My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.
— Maya Angelou
The first line on the career web page of the world’s largest tobacco conglomerate reads “Change the World #MakeHistory.” It couldn’t be more clear that job-seekers are being lied to...on purpose.
Having spent a large part of my career working in advertising agencies selling people things they don’t need and can’t afford, I know bullshit when I see it. f you are feeling unfulfilled and disconnected at work, you are not crazy, lazy, or entitled; it is not your fault, and there is something transformative that you can do to remedy your frustrations. In fact, you have already begun.
As a neuroscience researcher, and having experienced the eye-rolling, soul-deflating, broken promise of 9-5 "purposeful" work myself, I want you to know that by picking up this book you are one step closer to a life with more purpose.
Whether you realize it or not, you have already transformed your frustration into intention, and then into action. You acknowledge that you have agency to make a change in the world and in your own life by exploring the concept of meaning outside the confines of a job.
In the past decade our culture has systematically eradicated the traditional pillars of purpose.We denounced religion, postponed having babies, and formed relationships with our grandparents that typically involve one cursory holiday lunch a year. Shopping malls were built over places of worship, town squares, and public parks. Consumerism replaced community and connection. Doing so has created a purpose vacuum; the palpable absence of a fundamental human need in our lives.
Psychologists and anthropologists know that humans crave purpose and suffer both psychologically and physiologically without it. The purpose vacuum needs filling. So much so that researchers have found people will happily accept a pay cut and work longer hours if they believe a job will be purposeful.
Recognizing the cost-saving opportunity in this purpose vacuum, companies — regardless of their true capacity for purpose — leapt at the proposition of filling it and marketed it to us as something irresistible; the promise of a job that will fulfil your purpose and even pay you to do so.
Today, on the career sites of organisations from missile manufacturers to petroleum extractors you’ll be greeted with the alluring offer of a purposeful job. For example, JUUL, the vapour nicotine cigarette company who was sued last year for "deceptive and misleading" advertising on kids' websites, tells potential employees their primary value is "purpose: we are bound together in service." And it's not just HR-departments promoting the notion that we can and must find purpose in our jobs.
In his TEDx talk, 'How to know your life purpose in 5 minutes', Adam Leipzig notes that Amazon lists "151,928 books that refer to how you can learn your life purpose." On Medium, the popular blogging platform, articles such as: "Your Life’s Purpose is More Obvious Than You Think," "How To Find A Life Purpose That Will Put A Dent In The Universe", and "How 'One True Question' Will Clarify Your Life’s Purpose" are three of hundreds of thousands on the subject.
With a quick Google search you’ll find endless scrolls of purpose coaches, purpose-identifying courses, purpose retreats, and purpose finding how-to guides all promising to not just help you find your purpose, but misguidedly profess that you must do so within the context of a career path. We have been cajoled into the fallacy that the work we do for income should simultaneously fulfil our deepest human needs. It can’t.
Currently, 70% of millennials want to quit their jobs on the grounds of lack of purpose, and this should be no surprise; the positions we take were created to fill our pockets (if we’re lucky), not to fulfil our dreams. To think otherwise is to suggest that one's individual purpose can be matched with a corporation's purpose.
This is not to say that there cannot be some purpose attained from most jobs. Most employees, be those: shop assistant, teacher, truck driver, marketing manager or insurance sales rep — with the right perspective on the role their job plays in society — should be able to feel a sense of purpose at work. And this is important for one's mental health. However, we must acknowledge the difference between finding purpose in our life’s work and finding work that fulfils our life's purpose. The former is adaptive and helpful. The latter results in unmet expectations, disappointments, disengaged workers, and high turnover.
The lack of purpose-fulfillment at work doesn't make our need for it any less sincere or magnetic. Every day we are greeted with headlines, tweets, and images espousing the pain and suffering faced by our fellow humans, animals, and Mother Earth:
The list goes on…
So much so that no doubt you skimmed over the list above. I don't blame you. We're simultaneously overwhelmed, de-sensitized, distracted, and somehow led to believe that there’s nothing we can do about any of it.
We take a deep sigh to be rid of the weight on our chests, then scroll by the offending news, and get to our jobs (if we're lucky enough to have them) with a gut-sinking feeling that our lives are meaningless, purposeless, and that we are powerless to create the change we need.
Recruiters, career-coaches, and Medium bloggers falsely lead us to believe that, if we want to find meaning and purpose, we must do so in our nine-to-fives: first by 'finding your purpose' and then by finding a job that’s a match. We are advised that we should go back to school to chart a new, purposeful career path or we should find a problem we are passionate about solving and start our own business. We end up asking ourselves: $100,000 of debt isn't too high a price for a life with purpose, is it? As if that is the only option.
Fortunately, I'm here to show you that there's another way.
If we want to live meaningful lives, we must first rid ourselves of this fallacy: that to fulfil our purpose, we must do so through our nine-to-fives.
Through my experience of working with brands such as Facebook, Google, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles while concurrently launching and running my own social enterprises and having interviewed 100 social entrepreneurs around the world I have come to learn that for true fulfilment our work needs to meet three fundamental needs. They are to:
Survive: The material needs for shelter, safety, and food
Strive: The emotional and spiritual needs to contribute to a better world
Thrive: The developmental needs to learn, satisfy curiosity, and promote personal growth. The combination of striving and thriving is the essence of purpose; an upward spiral of outward contribution and inward growth.
I have spent the last five years wrestling, and coming to terms, with the myth that the work we do for income – to survive – has to be the same work that we do for our purpose: to strive for a better world and thrive through personal growth. This is the Purpose Myth.
Just as one ingredient in a recipe will not provide all the fats, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals you need for optimal health, one type of work is unlikely to provide all of your spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and material needs for optimal fulfilment. By total accident, I'm fortunate to have discovered how to meet our needs another way. In so doing, I have found that we can free ourselves of a lot of anxiety and suffering if we diversify our work portfolios to meet all of these needs collectively.
I happened upon this insight after a chance encounter with an unfortunate situation together with the opportunity and privilege to do something to address it. After meeting a man who was experiencing homelessness, and regretfully deciding not to help him, my co-founder-to-be and I set out to create and launch a side project that went on to scale globally; all while keeping my nine-to-five. I will call this endeavour a Purpose Project.
Our Purpose Project directly impacted the lives of over 40,000 people. Organizations recognized our work through awards, such as Nesta's Top 50 Social Entrepreneurs, and gave us opportunities to share our experience. Conferences, universities, and events invited us to speak and run workshops from Rome to California, Austin, and London at TEDx, the Tate Modern, SXSW, and Cannes Lions. BBC, ITV, ABC News all ran features on our Purpose Project, and The Guardian, Mashable, Fast Company and Buzz Feed all interviewed us.
In the years since that chance encounter it is remarkable to note the opportunities afforded to me. Sir Richard Branson mentored me aboard his private flight, I've lectured at universities in London and California, and The Huffington Post asked me to write for it. The experience has enabled me to travel the world speaking and consulting on other people's Purpose Projects that have changed lives in profound, fun, and beautiful ways.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there is not a single thing I could have done in my day job, or any job in the world, that would have fulfilled my purpose in the same way as my Purpose Project did in my spare time.
This book shows you how to do the same. Together we will embark on a journey of emotional and intellectual fulfilment without sacrificing material needs. This approach may counter everything you believe about work and purpose. There will be parts that are challenging as they inherently reject the commonly held beliefs that were, frankly, designed by companies to attract and retain talent.
You may hear yourself thinking, ‘but if I can find work that meets all of these criteria, shouldn't I?’ The answer is yes, if and when you can. However, there may be times in life when this isn't possible. For example, I write this in the summer of 2020. This year alone, 50 million Americans have claimed unemployment over the past six months and one in four in the UK have been furloughed. As if losing your income isn’t bad enough, I dread to reflect on how many millions of these people may also feel that they lost their purpose.
In times like these we needn't go intellectually or spiritually unfulfilled or decline work that fulfils our survival needs. The goal of finding an income stream that's wholly purpose is rare and privileged one, and it's not a necessity to a fulfilling life. Another destructive inner monologue I hear is the one that asks, ‘but I don’t have the time!’ I assure you that we will address that too. Yes, you might have to watch a bit less TV.
From here on when I talk about work, I am referring to the various work that you do: creating, volunteering, learning, and the income-generating work. Parsing out our work into different areas, and understanding that our needs can be met by a collection of activities, gives us the freedom we need to find and fulfil our purpose.
In this book, we explore:
- Why work isn't meeting your needs
- What you need to do to fulfil your needs
- How to create a Purpose Project
How this process will fuel a profound evolution in your sense of self and unearth what’s most deeply meaningful to you