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Ask Yourself: Why Do You Do the Work You Do?

In the last several weeks, I had two radically different experiences spending extended time with leaders at two large, global companies. A long, alcohol-fueled dinner with the first group was a pure downer: dull, rote, and devoid of positive energy.

In the last several weeks, I had two radically different experiences spending extended time with leaders at two large, global companies. A long, alcohol-fueled dinner with the first group was a pure downer: dull, rote, and devoid of positive energy.

The day with the second—a group of young managers at Google—was utterly exhilarating. After eight hours together, discussing what it takes to be an inspiring leader, the conversation was still going strong.

What accounts for the difference?

The Google leaders were considerably younger than their counterparts in the first group, who worked for a financial services company. Also, Google is regularly recognized as a great place to work. But the most powerful difference, I’m convinced, is that the Googlers—hundreds of whom I’ve worked with over the years—feel they’re contributing to something meaningful and larger than themselves, and the other executives evinced no passion whatsoever for their work.

Purpose is a uniquely powerful source of fuel—and satisfaction. That’s why we resonate so strongly with exhortations that speak to it.

“He who has a why to live,” Nietzsche famously said, “can bear with almost any how.”

Or as the character Princeton sums it up more lyrically in the musical “Avenue Q”: “Purpose. It’s that little flame that lights a fire under your ass. Purpose. It keeps you going like a car with a full tank of gas.”

Purpose is grounded in contribution—the sense we’re headed in a clear direction, for a good reason. The Greeks call it “Telos”—one’s ultimate goal, aim or intention.

How clear are you about your own purpose? How enthusiastic are you to get to work in the morning? How intentional are you about making what you do matter?

If you happen to work at an explicitly mission-driven company like Google or Whole Foods or Tom’s Shoes, meaning and significance are to some extent built into your job description. Even then, the most powerful sense of purpose comes from defining it in your own terms, regardless of the job you happen to be doing.

The most reliable source of purpose, I’m convinced, is being of service to others—giving more than you take, which turns out not just to make most of us feel good, but also good about ourselves. In short, it’s a powerful source of energy.

If you’re a teacher, a social worker or a nurse, your work is intrinsically of service to others. But there are many ways to be of service. Over the years, I’ve been inspired by parking lot attendants, shoe shiners, elevator operators, TSA agents, and a smiling, upbeat clerk working in a Department of Motor Vehicles.

They’d found a way—whatever the intrinsic limitations of their jobs—to add value in the world, and to make meaning, one person at a time.

As Marian Wright Edelman once put it, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to the big differences we often cannot foresee.”

Direct service to others is scarcely the only source of purpose. Discovering and furthering human knowledge—pursuing excellence and extending the possible—is another.

Think not just of extraordinary medical and scientific breakthroughs over the last century, but also of the amazing advances in technology in the last two or three decades—including hundreds of thousands of apps created in the last several years by plucky entrepreneurs supercharged by an animating dream.

Eugene O’Kelly was the chief executive of the accounting firm KPMG until he was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor at the age of 53—and wrote a book titled Chasing Daylight about what he learned during the last year of his life.

Above all, Mr. O’Kelley lamented his failure, and the same failure in countless executives he led, to develop a purpose beyond making money and rising up the corporate ladder year after year. “Why was it so scary to ask … one simple question,” he asked. “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”

In my own case, asking that question led me to shift careers entirely in my late 40s. It was scary and uncertain, but if you’re unhappy enough, it increases your risk tolerance. So does the possibility of doing something you love.

I went from being a journalist increasingly running on empty to founding a company that today helps organizations perform better by taking better care of their employees. Over the last 15 years, I can count on one hand the number of days I haven’t woken up excited to get to work.

So why are you doing what you’re doing? Few of us have ever been encouraged to ask that question. Why not make it the new mantra in your life—a question to which you return, over and over, as a compass for making better choices.

Yes, it’s an unsettling to question to ask, but the upside is that it has the rare potential to put you on a journey to discovering the life you’re truly meant to live.

Post-it image via Shutterstock

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