Notes from last night - "How to Integrate Purpose Into Your Career"

photo 2-2Last night 50 Escape the City members came together for an Escape School talk at Hub Westminster in London for an extremely interesting talk and Q&A with the impressive Aaron Hurst – CEO of, previously founder of The Taproot Foundation and author of The Purpose Economy.

What did I learn?

The starting premise of Aaron’s talk was tracking the evolution of human civilisation from the Agrarian Economy (lasted 1000s of years), to the Industrial Economy (lasted 100s of years), to the Information Economy (going to last 10s of years?) and on towards what he calls the Purpose Economy.

A central ingredient of the Purpose Economy is to live not just more efficiently but more humanly. Aaron reminded us of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and optimistically talked about how we are shaping our economy around a new set of needs – involving meaning, craft, sharing and real connections between people.

1. Purpose myths

Aaron talked us through three big myths that most of us tend to have when we think about purpose:

Myth 1) Purpose is a Cause (i.e. fighting cancer, environmentalism, etc). He showed us how people can derive deep purpose from work that isn’t connected to any great external cause.

Myth 2) Purpose is a Revelation (i.e. a sudden moment when you “just know” what you’re meant to do with your life). He talked about Purpose being a journey, a process, not a moment.

Myth 3) Purpose is a Luxury (i.e. I’ll earn money first and then “do purpose” when I’m sorted / retired). He talked about how there is no correlation between affluence and living a life of purpose.

If Viktor Frankl (author of Man’s Search for Meaning) could find purpose in a concentration camp then presumably purpose is within our grasps – no matter how stuck / frustrated we feel be in our jobs.

2. Work orientations

Aaron then briefed us on scientific research that shows that people broadly fall into three categories when it comes to how we feel about work:

1) Work is a job – it’s a functional thing that allows me to survive and support my family, etc.

2) Work is a career – it’s a status, money, power thing that allows us to climb society’s ladder.

3) Work is a calling – work doesn’t feel like work, it’s a joyful, intrinsically enjoyable process.

The really interesting thing about this research is that these 1/3rd, 1/3rd, 1/3rd splits arise in lots of different professions – from doctors to janitors. Meaning that our work orientation is context-agnostic – we all carry around in-built beliefs about the role of work in our lives.

A lot of the audience’s questions centred around this topic: If this is true, how can we change peoples’ work orientations? Is it about education and empowerment earlier in life? What if we’re in one of the first two categories? Can we re-programme ourselves to have a calling orientation?

Aaron reiterated his belief that purpose is a choice. He challenged us to take responsibility for ourselves, our work, and how we see our jobs. He also said that, given we had all come to the event, the chances are that we all had a “calling” orientation to work. The problem comes when we find ourselves in a job that isn’t compatible with our sense of purpose.

3. What is Purpose?

For Aaron, Purpose is accessed through three things:

1) Relationships – Do we genuinely enjoy working with our colleagues. Are they invested in our growth and are we invested in theirs? Do we work effectively together as a team? Do we feel aligned to our organisation’s goals?

2) Doing Something Greater Than Ourselves – The distinction was drawn here between “something greater than ourselves” and a cause. Many purpose-driven organisations don’t directly work on worthy causes, instead their sense of purpose is drawn from serving their customers or creating the best products they can.

3) Personal Growth & Challenge – We tend to be happiest when we are working hard on tasks that are challenging for us but we are able to do them. The concept of mastery (and the psychological state “Flow” are relevant in this context).

Aaron’s challenge to organisations is that they need to start changing the nature of work itself. This is fast becoming a strategic imperative – when your employees are dissatisfied through lack of purpose and your staff churn levels are high – purpose becomes a commercial priority.

4. How to Cultivate Purpose?

Although finding purpose-driven work can feel like the holy grail, Aaron advised us on modest, practical steps that each of us can take to cultivate purpose in our lives and careers:

1) Be self-aware – We’re not good at noticing what we really like and what we are really like. He recommended taking 30 seconds every day to write down where you found purpose during that day. After a month or so you’ll begin to see patterns emerge. Then try and steer your life and work so that you can do more of that activity.

2) Craft your work – The concept of Job Crafting is a really interesting one. Can you, or your boss, craft your work so it is designed to meet your individual sense of purpose? It’s different for everyone. Obviously this approach requires that you have the control to do this or a boss to give you the mandate and empower you to do it.

3) Connect to your organisation’s purpose – The more you can align your individual tasks and activity to your organisation’s purpose, the more you’ll feel like your work is worthwhile. This advice comes with a big caveat – which is that some organisations don’t have a very admirable purpose – and if the fit isn’t there, it just isn’t there.

4) Celebrate & connect with people around your purpose – The advice here is to seek out those people who share your sense of purpose. We all see the world differently and building links with people who share our sense of purpose is extremely energising. You can do a purpose diagnostic on the Imperative website.

5. A challenge for all of us

Aaron left us with a big challenge. He wondered aloud about where the capital of the future Purpose Economy would be. He challenged us in London to be brave and spearhead purpose within and without our organisations. Can we shape our corporates to be more purpose-driven? Or can we leave The System in order to build our own organisations with purpose deeply embedded in them?

He talked about how Purpose is being commercialised. Consumers are demanding it from organisations. Employees are demanding it from organisations. When this happens (and it is already happening) we’re not talking about a fluffy add-on to corporate culture, we’re talking about a fundamental shift in the economic basis of society.

And, whilst it might seem impossibly revolutionary, with an optimistic mindset, you can just see that it might be within our reach. The question then, for all of us, is what are we going to do about it?


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What is Escape the City all about then?

Frustrated by climbing the corporate ladder, we decided to build a community to help people build meaningful careers doing work that matters – to them and to the world. We help talented people find fulfilling work by making big career changes, building businesses, & going on big adventures. We’d love you to come with us on this journey.

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