of something bigger than me climbing the next rung in the corporate ladder.
Like any good marketer who has discovered a new unmet need in the market (the market being me), I decided to pursue discovery of purpose with a new zest. I read books. I attended lectures. I talked with friends. I talked with psychics. I went off to learn how to meditate at an ashram in India – seeking enlightenment to lighten me of the burden of emptiness.
Eventually in pursuit of meaning, I left my job in corporate America to start my own company. The work I am doing is definitely more fulfilling work for me. It combines many talents and passions in pursuit of a purpose I care about – being a catalyst for leaders to grow and transform themselves and the organizations they work in.
Discoveries About Purpose
It is now two years since I launched my company and what I’ve discovered about purpose may surprise you. Purpose can be found in:
1) Doing work that makes an impact I personally value – serving something bigger than myself that I care about. It cannot be generic, it has to be personal. As I looked back to the impact I wanted to have throughout my career, it was focused on seeing people grow and creating energized teams and cultures.
2) Doing work that is joyful for me – There are many ways for us to achieve our goals. We have to look for what brings us joy and helps us fulfill our goals. Purpose lies at the intersection of what creates value for others and what brings us joy. The moments of greatest joy for me were when I saw a shift happen for someone – when I could be a catalyst for their expansion, when I could help them see into their potential because I saw it.
3) Getting to exercise my talents to make an impact – One of the greatest gifts of work is being able to exercise our talents, to see ourselves as strong and impactful. This is not just dependent on the work we do. It is dependent on the mindset we bring to what we do. Do we see our work as a way for us to have an impact?
4) Stretching myself toward my potential – Our work is a great opportunity for us to reach toward our potential. A great part of our purpose as human beings is to grow into our potential. If we are mindful for the opportunities for us to grow through the work we do, we find these opportunities all around us. They can be in the way that we grow through adversity. It can be the way we learn to work with difficult people.
5) Being purposeful in the present moment – This is the biggest “aha” for me. We don’t need to plan to quit our jobs to join non-profits in search of purpose. Leadership is a moment by moment choice. It is a choice to be purposeful where we are. It often emerges in the moment during a task that we are already engaged in. It shows up as a quiet whisper or a giant nudge if we are mindful for it. It can be as simple as realizing what brings us joy is problem-solving a tough issue, or helping people envision a bolder future, or helping someone feel valued. Once we recognize what helps us feel useful within ourselves, we simply need to be present to the opportunities to exercise this in our daily lives.
As leaders in organizations, we need to help our people find meaning and purpose in their work. As we find meaning in our work, it makes us more courageous, more resilient, and more emotionally connected to the work. Our work becomes our calling.
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Seminar to help you articulate and express your purpose in the workplace – The Authentic Brand YOU