Over the past several years I have read dozens of books and articles on finding purpose in our work. Much of the counsel presents some version of aligning your purpose in life with a vocational pursuit. Doing so, it’s suggested, will allow you to contribute a valuable service for which you can be paid while actualizing your talents and passions. While this is not out of the question, it does not apply to the great majority of us.
I’ve read that 25 percent of people have crystalized their purpose in life.1 I think that’s high. My hunch is the number is less than 10 percent. I have been immersed in the subject for the better part of the past four years. During that time, I have written over 100,000 words on the topic and read five times that. Even so, I haven’t identified my purpose in life beyond raising kind children who are productive global citizens. What I have done is articulate my purpose at work, which is separate and distinct from my life’s purpose.
Our lives are comprised of two journeys: a vertical journey of self-discovery and a horizontal journey of self-development. The vertical journey is existential. As such, it explores the meaning of oneself and one’s being. Why are we here? What is our unique purpose? This journey is private and inaccessible to others (unless we choose to share). It’s our spiritual journey of personal fulfillment. The horizontal journey is intellectual. It reflects our learning and professional growth. This journey is public and accessible to others. Many of our coworkers are on similar journeys. It’s our vocational journey of professional fulfillment.
When employers suggest that, ideally, an employee’s life purpose aligns with the greater purpose of the organization, this is a stretch that borders on absurdity. While there are vocations that lend themselves to this type of alignment (e.g., clergy, medicine, cause organizations, etc.), for the great majority of employees there will be little if any alignment between their purpose in life (assuming they’re one of the relative handful who have articulated one) and their purpose at work.
For instance, my purpose at work is to inspire greater employee engagement by connecting employees’ daily job responsibilities to an enduring organizational purpose. This is the focus of my work. It’s the terminal objective behind my speaking, writing, and consulting. And it has little to do with my purpose in life, which remains a work in progress.
How about you? Have you crystalized a life purpose? If so, have you written it down? What is your purpose at work, your single highest priority? And how does your purpose at work relate to your life purpose, if at all?
- Dhruv Khullar, “Finding Purpose for a Good Life, but Also a Healthy One,” New York Times. January 1, 2018.
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