Meaning and purpose are not simply tools to extract more from employees nor is finding both in one’s life really about self-interest.
By Ron Schultz
Ask a Millennial what they are looking for in their work and meaning and purpose are almost certainly to be mentioned.
Ask a Boomer what they are looking for in their life and the same words come to the fore. Oh, there are those who might say, “I’m just hitchhiking through this time. Kinda like auditing, you know?” But for those interested and willing to make something of this life, other than cultivating an addiction to vast wealth or self-indulgence, meaning and purpose are tantamount to leading a life worth living.
What Do You Really Want?
But what is it we all want, really?
Lately, there has been a good deal of media attention paid to leading the purposeful work life. And in some recent articles there has been great emphasis on how purpose increases business productivity and employee loyalty.
But meaning and purpose are not simply tools to extract more from employees, nor is finding both in one’s life really about self-interest.
Now that may sound contradictory, but what people are discovering is that real meaning and purpose, the kind that truly dispel dissatisfaction and disappointment, arise when we are doing something of benefit for someone else.
Putting the “Us” Into “I”
Sure, we feel more uplifted when we help others, and there is a level of self-interest in that. But this is not simply about us helping them so we can feel better about ourselves. It’s about us seeing to us. To dispel dissatisfaction in our workplaces, homes and in all facets of our lives requires a willingness to reach out beyond ourselves to others.
Seeking satisfaction in areas that are directed solely by one’s own self-interest is invariably short-lived and requires us to continually seek out new and different sources of self-satisfaction to pacify that ache we feel. Ask any addictive personality – and we’re not just talking about those addicted to drugs and alcohol, but even those addicted to risk, pleasure, work or acquiring money.
We are all trying to fill a void that interestingly enough has developed in our lives by our focus on “me.”
The Empty Calories of “Me-ism”
But it is all about me! Isn’t it? Well, not quite. As much as I would like to believe that, and often do whatever I can to coddle that or rather have that coddle me, it doesn’t deliver.
Why am I just hearing about this now? Probably because many of us have been coddled in the past. While we might think coddling is a good thing, recent studies show that might not be the case.
Coddling Crimps Creativity
A recent article in April 2014’s Atlantic Monthly pointed to the work of Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist at the College of William and Mary and the author of the 2011 paper The Creativity Crisis. Kim analyzed results from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and what this work found about our children was striking. According to Kim, over-protected children are:
"Less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing and less likely to see things from a different angle."
So are we really doing ourselves any favors when, as adults, we continue behaviors that are, in essence, soliciting our need for protection? Our need to feel safe and ultimately more isolated. Our fear of engaging with others who aren’t “us” is keeping us from living a life that truly experiences the brilliance of life itself.
Is it any wonder we don’t feel satisfied when we focus purely on the “me?” Nor is it any wonder that in breaking out of that mold, Millennials are turning with greater intent to those enterprises that really deliver on our need for meaning and purpose that are of benefit to others.
The Remedy for Self-Absorption…
In Creating Good Work - The World's Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy, the power of benefiting others was evident. One has to go no further than to sit down with Dorothy Stoneman, founder of YouthBuild, Bart Weetjens of Apopo, or Willy Foote from Root Capital, to see that in reaching out to connect with others, our lives become filled with a sense of significance and satisfaction. You see it in their faces. You feel it in their presence.
There is an authenticity in the lives they live, a joy in how they meet the world and love in how they greet others.
Contrast that with those who are purely in it for themselves—and there are hundreds of millions of examples of that all around us. And as constant companions, there are all sorts of addictions thriving as a self-medicating antidote to a life lived without reaching out toward the other.
Interestingly, the remedy for self-absorption involves some self-reflection. The great news is that you are not alone in stopping and asking yourself, what would my life be like if I didn’t feel dissatisfied or disappointed? No matter where we are in our lives, we can lift ourselves out of that protected, insulated and rather debilitating place of self-interest and do good work that is truly of benefit to others.
Are we merely replacing one addiction with another? Actually, no. We are replacing addictions with our convictions.
Self-reflect on what would happen if we took a small step toward truly benefiting others. What would happen if we stepped out of our protected space? What would happen if we lived our work lives so that virtue was a driving force? A life in which generosity, non-aggression, discernment, wisdom, mindfulness and love guided our choices. Operating within that space, see if there is regret, disappointment or dissatisfaction.
The Entrepreneurial Homeless
I was working with a group of folks who had found themselves homeless. I was teaching entrepreneurship to people who, in living on the streets, were among the most entrepreneurial people I had ever met.
What was interesting about the businesses they were building was that approximately 90 percent wanted to start something that helped others. It was amazing. They weren’t interested in protecting themselves or their businesses against the world.
I suppose it was as Dylan said, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothing to lose.” The fact remained, however, those with the very least knew, instinctively, it wasn’t about them for themselves. It was about what they could do for others. Generosity among those who had little themselves.
Don’t Be Cynical
Cynicism is easy. It depletes, belittles and does nothing new or different. It’s fear-based and risk adverse.
Virtue, and by extension the creation of meaning and purpose in what we do, is about seeking something better. It’s truly entrepreneurial; willing to take a risk, courageous and in some instances a bit outrageous.
What is being realized with greater frequency is enterprises without it are being viewed as second-rate and shunned by the best and brightest. Why? Because they know if it isn’t helping, it’s hurting; and if they got a choice, why do something that doesn’t help?
So, what’s your choice?