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Ways to Get More Purpose From Your Work

'The Purpose Economy' author says: know your Who, How and Why

By Richard Eisenberg

At Next Avenue, most pieces I publish and write for the Work & Purpose channel seem to be about work, not purpose. Often, they deal with finding, keeping or losing a job in midlife or switching careers. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the topic is often something else: finding purpose through work.

When I just interviewed Aaron Hurst about his buzzy new book, The Purpose Economy, he told me that the search for meaning and purpose through work is very much a boomer thing.

The U.S. Purpose Economy

And, he thinks, that partly explains why America is increasingly moving towards a “purpose economy” where employees, self-employed people and employers make purpose a priority.

When Pharrell Williams was interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning recently, I couldn't help but notice how he explained his recent mega-success: "I realized along the way that there wasn't enough purpose in my music. Going back and listening to Stevie Wonder songs and Steely Dan songs, you'd see that Donald Fagen had a purpose. He had an intention. Stevie Wonder was really singing about something."

But how exactly do you find purpose in your work or get more of it?

Hurst ought to know. A social entrepreneur, he founded the Taproot Foundation (a nonprofit aimed at mobilizing professionals to do pro bono work), is CEO of Imperative (a “social benefit corporation with a mission to connect people to purpose on a massive scale”) and gave birth to The Purpose Economy 100, a fascinating list of what Imperative and CSRwire call the top pioneers shifting the economy to better serve people and the planet. (The club includes everyone from Al Gore to Melinda Gates to Ben and Jerry.)

Highlights from my purpose-driven conversation with Hurst:

Next Avenue: What does finding purpose in work mean for people in their 50s and 60s?

Hurst: The boomer generation is a large reason why this is happening.

Boomers have made purpose a priority since back when they were in their teens and 20s and 30s, creating a lot of the organizations that created the appetite for what’s going on now. Now they’ve entered the second half of their careers, realizing they want to return to those values through their work.

The other piece that’s interesting is that when you look at how leadership is changing in organizations, the model that was largely pioneered by boomers — helping others lead and helping people remove obstacles to purpose — is now becoming the model for how to be an effective corporate leader.

We’ll see this model become the norm, and that’s a tremendous opportunity for those people who were part of the movements in the ‘60s and ‘70s to use that history and background to be incredibly relevant to the future of leadership.

I’d think a lot of people in their 50s or 60s might think that if they’ve never found purpose in their work, they never will. You don’t believe that’s true for them?

To a certain degree, the longer you go, the harder it is. But it’s still very possible. You need to understand what drives purpose for you.

How do you do that?

You can find that out from our diagnostic tool at the site. It’s a 15-minute questionnaire that gets at the Who, How and Why of purpose — assessing who gives you purpose, how and why. And it lets you generate a draft of a purpose statement to help guide you forward.

But you could also keep a journal for 30 days and write down a paragraph of one thing each day that brought you purpose and what were you thinking and feeling when it did. It could be a small thing — a quick conversation, an email, solving a problem. Write them down and figure out how do I start to appreciate them and change my job so they happen more often.

(MORE: Purpose Prize Winners Changing the World After 60)

You write in the book that there are a few myths about purpose, including even what someone needs to do to get purpose from work.

Most people have a misperception of what purpose is.

A lot of folks think in their encore career, they have to move to Africa and do a dramatic shift. I think that’s awesome, but a lot of the changes you can make are much more incremental and are about relationships you have at work and how you’re mentoring people. It’s about continuing to grow and stretch yourself.

Marc Freedman, the founder of, says you don’t have to reinvent yourself to have a second act.

He’s right. People think they have to change 180 degrees, but often they just have to change five degrees to make a difference. It’s not about getting a divorce from your previous life.

Another myth, you say, is that people think they have to discover their cause in “one fell swoop.”

We hear that so much in Hollywood and in the press — people having “a moment” of purpose. And we sit around waiting for that lightning bolt to strike.

In reality, its much more something that comes along the journey, day to day, and just becoming aware of what matters to us, how we learn, how we want to be challenged and how we want to help other people. It’s a much more gradual process.

You also believe there’s a myth that only some types of work can have purpose.

People have purpose in every job and profession. It has more to do with your attitude and approach than about the work.

There are a lot of people who work in medicine who don’t get much purpose from it. And there are a lot of people in what are called “dirty jobs,” or undesirable jobs, in society and they get tremendous purpose from them.

Purpose is a choice. You have to stop saying this company doesn’t have purpose or my job doesn’t have purpose.


You believe there’s an important distinction between volunteering and working pro bono. What is it?

Volunteering is like painting a fence or cleaning a park, which is awesome. Pro bono is when you’re using your professional skills in service to a nonprofit or an individual — helping a nonprofit with marketing or technology or HR, something where you can use your core skillset.

Painting could be that if you’re a painter; but too often, those of us who can’t paint are asked to paint.

Why do you believe that pro bono work is more rewarding than volunteering?

People who do pro bono work consistently say it’s the most rewarding part of their career.

People get the most purpose and enjoyment out of things where they are doing something that helps them master what they do and they feel like they are doing something that has an impact. I think that with traditional volunteering, you don’t necessarily get that. With pro bono, you’re working with people who are challenging you and are more part of your network.

How can people find pro bono work?

You can find lots of opportunities at sites like Volunteer Match and Taproot Foundation; LinkedIn now offers them, too.

Maybe the best way is to get onto a nonprofit’s board since board members are in a position to do the most strategic pro bono work.

How can people change their tasks or their relationships at work to create purpose?

Find ways to change the number of times you connect to people at work over email and instead pick up the phone or have an in-person meeting. That changes your tasks and relationship at once but doesn’t require you to work more or create a radical change. It’s a small change that has a pretty big impact on people.

What’s your advice to freelancers and consultants who want to find meaning and purpose through their work?

They need purpose more than anybody because they don’t have the constructs of an organization. They’re desperate for purpose.

They just need to be conscious of what gives them purpose and look for more ways to get that. It takes a lot of self-awareness. It’s something you need to build, like any muscle. A journal can help you do it.

I saw a recent study from Deloitte that said people who feel their organization is purpose-driven are more engaged at work. Do you agree?

It really helps if you work for an organization where you really believe in what they’re doing and their values align with yours. What’s even more important is who you’re working with.

I’ve found a lot of people who work at companies of questionable purpose but their team there does have a sense of purpose, so they get satisfaction from that.

You mention a University of Michigan survey in the book that says attitude toward your work is likely to be inherited by your kids. That’s about using purpose as a legacy, right?

Yeah. Research shows there are three attitudes toward work: Some people think of it as a job; some see it as a career and some see it as a calling, where work and life are fully integrated. A calling is the place to be.

The most common way we get our approach to work is modeled by our parents. If we saw our parents complaining about work, we take on that model. If we saw our parents look for status from work, we take on that model. And if we saw them blend work and life, we take on that story in our heads and it becomes what we end up doing.

If you can have a “calling” approach to your work, there’s a strong chance your kids, your grandkids and your great grandkids will share that. It’s an incredible legacy to impact their world and the places they work.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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