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Today, students and professionals are hungering for purpose. Rarely a day goes by without experiencing some manifestation of the great search for meaning in work that is currently underway. Sometimes it appears in the frustration of a loved one about her boredom at work; she wants to contribute more — and more meaningfully. Other times it shows up in the emptiness that our best friend feels when he has found himself going through the motions at work, rather than being fully present and engaged; he wants to do things that stretch him and applies his strengths, values and passions in the pursuit of something worthwhile. Often, it can be seen in the relentless job hopping that seems to be so prevalent nowadays in just about every organization; sometimes we just think that the occupational grass here is bland, and it will be greener and tastier elsewhere.
Michigan Ross management professor Andy Hoffman thinks that the solution — the biggest calling of our generation — is all around us. "The sustainability challenges we face today are of a completely different order than those of the past", says Hoffman in his new book. "Business must be the source of the solutions to those issues. The market is the most powerful institution on Earth and business is the most powerful entity within it. If they are not solving these problems, they won't be solved." And it appears that many students are heeding the call. Hoffman notes that "students that wanted to make a difference in the world twenty years ago went to graduate schools of government or non-profit management. Today, more and more of them are going into schools of business."
I will be the first to admit that I am far from perfect. Indeed, I feel more than a twinge of hypocrisy as I write this article. I drive a gas guzzling car! I enjoy a nice steak all too often! But Hoffman's point is that none of us are. But that shouldn't stop us. There are myriad ways that individuals or organizations can make a difference starting today. Some yield small and immediate results. Others will be the work of many people over decades or longer. We do not all need to be Elon Musk and lead the reinvention of the auto sector, but we can aspire to create products and services differently. At the recent Ross Positive Business Conference, Cascade Engineering CEO Mark Miller told us how his company took an environmental challenge to their business and turned it into an extraordinary commercial opportunity. (See the story here, starting at 49.08). He was driven to do this by a deep sense of purpose about both building his business and serving society.
Having a calling changes our subjective day-to-day experience of work. Some may not feel the compulsion to make environmental stewardship their calling. They may feel drawn more toward helping their communities or their families, perhaps. One of my colleagues says that her calling is simply "to make each room better than how she found it". Everyone who experiences the events that she produces knows that this is something that she takes seriously. Her calling energizes her actions on a daily basis.
For many people, the challenge is where to begin. Here are two concrete steps to get the ball rolling:
1. "Start small", suggests Hoffman. "Begin to explore what your passions are and where you want to devote your life's energies". In order to do this, you may choose to find a mentor or keep an energy journal. For two weeks, simply note down the times when you feel excited and energized by situations you come across. Over time, as you reflect on your notes, you will find common themes across the people you interact with, the issues you consider, and the tasks you do when you find yourself being energized.
2. Connect to something bigger than just your immediate needs and wants. This will give you a purpose beyond yourself and a community with which to connect; both will fuel your energy and excitement for the long run. Many workplaces have Green Teams (grassroots networks to help with environmental initiatives), or diversity councils, or other such groups that fit your energy that welcome new contributors. Outside of work, many attend Green Drinks events or volunteer in environmental work.
Do you feel you have a calling? What is it? How did you find it? Share in the comments!
Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Andy Hoffman (@HoffmanAndy) is a professor at the Ross School and his new book Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as Personal Calling is available here.