In 1928, a struggling scientist working to find a cure for bacteria became frustrated with his work and decided he needed a break. This was not the tidiest of scientists and instead of properly cleaning up, he simply left his dirty petri dish in the sink. Of course, when he came back days later he found what we’ve all discovered in our college kitchens, a petri dish full of mold and bacteria. But luckily for this up and coming scientist he also noticed that the bacteria in his dish were not growing where the mold had formed. His name was Alexander Fleming and he accidentally discovered penicillin.
That’s the beauty of experimenting — finding the expected in unexpected ways. This is possible because experimenting is a ‘safe space.’ Failing is not just accepted, it’s expected — it’s a part of the process. Experimenting allows us to tinker, to help us get to where we’re going.
I’m an amateur social scientist, and by that I mean I have no qualifications whatsoever, just a sincere interest in studying how humans think, act and behave both on our own and together as a society. In real life, I’m a purpose-driven strategy consultant. My work (to date) is built on the hypothesis that the best, most successful organizations in the world are driven by a deeply held purpose. So I figured it was time to test this hypothesis.
This series is my journey to experiment on purpose. To test my assumptions, to see perspectives from different angles, to research and learn more about a topic that goes beyond pure interest. It is my sincere belief that living a purpose-driven life, both at work and home, leads to better outcomes. By honing my skills on this topic I can help people and organizations make a more meaningful impact on this world.
I can’t guarantee the outcomes, but I’m sure I’ll learn wonderful, inspiring, valuable things along the way. And my hope is that you to do, too.
If there’s one thing I remember from my APA style papers in university it’s that you need to start with a good definition. So like all good researches, I started with Google...
Moving forward I’ll use Type 1 purpose to refer to organizational purpose, or as Google claims, ‘the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.’ That leaves Type 2 purpose for personal purpose or, ‘a person’s sense of resolve or determination.’
The focus on this series will be on Type 1 — organizational purpose — because personal purpose blurs into a messy conversation about religion, the meaning of life, and other philosophical avenues, which are interesting but too complicated for this budding scientist to examine. I’ll mostly refer to personal purpose in the career sense … or how having an individual sense of purpose manifests as a unit in a larger organization and the need for alignment to make that work.
Now let’s dig in to Type 1.
1.2 Type 1: Organizational purpose
As a management consultant, the second place I went looking was HBR and McKinsey Quarterly. Listening to Porter talk about Rethinking Capitalism and reading about McKinsey’s views Redefining Capitalism, it became clear that the problem according to them wasn’t necessarily that companies aren’t focusing on purpose, but rather that they’ve been too narrowly focused on profit.
These pieces both talk about the need for companies and their leaders to consider how organizations affect the societies in which they operate. They both go on to claim that organizations …
- with a long-term view,
- that operate in a way to create shared value in society (for all stakeholders, not just shareholders),
- and that are focused on things beyond profit
… are the most successful.
This is what I’ve thought to be true over the past few years and is in fact the basis for my original hypothesis. So let’s see if it’s true. Let’s look at two companies — one with purpose beyond profit, and one without — and see how that correlates to their performance.
I’ve picked two car companies, and to control for national culture we’ll pick two American car companies. Let’s use Ford as the control, an example of the current status quo, and Tesla as the experiment. Let’s start by looking at how they communicate their purpose.
To be fair, this is just the cover of their 2014 Annual Report… if you dig deep down you’ll see that in 2007 they set their ‘one goal,’ or purpose, as: an exciting viable Ford delivering profitable growth for all. Ok, so it’s really pretty much the same. Ford is focused on profit.
Next up, Tesla:
Ok, that’s different. No mention of profit at all. It doesn’t get much clearer than that: Tesla’s purpose, or ‘mission’ as the company calls it, is in plain English, jargon-free, at the top of the page, in font at least double that of everything else, not buried in some documents on their website. As for the criteria we set out above:
- a long-term view — CHECK: reaching sustainable transport in the world is definitely a long-term view
- that operate in a way to create shared value in society — CHECK: hopefully we all agree that having sustainable transport is good for everyone in society
- for all stakeholders, not just shareholders — MEH: not sure if we can claim this by its purpose statement alone, but we do know Tesla is at least working to support customers and community in addition to shareholders
- focused on things beyond profit — CHECK: see below
Now on to performance. Tesla went public in 2010 so that’s as far as we can go back. How have our two companies fared since then?
Ouch! I assume we don’t need a chart to understand that Tesla has won this battle.
Organizations that have purpose beyond profit outperform those that don’t.
As if it were that easy. But remember, I’m not an actual scientist — this study of n=2 is not statistically significant, and we are only at the beginning of our journey. So let’s move on for now and get into personal purpose.
1.3 Type 2: Personal purpose
To learn more about personal purpose, I went exploring in some areas that I usually avoid … I sought the advice of an evangelical pastor. I went to my nearest public library and picked up a copy of the bestselling The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren — because millions of people can’t be wrong, right (who knows, because honestly, I couldn’t get past the dedication page)?
As much as I believe we all have a purpose in life, I don’t believe it was handed down to us from a white guy on a cloud. In fact, I’m much more a fan of Robert Wright, the evolutionary biologist who argues that natural selection and cultural evolution are in the process of creating a single global consciousness, a connected higher power, an all-powerful, all-knowing organism (we are creating god, he did not create us). But I digress.
The reality is, whether you believe a god designed your purpose in life, or whether you are who you are as a result of evolution and natural selection (or both, or neither), the reality is — you are here. And the sooner you figure out why that is, the better you — and all of us — will be as a result.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain
To put things simply, purpose is the ‘why’ in life.
As children we were purpose experts, or at least experts in experimenting on purpose, but as we grew up, we stopped asking the tough questions. We figured we knew all the answers, or if we didn’t, it didn’t matter. But sometimes a good ‘why’ session is order. I think Simon Sinek has proved this with his 23+ million views of his infamous TED talk.
By identifying your purpose for existing in this world you can determine how to apply the skills you’re best at, towards doing what you think is most important. To Hunter S. Thompson, this means that in order to live a meaningful life: “a man must choose a path which will let his abilities function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his desires. In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he knows he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: It is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.”
I think this is partly true, and I imagine if I read more of Warren’s book I’d be more inclined to think that your personal purpose must lead to some greater good for humanity. The reality is, my current view is somewhere in between, stolen like all good ideas from One Project. Personal purpose is the sweet spot between work that helps humanity thrive and work that helps you thrive.
Don’t know your purpose? Don’t worry, there is a shortcut. I think that the purpose of each of us is to be the best we can be.
We just have to try our very hardest not to leave this world worse off than we found it. We must progress, become smarter, more efficient, less wasteful, improve humanity in some tiny way. Net positive.
As a strategy consultant I’m overly concerned with identifying objectives, being crystal clear on goals and understanding why it is we’re doing what we’re doing - to what end? If every person, every entrepreneur, every organization in the world had a unique, clear purpose, my job would be obsolete. Because with a clear purpose, the objectives, goals, key decisions you make in life, increasingly become more obvious, more intuitive.
This is why organizations with a strong purpose are doing so well in our complex world. They have a shortcut to decision making that allows them to be more nimble, adaptive and resilient and STILL be moving in the right direction. Because they’re very clear about where they want to be.
My personal purpose is clear — I pursue happiness. It is the profit I aim to maximize for myself, my family and my community.
I believe that in order to most impact the world, I have to be the best me, and I preform at my best when I’m happy. So I suppose I’m following Thompson’s advice. It’s not so much the goal, but the journey to get there, it’s the way I live my life that most effects its outcomes.
Every time I have a tough decision to make, I think back to my purpose. I’ve turned down jobs that were 6 times my salary and 2 levels above my position (honestly) because I knew it would not only decrease my happiness, but more importantly my family’s, and as an outcome of that, the community in which I belong would be worse off. By focusing on optimizing happiness I can limit a whole range of options in life.
I didn’t get here lightly. I’ve researched a lot about happiness. I know the things that researches say lead to greater happiness in the lab, and tinkered with what fills me with happiness in the real world. The list is long, but at the top are (1) deep, meaningful relationships with the people I love most in the world, (2) exploring and learning new things, (3) maintaining my physical and mental health and wellness, and (4) knowing that the work I do is contributing in a small way to create a better world for all living things.
So that’s what I do. What do you do? What is your purpose?
I’m also a big-picture thinker (shocking, I know), so next week let’s go macro and think about the role of purpose in the economy in general. Economics is also my favorite branch of the social science tree, although I find my version of economics is more closely related to the moral philosophies and psychologies than the hard sciences of engineering and physics. After all, we’re talking about how humans most efficiently distribute resources, not robots.
Stay tuned …
This post first appeared on LinkedIn on August 26, 2015.