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What Purpose Does Purpose Serve?

A recent McKinsey report began with a terse message: 'Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need, or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will.'

I felt as if someone had read my mind! So much of my work this last year has been about exactly this. People are looking for meaning, for a sense of purpose. And the rat race is becoming increasingly meaningless to many. Of course, things get harder when clients (employees) have mortgages, visa issues or other obligations that make them feel stuck. Rather than start to plan an exit right away, which is often what a stressed or burnout brain will signal to us as the only option, a pause can bring up other options. I have worked with professionals to redefine their roles, to advocate for change with their management and bring more of their values and a sense of purpose to the workspace.

While work hours are long, and work/life separation is, indeed, getting more blurry, equally I see the lack of meaning and purpose as a contributing factor to a feeling of a mental 'check out' even with the once-very-driven. There was some research done around how a sense of meaning improved productivity...I couldn't find the specific paper again at the time of writing this newsletter, but it revolved around people involved in calling donors for scholarships for financially disadvantaged students. The people working the phones were getting tired, disillusioned and burnt out. Then the researchers got one part of the team to actually meet one of the beneficiaries of this scholarship and they were able to track and compare how the two halves of the team fared. No great surprise if you guessed that the team that actually met the beneficiary of their work got enthused, and were even able to produce better results, now that they could see the larger impact of their actions. (I apologize if the details of this experiment are inaccurate, I'm reporting from memory).

We often associate 'meaning' or 'value' with philanthropy or public service, but this needn't be the case at all, and certainly not for all of us. A phone designer found his mojo once we had a conversation about the eventual end user of his product. Sometimes your beneficiary could be another stakeholder in the chain of production or service. Building connections, if not meaningful relationships, will make your job more than just about the nuts and bolts, zeroes and ones, or a balance sheet.

There is a wonderful concept called swadharma, in Hindu philosophy. It begins with the idea that all living beings have to act. We know that anything in nature that stagnates, deteriorates. So act we must. Action can be through literal action/movement, or through words or even thought. Most of us plunge into action unthinkingly, based on the herd or what we think will bring us the quickest rewards. But pausing to examine our intrinsic nature, our natural proclivities, could lead us to choose a path of action that will seem almost effortless. Yes, there will always be some activities that do require conscious effort; but the combination of these two along with a larger sense of purpose - a dharma - a set of values, a company vision, or one that goes even beyond (think of people who work on national, international or extra-terrestrial projects) could be very powerful. If you align your personal dharma, your swadharma, with a larger dharma, (as wide a vision as you can visualize), you could see harmony, success and contentment that is exponential to the sum of your individual efforts. Worth taking a pause for, and testing out, no?

Here is the McKinsey article I referred to.

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