In The Purpose Economy, you write that most of what we think we know about purpose is wrong. What do you mean by that?
There are three things that most people misunderstand about purpose and that I frankly misunderstood until the last few years. The first is that purpose is a cause. A cause may be a passion or interest but it isn’t the same thing as purpose. Second many people are looking for a revelation to find their purpose and don’t appreciate that it is a journey and not a destination. Finally, I find that we often assume that purpose is a luxury and only for those with means. Research increasingly shows the opposite: those most motivated to focus on purpose are often those with the least power and means.
What did you learn about purpose as you conducted research for your book? How do you define purpose now?
When we asked hundreds of people – professionals across sectors, professions and around the world, about the daily sense of purpose they had at work, they talked about great conversations they had that day. They gave examples of trying something new and growing to master it. They did also share examples about making an impact but it was usually more mundane. It was about helping someone at work or seeing a customer or partner able to do something they couldn’t before. Even the entrepreneurs and CEOs frequently cited the same things. Despite the huge wins the most gratifying moments were usually smaller.
Purpose it turned out was something we all can have every day at work and it appears to be largely up to us. If we approach our work self-aware and looking for purpose, it isn’t hard to find. They key is to be present and appreciate the small things that in fact add up to be what purpose at work is all about.
It became clear that purpose isn’t a cause, revelation or luxury. Purpose is what we gain through relationships, personal growth and doing something greater than ourselves.
If purpose is not the same as espousing or supporting a cause, then how can we discover and harness purpose in our lives?
I met with Erika Karp the founder of Cornerstone Capital and a former senior executive at UBS. She is a master at helping to bring purpose to her team from what I could see. What Erika does is very simple. She asks people if they had a good day. If they say yes, she asks them what was the moment that made it good. She is basically asking them for a moment of purpose they experienced. That is the first step.
Then over the coming weeks and months she works with them to refine their job to maximize the number of these purpose moments they experience. This is a process that behavioral scientists call job crafting, which involves taking ownership of your job to maximize purpose while still getting the core work done. For example, if relationships and conversation are really important to you, you might modify your job a little and rather than always emailing people you pick up the phone and try to talk to them. The most important thing to do is to be present, awake and grateful. You can gain purpose every hour of every day at work if you practice enjoying the little moments that give you purpose from relationships, growing and doing things that feel greater than yourself. These are the things that matter most.
Is it really possible for someone who is an administrative job to have same sense of purpose as someone looking to cure cancer or someone who is working to conserve the last of the rain forests?
Many doctors I know just work for money or for status. It isn’t that they don’t care or put pride in their work, but they aren’t really appreciating and focused on the emotional side of their work. It is a job.
Conversely, I have worked with some amazing administrative professionals who truly see the impact of their work everyday and orient their work around growing, relationships and making an impact. They see the success of the organization and the people around them as their responsibility.
This reminds me of the United Airlines ad that ran during the winter Olympics in which one of their travel coordinators spoke about the pride she felt when the bobsled team she supported won gold. She felt that she shared in that gold medal. She was approaching her work, which is administrative, with a lot of purpose.
How do you define the Purpose Economy?
The Purpose Economy is emerging as the fourth economy in history and evolving out of the Information Economy. It is an economy that is driven and organized around the creation of purpose for people, not just information, goods and services. The Purpose Economy explains where markets meet individuals as they step out to create their own means of finding purpose through work.
Some of the pioneers of this new economy range from people, like John Mackey at Whole Foods Market, who is creating a market for healthy and sustainable food, to organizations like, One Medical that are making medicine personal again, and to Jonathan Rapping at Gideon’s Promise, who is redesigning the role of the public defender in the legal system to be empathetic.
How is it similar (and different from) to the Information Economy that preceded it?
The Information Economy is based on the creation, manipulation and dissemination of information. It is driven by scale, data and efficiency. It is about companies like Amazon.com. The Purpose Economy is human-centered and focuses on the wellbeing of people. It is about helping people grow, have meaningful relationships and be part of something bigger than themselves. It is about businesses like Etsy.com, Good Eggs and PACT.
Could you point to the changes taking place that point to this shift?
Ten years ago I didn’t see it very often but now it seems like it is everywhere I look. We have been experiencing powerful shifts in public desire that are changing what we buy, how we buy it, from whom we buy it, why we buy it, and how much of it we buy. We are sharing everything, from bikes and cars to extra rooms in our homes.
Startups like Etsy are allowing us to once again buy and sell handcrafted products with ease. We like to buy our produce at farmers’ markets, which have popped up all over the country. We are patronizing local businesses once again. We are using social media to connect with communities near and far, and finding new ways to petition for our causes. From Yoga to Lumosity, we are focused on self-improvement than ever before. More and more people are choosing to work as independent freelancers so they have the freedom to maximize purpose in their work and an entire industry is emerging to support them.
I see these disparate shifts as converging in one direction: to how our desire for connecting with our communities and for more purpose at work is coming together.
Aren’t the startups and small companies, which you say are the pioneers of the Purpose Economy (like Etsy, Tesla and Airbnb), really using the latest tools of the Information Economy to deliver their value?
Absolutely. First, this isn’t binary. We still have agrarian and industrial activity in our economy. They still supply us with cars and food. They are an important part of the mix just as they will be in the Purpose Economy.
What you find is that this is an evolutionary process. We didn’t just go one day from ape to human. It is a gradual process. Many of the major Information Economy companies have their roots in the Industrial Economy. For example, IBM has been one of the most important companies in the Information Economy but their first products and until recently most of their income came from manufactured equipment, from typewriters to laptops. In the same way we are now seeing companies, like Etsy and Facebook, use the tools of the Information Economy to create value by helping boost purpose for us by connecting us with our communities.
What changes do you see taking place in the business world as a result of the shift to a Purpose Economy?
I see changes taking place in three areas:
1) Internal changes: We are seeing business allocate resources into changing their relationship with employees to better meet their need for purpose at work and to support their wellbeing. The Motley Fool, for example, is partnering with their employees to have their employees’ craft their jobs to maximize purpose in their work.
2) Products and services: Business is creating new products, services and experiences that are aligned with the values of their consumers and also directly helping them gain purpose. You see this all over the place from Seventh Generation cleaning products to Tesla’s electric cars. These products are helping us gain purpose as consumers as we are able to make purchasing decisions that are about something greater than ourselves.
3) Supply chain: Businesses are harnessing the influence they have over their supply chain to be more ethical and to support partners that better align with their values. For example, Walmart has been making a major effort to green their supply chain in partnership with the Sustainability Consortium. Guayaki Yerba Mate, the tea company, is active in restoring rainforests while creating jobs in South America at the same time.
You write that the Purpose Economy is creating a whole host of new economic opportunities or incentives. Could you give us a few examples?
Every business and industry is undergoing shifts to respond to our need for purpose. Looking out into the next decade, the most exciting opportunity, in my mind, is finding ways to take massive and dysfunctional industries like education, healthcare and finance and make them human again. Technology is making it possible to once again have a relationship with a doctor or borrow money from a neighbor instead of the bank.
New models in education, like Matchbook Learning, are using technology to customize learning for each student. Remarkably, they have turned around some of the poorest performing schools in Detroit with this model that will likely become national in a few years. One Medical is using technology for doctors to be able to spend more time with their patients. And, Khan Academy is flipping classrooms so that teachers can have more of a relationship with each student. Ironically, what the Information Economy has enabled through technology is for us to return to our more human roots, which is now driving us to a purpose economy.
Do different generations differ in their desire for purpose at work?
I found that the desire for purposeful work is a fundamental human need. Different generations and cultures may have different socialization around purpose and how to express it, but it is a need just like love and belonging. Millennials appear to be the most expressive of this need, which is very encouraging. It isn’t clear if they need it more or simply feel more entitled and vocal about it. Either way it is forcing change in the workplace as employers try to address it.
How can HR managers and leaders maximize purpose for their employees? Why is that important?
The Millennial generation is increasingly being referred to as the purpose generation. 84% of Millennials are seeking purposeful work and they will represent 75% of the workforce by 2025. Attracting and engaging and retaining this talent will increasingly require meeting their need for purpose.
Managers and leaders need to see the creation of purpose for members of their team as something they help facilitate. It begins with helping people build self-awareness. This is the most important variable.
How do we help people get to know themselves?
At a macro-level, we need to continue to move away from a command and control leadership model and towards something more akin community organizing, a model well understood in the nonprofit sector. Community organizing gives power to leadership through the people and to support the people. It is focused on achieving truly shared goals.
What are some steps we can take today start infusing our work with purpose?
Take two minutes each day to think of one purpose moment you had that day. If you do this for a month you will find that you are doing more things everyday that bring you purpose and that you also come to appreciate them more.
What advice would you have for Millennials who are still in the early stages of shaping their careers and facing a tough job market in the bargain?
Find other people who share your purpose pattern and learn about how they get their needs for purpose met in different jobs. We too often limit the jobs we explore based on bad information. In a tight job market, you need a wide net but at the same time shouldn’t have to settle when it comes to purpose.
Tell us about your background. How do you explain the shifts you have made in your own career?
I began my career out of college working with nonprofits focused on urban education. What I saw was incredible potential but no way to scale their impact. On the hand, I saw companies in the private sector achieve a scale that nonprofits needed to embrace. So I left Chicago and moved to San Francisco to work in startups in 1997 to understand how they scaled so quickly. I worked at two venture-funded startups. It was then that I had the insight that lead to the founding of Taproot.
I launched the Taproot Foundation to help nonprofits access the same technical talent as start-ups—from marketing to HR to IT. We wanted to create a market parallel to the cash philanthropy but for talent. And, we knew that every nonprofit needs financial capital and talent to succeed. Today, if you look at most of the fastest growing nonprofits around the country, like DonorsChoose, they associate much of their success with their use of pro bono talent.
What struck me at Taproot was that professionals consistently said that their pro bono work was the highlight of their career. This was on one hand inspiring and affirming to hear but it made me wonder if one could change the nature of work to feel more like pro bono work. We spend 50% of our waking time during the week at work. Shouldn’t we figure out how to make it richer in purpose? That led me to build Imperative to focus on answering this question.
Tell us about your latest venture, Imperative. What prompted you to launch it and who are you appealing to?
I have used executive coaches throughout my career. I believe that coaching is behind every successful career—from business to sports. However, for people in the first 10 years of their career, it is generally not accessible and yet this is perhaps the time we need it most as it is during these first ten years that we set our professional DNA and figure out who we are as professionals. It is when we figure out what we are made of and how we want to define success in our careers. This is when you need coaching to sort it out.
Imperative is building a platform that makes coaching for people in the first ten years accessible. We are doing it by taking the latest research in positive psychology and mashing it up with social media and online learning to create a platform that can deliver powerful coaching for less than $1 per day. Our hope is to have 10 million professionals on the platform by 2020.
In what ways do you cultivate and maximize purpose in your work?
People matter a lot to me and are a big part of why I love being an entrepreneur and CEO. I get to pick the people I work with and build a culture I love—it’s one that makes me feel completely comfortable being myself at work. I get tremendous purpose from working with these folks and helping them grow and do things outside their comfort zone. My work is always designed around doing something for other people. I make decisions through this lens and I’m constantly striving to help others. I find most of my working is giving to others, but that like Adam Grant says, it comes back 10X in purpose and success.