So much of what we understand about purpose at work comes from Hollywood. Stories are a powerful way to learn, but most of the stories we see on a screen give us a romanticized view of the role of purpose in our work. They build myths about purpose that actually make it harder for us to focus on what matters. But perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of these myths is that they imply that purpose is not something for everyone, which--based on my experience working with thousands of professionals, as well as emerging research on the topic--couldn't be further from the truth.
In working with thousands of professionals seeking purpose, the greatest barrier has been the ubiquitous belief that they have to find their cause. At the Taproot Foundation, the nonprofit I founded in 2001, the business professionals who sign up to participate in pro bono consulting projects for local nonprofits are fired up and can't wait to get assigned to a project.
That being said, on one of our earliest projects, we were having a hell of a time getting any of our largely Gen X, pro bono marketing consultants to join a team. The project was to do branding and naming work for a critical organization serving low-income seniors in one of San Francisco's most challenged neighborhoods, the Tenderloin.
When I pitched the project to our pro bono consultants, they begged for a different project. "I totally get that seniors are important, but I am 32, and it really isn't an issue that gets me excited," they shared. "Do you have anything focused on kids or the environment? I am really passionate about helping kids and the environment. That is our future." We shared with them the dire needs of the organization, and asked them to be open-minded and give it a try. If at the end they were unsatisfied, we would give them first dibs on the next round of projects. They reluctantly agreed.
Nine months later, I received a surprising email. The leader of the pro bono consulting team was urging me to attend a session at City Hall to protect funding for seniors in San Francisco. It turned out they had not only done a world-class job with the organization's brand; they had become an ongoing marketing committee for the organization, and several of them had become donors.
So many of us who are looking for a cause think we have to find our one true calling. We want to know that our mission is to help save one-legged kittens or find a cure for cancer. Hollywood stars helped popularize this notion with their high-profile focuses on particular issues, such as George Clooney (Darfur), Brad Pitt (New Orleans), Angelina Jolie (refugees), and Matt Damon (water). This is true of some of our elder statesmen too, like Al Gore (the environment) and President Jimmy Carter (Habitat for Humanity).
The idea of having a destiny is part of American mythology, and it applies to a lot more than social causes. It is our core mythology on just about every topic, from love to career: Who is my one true love? What am I going to be when I grow up?
I am also guilty of feeding into this way of thinking. When you are seeking resources or attention, being able to point to your success as part of your manifest destiny works incredibly well. People want to hear that you knew you were going to be a doctor/basketball player/president/entrepreneur the minute you took your first step, still wearing diapers. Once you are successful, you are expected to tell a version of your biography that supports this mythology.
Destiny makes for a powerful story, but this concept is not only misleading, it does the next generation a great disservice, as it sets unrealistic and unhealthy expectations. Nearly all the early career professionals who seek an informational interview with me lament that they haven't found their cause yet. And, while there are certainly people who are driven in this singular manner about a cause, it is almost always the result of a personal tragedy or an experience that inspired them to act. Maybe they were touched by the death of their mother from cancer, or their child died from gun violence. Still, this is a very small percentage of people, and is by no means the only way to find purpose.
For the rest of us, seeking our purpose is about finding a direction, not a destination. That is, purpose is a verb, not a noun. We may never find our true calling, but we can understand the color of our purpose, which can help us have much more meaningful careers and lives.
Aaron Hurst is an Ashoka Fellow, award-winning entrepreneur and globally recognized leader in fields of purpose at work and social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation which he led for a dozen years. Aaron is the author of the Purpose Economy and has written for or been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg TV and Fast Company.