Purpose schmurpose

(This is substantially longer than my usual entry, so I have sprinkled it with more than the usual number of pictures, for your viewing enjoyment.)

You don’t have to find your purpose at your Job, or even in Work.  It’s one option; still, there’s a lot more to being human than Work, and you might find more meaning elsewhere – i.e., in Not-Work – if you have the space to do so.   

This is another way they get you.  

Admiral Ackbar says, it’s a trap!

Whatever my primary purpose might be, I don’t find it at Work – or at my Job, more to the point.  What have I sought out of my job?  A living, primarily.  Something interesting and ideally, useful, with which to occupy my time.  For long stretches, a sense of accomplishment and of recognition.[1]  An answer to the question, what am I here for?  Nope.  

Fortunately, I never had to worry seriously about making a living, although there were some tight years early on.  There was a short spell when I didn’t have health insurance, but at least I was in my healthy twenties then.  A considerably longer spell when I knew exactly how much I had in my account until the next paycheck, and what I’d need to buy first, and whether I’d need to use credit to tide over.  Yet I never had to arbitrage food for bills or heat or medical care.  And I’ve become more than comfortable since then, thanks to both privilege and effort.  

I’ve also been lucky to have interesting jobs, though I’m pretty well able to find anything interesting for a while.  Even when I was a junior paralegal, xeroxing and stapling and stamping, I enjoyed making a game of the process engineering, to see how quick and efficient I could be.  When I worked in the library stacks in grad school, I got a kick out of learning the classification systems and found meditative calm in the mechanics of sorting and shelving, coupled with the delight of unexpected discoveries in the collection.  When on (eventually permanent) hiatus from my studies, I wound up temping at the HQ of a big-box retailer in the “merchandise presentation” department, where I was fascinated by the system that maps store layouts, puts the merchandise on the shelves, and tracks and replenishes inventory.

Thomas, the very useful engine

Curiosity led me to my more substantial jobs.  That’s been a blessing and a bane.  I’ve liked to exercise my intellect – it’s where I have comparative advantage, and reinforced how I saw myself, typically:  if not as an “intellectual,” then at least as someone actively thinking and solving problems.  It’s why I majored in religion at college.  It’s why I undertook to study history in graduate school, with the aim of being a professional scholar.  It’s how I ended up doing location research for the selfsame big-box retailer – the notion of understanding how places work –, something I parlayed into geospatial analytics at an elite consultancy.  There, I broadened beyond straight-up retail into all manner of spatial networks.  I fancied myself an “applied behavioral geographer.”  I’m not sure such a thing exists, but it sounds cool and was generally accurate.  

The blessing is that my jobs have kept me entertained, for the most part.  The bane is how entertainment distracted me from the problem of meaning, until it couldn’t.  Sure, I managed to rationalize the possible benefit of having convenient access to goods and services as a useful contribution so I could toodle along.  But there came a day when the reality of bulldozing apple orchards and cornfields to erect consumer temples full of future landfill wouldn’t shut up.  There came a day when the human face of “behavioral geography” was overswept with data, remote sensing, and cellphone traces.  I hadn’t yet read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, but I knew what I did not want to abet.  What I felt was not quite the “moral injury” I’ve heard people cite, because I was at enough of a remove not to feel like a perpetrator, yet it definitely qualified as “moral dissonance.”  My work had externalities, and I didn’t like them.  

See, curiosity isn’t purpose.  Just like exploration isn’t intrinsically good, or necessarily benign.  Or problem-solving, or the search for knowledge.  They’re just instruments of purpose. 

Of course, there are intrinsically purposeful jobs.  In my circle of friends and family there are a pastor, a small-town librarian, some doctors and nurses, a few teachers (especially music teachers!), artists, and a buncha Marines (hi Dad!).  My sisters work in healthcare to improve things for people living with mental illness.  These are only a few examples.  If you’re helping people directly or fixing the planet, I reckon your access to purpose on the job is pretty immediate.  Those are the occupational jackpot equivalent of becoming a rock star, a celebrity, or a billionaire:  the sort of thing many of us in our youth dream of becoming but few achieve.  Those who work as caregivers, paid or unpaid, are also up-close-and-personal with purpose.  That’s enviable, and I am grateful for them and to them.  

If you work for yourself, I suspect chances are better you find purpose at your job.  That’s not the way most of the economy operates though.  Almost 15% of the American labor force works for the public sector (federal, state, and local governments), and three-quarters of the rest are at firms with 50+ employees.  

A lot of jobs – most of them? most of mine, to be sure – fall into what I think of as the “relatively worthwhile” or “neutral” buckets:  keeping the gears of the economy greased and at least doing no harm.  (Though remember those externalities!)  They exist in part because there are so many of us now, and we all must do something. (In case you’re wondering what do people do, you can look it up here.)  A lot of these jobs are necessary, “essential” in the most recent parlance.  Someone has to drive buses and stock warehouses and plow streets.  Someone has to manage supermarkets and prepare taxes and fix plumbing.  On top of that, people are constantly innovating, looking for new niches, new appetites to stimulate and fill.  To people for whom the simple dignity of work leaves something to be desired, and who want to articulate purpose in their jobs, it’s easy enough to do, like I did with mine.  (Also, by the way, I think this is a better and more honest approach than fake “I love my job!” smugness.)  No disrespect:  when you spend so much of your life doing a thing you want it to matter, you need to believe in it.  I needed to believe in it.  Our culture tells us loudly it should matter.  

It’s a problem, though, when our jobs crowd out all the other avenues we possess to seek meaning and purpose as human beings, when they take all our time and exhaust all our energy and leave nothing for family and friends, community, nature, art, religion, idle creativity, self-realization.  

Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office’.[2]

And then the magnates and their minions step into the breach.  They’re wholeheartedly willing to frame a purpose for the rest of us.  Typically, it’s some variation on a theme of “make positive difference in the world[3],” anodyne and amorphous.  Selling electronics?  “Enrich lives through technology.”  Exploiting fossil fuels?  “Power progress together with more and cleaner energy solutions.”  Baking biscuits?  “Lead the future of snacking around the world.”  Manufacturing sodapop?  “Refresh the world.  Make a difference.”  Selling everything?  “Transform the systems on which we all rely.”  One can practically hear the swelling soundtrack.  The apotheosis of this is the well-worn NASA janitor story.  Asked by visiting President John Kennedy what he was doing, the (apocryphal, no doubt) broom-toting janitor declared, “I’m sending a man to the moon.”  

Funnily enough, this image does not make me think, “Wal-Mart,” at first glance. But you can find it on their purpose webpage.

You want to know why they do this?  Color me cynical but increasing shareholder value and their own wealth worked just fine for a very long time, so I don’t think it’s driven by any existential crisis on their part.  I regard it as no coincidence that the rise of “corporate purpose” and that of acute income inequality happened to parallel each other.  They have the gall to dangle purpose at us and profess that it’s even better than mere money and benefits.  

When employees are disengaged and underperforming, the reaction of many managers is to try new incentives and ratchet up oversight and control. Yet often nothing improves. Why? Because the assumption behind such conventional approaches is that work is fundamentally contractual and that employees are self-interested agents who will seek to minimize personal effort. And that assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Employees do just what is needed to earn a reward or meet a standard, and nothing more.

But there is another way: Rally the organization behind an authentic higher purpose—an aspirational mission that explains how employees are making a difference and gives them a sense of meaning. If you do that, they will try new things, move into deep learning, and make surprising contributions. The workforce will become energized and committed, and performance will climb.[4]

What if people were “disengaged and underperforming” because they were overworked and simply exhausted?  The purpose trick might work for a while, or until folks reach the next threshold of burnout.  Note:  it doesn’t really help that the millennials and the Z’s are going around telling everyone that purpose is more important than salary.  (X’er here.  I have to believe that’s either relative affluence or inexperience talking.)  Daniel Pink touts this as “Motivation 3.0”, made up of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Certainly, intrinsic motivation sounds nobler than extrinsic motivation, as long as it’s not an Inception-style plant.  Around here we call that “drinking the kool-aid.”  

Meanwhile, how convenient for the titans of industry!  For purpose is a means to their end. It seems to make money too!:  

There is an increasing awareness that the purpose of a company has to be beyond shareholder value, and that this is not something that will cost your business but something that will enhance your business [emphasis added] … Purpose-driven companies make more money, have more engaged employees and more loyal customers, and are even better at innovation and transformational change. It seems to be easier to win the game when you care about the game.[5].

Nothing to see here.

Remember the intrinsically purposeful jobs?  Nurses, teachers, caregivers?  The ones we call “labors of love”?  It should be no surprise these are also the workers most easily exploited.  Why pay people more when they’re willing to do the work for less?  At least, until they hit the breaking point – which point I fear we may have discovered amid the pandemic and Great Resignation of 2021.  

Here’s the thing:  yeah, I’m looking for purpose.  Aren’t we all?  Not in the slightest do I pooh-pooh that.  But employers, it’s not up to you to dictate or commandeer.  And where will I find it?  That’s for another blog entirely, I suppose.  Still working on it.  But I figure knowing where not to look is a good start.  

[1] Unlike a lot of people, sociability and community has never been a key driver for me work-wise.  The pandemic has actually been a relief from it for me – the simulated camaraderie, the manufactured fun.  God, I sound like such a misanthrope.  I’m really not, just an introvert.  I have genuine friends and I love them, just not at work.   

[2] Paul Tsongas, attributed to friend Arthur Zack.  https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/03/31/deathbed-wish/

[3] Hubert Joly, “Creating a Meaningful Corporate Purpose,” Harvard Business Review 10/28/21.  https://hbr.org/2021/10/creating-a-meaningful-corporate-purpose

[4] Robert E. Quinn and Anjan V. Thakur, “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization,” Harvard Business Review, Jul-Aug 2018.  https://hbr.org/2018/07/creating-a-purpose-driven-organization.  See also, Dan Cable and Freek Vermeulen, “Making Work Meaningful:  A Leader’s Guide,” McKinsey Quarterly, 10/26/2018.  https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/making-work-meaningful-a-leaders-guide

[5] HBR Analytic Services, “The Business Case for Purpose,” 2015.  https://hbr.org/resources/pdfs/comm/ey/19392HBRReportEY.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: