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The Power of a Purposeful Path

Making purpose part of how we work every day is the organizational equivalent of deep mindful breathing


Over the last couple weeks, I’ve written a lot about the importance of bringing love into our leadership lives and daily work. As I continue to do more with the organizational ecosystem model (email me at [email protected] if you want the drawing), I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose. In the metaphorical model that I wrote about first in the Introduction to Part 4, beliefs are roots, culture is the soil, hope is the sun. Purpose, I decided, is akin to air. Why? I was reading a piece by Rebecca Solnit and I saw something that clicked. The question was: “What goes uphill faster than it goes downhill?” I had no idea. The answer was air. Aka, wind. The metaphor was immediately obvious—when we have purpose, we will tackle tough tasks with ten times the commitment and energy of someone who’s engaged in work they don’t care about. Purpose, I’ve come to believe, is essential to having a fully human existence.

The reality of the American work world—or maybe just the world—is that, unfortunately, all too many people are living lives that are lacking in purpose. Without air, we can’t breathe. Without purpose, we will also suffocate—in this case, it will be spiritually, intellectually, and creatively. Social constructs (combined in many cases with the pressure of socio-economic barriers) have trained so many of us to believe that we just need to tolerate the situation, push through to earn a paycheck, and wait until we get to retirement to do what we really want. As Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” The result of which is drudgery, and ultimately, dehumanization.

Humberto Maturana says that humans are naturally loving creatures. That we only cease to live in a loving state when outside forces push us away from who we really are. The same is true for purpose. In much the same way that humans breathe naturally until anxiety, pollution, or other issues impede our access to fresh air, living with purpose is how we were made to be. As Emma Goldman once wrote, “The Lack of Joy and Purpose in Work … turns life into a vale of misery and tears.” Purposelessness, then, is an artificially created construct, as damaging to our human ecosystems as industrial waste. It turns beauty into boredom. And as Paul Tillich once said so insightfully, “Boredom is rage spread thin.” Purposelessness leads to big problems, both personally and, on a macro scale, in the country.

By contrast, when purpose is present, it shows in our upbeat energy and positive beliefs. People living and working with purpose think like Servant Leaders. Hope increases and health improves. They learn and grow, and they help everyone around them do the same. They care. They commit. They create. They initiate and improve. When they make mistakes, people with purpose are determined to push ahead, and generally recover well. And just as meaningfully, they help those around them to do the same. As Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi wrote in Primed to Perform, “Why we work determines how well we work.” And how well we contribute to the communities of which we’re a part.

Back in another era of social anguish and deep uncertainty about the state of the country, in the 60s and early 70s, Grace and James Boggs, Freddy and Lyman Paine got together in what came to be called Conversations in Maine. The book came out in 1978, the year I finished U of M and went to work at Maude’s. As the cover describes it, “Four Americans—one Alabama-born black, one New England Yankee, one Jewish, one Chinese—they reflect the American experience.” Purpose—or the lack thereof—is a big part of what the Boggs and Paines wrote about:

It is clear that one has to have some purpose—not necessarily directly utilitarian—but as some kind of contribution to society, to humankind. There has to be an element of self-determination in relation to purpose. One must be able to see the relevance of the methods one uses to the goals or purposes one is seeking to achieve. There needs to be some sense of process—that doing things takes time—and of the logical and temporal relationship between the various steps of the activity, some coming before and some after others. And there has been a sense of workmanship, that the excellence of the results depends upon the effort… The basic struggle today is between the people with the philosophy or attitude of “get ours” or “get mine,” and those who identify with the whole human race.

Forty-three years down the road, three friends of mine are doing the kind of work that Conversations in Maine called for—identifying with the whole human race, sharing their wisdom and insight from which we can all benefit. Each of them has taken up the idea of purpose and shares its power in books of their own. All are amazing advocates for—and living-practitioner-proof of—the positive power of purpose.

Vic Strecher is an award winning professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Reading his book, Life on Purpose; How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything, it’s hard to understand why purpose isn’t being pushed forward on national health policy programs. As Vic writes:

Imagine a drug that was proven to add years to your life, reduce risk of heart attack and stroke, cut your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by more than half, help you relax during the day and sleep better at night, double your chances of staying drug- and alcohol-free after treatment, activate your natural killer cells, diminish your inflammatory cells, increase your good cholesterol, and repair your chromosomes. What if this imaginary drug reduced hospital stays so much that it put a dent in the national health care crisis? The pharmaceutical company who made the drug would be worth billions. The inventors of the drug would receive Nobel Prizes and have institutes named for them. But it’s not a drug. It’s purpose.

Anese Cavanaugh taught us about energy management nearly 15 years ago—we adapted and put her approaches to work in our everyday Zingerman’s existence a few years later. Her books Contagious Culture and Contagious You (with a foreword by some anarchist business guy who wears black) both dive deeply into the benefits of purposeful living. Anese says: “I love people. I love the human spirit. I love purpose.” This weekend she shared this on the subject:

One of the things I’ve learned this last year is that if I am not making things that help or serve people, or contribute to good in some way …my soul actually hurts. I’ve also been reminded, in an extra dose this weekend, that purpose is salve that heals, protects, and pays good forward.

Anese has a visual of three circles—self-care, people, and impact—which are the core of her teaching. Towards the center of the diagram, the circles overlap. I would propose that purpose is to be found in those spaces—i.e., when we take mindful care of ourselves, are contributing to those around us, and having a positive impact with all we do, then purpose will always be present.

Shawn Askinosie is a Missouri-based chocolate maker, and one of the first bean-to-bar artisans in North America. Although “purpose” isn’t in the title of Meaningful Work, the book Shawn did with his daughter Lawren, it’s the subtext in everything they write about. Shawn reminds us to make sure we’re clear on what our meaning and purpose are before we embark on big life changes:

If you’re working now and thinking “I’m going to leave my job and start X,” I would ask that person: “Why do you want to do this? What is your purpose? Do you hate your job, or do you love this thing that you must do? Explore what is meaningful to you: What does a day look like that is a good day? What was a day when you felt you contributed to someone else’s well-being or someone else contributed to your well-being? Before you show me your business plan, I encourage you to stop and reflect on what is meaningful to you.”

Having learned from all three of my friends, I’ve come to believe that we can come at purpose from two different directions. We can go big. And/or we can start small. Both will yield positive, purposeful, results:
Go big! This can be in the form of an overarching organizational purpose, and/or a personal life purpose. We might be in business to benefit our community; working to alter our industry for the better; or serving staff to enhance the quality of their lives. When people come to work in a purpose-focused organization, they are likely to feel like they “breathe better”—they buy in more, believe in what they’re doing, and are more likely to hold course under pressure.

A big personal purpose can also help. Anese, Vic, and Shawn all have great processes they teach for how one might figure out a purpose. I’m also a big believer that when one does vision writing the way we teach it here—using the hot pen technique where you write fast and from the heart for an extended period of time—the purpose (or purposes) of one’s life will appear in the process. An inspiring, strategically sound (i.e., with meaningful, challenging, but still achievable goals included in it) that’s documented and communicated/shared with others, will nearly always be purposeful.

Start small! At the same time, we can mindfully infuse purpose into everything we do. To approach each interaction we have, with the intent of making a positive impact on the people, the planet, the organization, our family, etc. Even the simplest, and seemingly mundane, routines, can be made magical. I can take Sprout, one of our Corgis, for a walk because it’s that time of day and she needs to go out. Or I can take her for a walk, working to make it a highlight of her afternoon, appreciating her cute quirkiness, sending lots of love and encouragement her way, make the walk into an adventure, practice breathing, appreciate getting outside and the beauty of Ann Arbor even in the dark of winter. All in the same ten minutes. The former is routine, neutral, takes up time, a non-event. The latter contributes on about ten different fronts; it builds energy. Just writing it down right now makes me smile.

Part of one’s passion comes from finding something that’s right for us; but just as much I believe comes from pursuing any work we’re even sort of interested in with depth and determination, and the mental energy that comes out of deeper and deeper learning and creative application. Small steps, purposefully pursued, can serve as good gateways to meaningful big life purposes. As Shawn says:

Take one step toward your dream of engaging employees and helping out in the community and you will find these doors in the universe will open in ways you could never imagine. The universe conspires to help us serve other people… If you take a small movement in the direction of kindness, humanity and compassion, your prayer will be answered.
Living with purpose is very much aligned with the idea of making our lives into art. Being true to who we really are will bring us to a place of vocation, to a purposeful life, and towards making a meaningful difference in the lives of those around us. Meaningful purpose, it’s clear to me now, is never strictly self-serving. While trying to make more money may keep us going, the true power of purpose comes, as Seth Godin says in The Practice, when “Our work exists to change the recipient for the better.” As Vic Strecher shares:

Having self-transcending (as opposed to selfish) values is really important. Research has demonstrated that people with self-transcending purpose produce more antibodies, mount stronger antiviral responses, and are shielded from toxic biological effects of social isolation (all of which would come in handy right now). Strength of purpose, produced through regular compassion toward others—even those we don’t like—has been shown to reduce inflammation, which fuels heart attacks and cancer, and increase telomerase, which grows the chromosomal “caps” that keep our DNA (and us) healthy. Working more for others—your team, your organization, and society—than purely for yourself is strongly associated with finding purpose and meaning in your work and in commitment to the organizational mission.

(In the context of the ecosystem metaphor, when the only purpose in play is for the benefit of the boss, it’s as if the leader is sucking all the air out of the room. They’re doing fine, but everyone else around will have a hard time breathing. As Marilynne Robinson wrote earlier this year in the New York Times, “Resentment displaces hope and purpose the way carbon monoxide displaces air. This fact has been reflected in the policies of any number of tyrants and demagogues. Resentment is insatiable. It thrives on deprivation, sustaining itself by magnifying grievances it will, by its nature, never resolve.”)

For what it’s worth, I’m not of the belief that one has to find and stick with only one perfectly singular purpose. I started listing mine—teach about traditional food, help create an organization that makes the lives of its members better; help people become themselves; study and apply the principles of anarchism and of art; be a supportive, kind, caring, and loving life partner; do the same for my friendships; contribute positively to the community of which we’re a part. I could keep going, but you’re getting the idea. Writing this enews every week, I realize actually fulfills almost all of those. Speaking of which, I’ll add that doing purposeful work does not necessarily equate to effortlessness. To the contrary, if we care, we generally work harder. It’s the “Good Work” that’s ultimately enjoyable and energizing instead of exhausting. Every time I sit down to write, anxiety rises; I want to stop. But I know that if I stick with it, good things will come. As Joseph Campbell said, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Purpose helps me push me through. What emerges generally works—it helps me, it helps our organization, and it helps those who read it. As Campbell says, “Art is the set of wings to carry out of your own entanglement.”

Interestingly, up until the last few years, I can’t say I’ve really paid all that much attention to purpose. It turns out that Paul and I were, almost unwittingly, pretty good at it. We just didn’t know it. (As Maggie would say at ZingTrain, we were “unconsciously competent.”) I guess, knowing what I know now, we were simply being ourselves, and purpose was a natural part of our presence. Nearly 39 years later, I can say that we have unwittingly created an organization where purpose is present most of the time. It’s embedded in our 2032 vision, in our mission, in our values, in our new Statement of Beliefs. Sharing what we call “code greens” (compliments from customers), the “appreciations” we do at the end of every meeting, and our recipe for organizational change—Bottom-Line Change—where the first step on the list calls for us to clarify our “Compelling Reasons.” In fact, now that I think about it, though we’re far from perfect, there’s very little that we do without it.

Collective purposes like ours, in the best possible way, require caring and meaningful conversations. They push us to come together to consensus and to engage in effective, creative collaboration to form a community. As Peter Block writes, “Purpose gets defined through dialogue. Let people at every level [of the organization] communicate about what they want to create… ” Bringing everyone into the organization into the conversations in which that purpose is clarified, and then figuring out how to put it into daily, minute by minute, practice, is part of our purpose. Putting that purposeful presence to work all day, every day, helps everyone we come into contact with. And it helps us to keep going when, in the middle of a pandemic when there might be good cause to want to give up.

Back in late March, we were—like so many others—engaged in one of those conversations, trying to figure out whether or not we should stay open. Businesses all around us, and around the country, were deciding to close for any number of good reasons. I believe it’s purpose that pushed us to stay the course and stay open. Our presence in the town, our passion for providing meaningful work, our desire to help our artisan suppliers stay in business, along with our commitment to providing some sense of continuity, community, and comfort in what was—and still is—a crazy time, ultimately made the decision much easier to make than it at first seemed. It was very much what Margaret Wheatley meant when she wrote: “Determination, energy, and courage appear spontaneously when we care deeply about something.”
Want to learn more about how we put purpose to work here? We put together a “Purposeful Pamphlet 4-Pack” Secret #5, “Why Mission Statements Matter;” Secret #35, “The Power of Personal Visioning;” Secret # 40, “The Power of Beliefs in Business;” and “Bottom-Line Change.”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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