It Comes Down to Purpose

John Boyd was a brilliant military officer, strategist, and consultant who helped shape a generation of military leaders. Boyd is the focus of one chapter in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, titled, “To Be or To Do?” Boyd, Holiday explains, was a terrific air force pilot and a very insightful and influential mind within the armed services. He raised to the rank of Colonel,  but never was promoted to become a General and is not someone that most people have ever heard of. What Boyd represents for Holiday, and why he is an important figure for the book, is someone who chose his duty and service to his country over his own power, pride, and greed. Boyd set out to be the most meaningful version of himself possible, not to be the most impressive, rich, or comfortable version of himself. Holiday wrote the following about a piece of advice that Boyd gave to a young officer (emphasis Holiday’s),

 

“The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose.  What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?” quite easily. If what matters is you – your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life-your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and  generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field you’ve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come.”

 

What we can learn from Boyd’s life is that there are often conflicts and decisions that we have to make about doing meaningful and valuable work and trying to receive recognition and praise for who we are and what we do. Quite often, we can do meaningful things and be well compensated and rewarded, but not to the same degree as those who may do less meaningful things but make more of an effort to capture attention, please others, and maintain the status quo which rewards the talk but not the walk. This can be seen in the way that we compensate teachers relative to financial traders or in the way that lawyers like Bryan Stevenson working to protect the rights of death row inmates are compensated relative to lawyers like Michael Cohen who have worked in less meaningful fields for wealthy and powerful clients.

 

The lesson that Holiday tries to teach with the life of Boyd is that we can be content with living a life where we don’t feel that we get all the dues we deserve, where we don’t get all the praise and attention from others that we may feel we have earned, and where we are not always recognized for our valuable contributions equal to the impact of those contributions. But living this life is not somehow a loss. The praise and recognition I just described ultimately hold no real value in our lives. Making a difference, working on meaningful projects and helping shape the world around us in a positive direction is what brings true value and meaning to life. The conflict is that success is typically viewed through the lens of the first set of rewards, and it is true that we need to earn a decent wage to be able to eat, house ourselves, and live comfortably and happily. I don’t exactly do a great job of following the advice of Holiday in my own life, but it is helpful to keep his advice in mind and recognize when I am living for my ego and pursuing recognition and praise as opposed to when I am living to do meaningful work and striving to make a difference in the world.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit suggesting that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of them and you will never inspire them to go above and beyond. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and responsibilities that seem unnecessary or burdensome. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future. One approach is to help ensure everyone on your team and everyone you coach understands how their work contributes to the overall mission and goals of the firm. This does not simply mean that you hand everyone a nice slogan about why their position and duties are important, you must actually show how the company plans to move forward and how the department and the individual will contribute to the new direction. A recent challenge for myself that I have been thinking about is how you direct resources and attention to groups to also signal their importance. Without the leadership demonstrating how specific work contributes to overall goals and without time and attention appropriately directed to an individual or department, even important work can begin to feel meaningless or forgotten, and firms and societies will never benefit from the innovation and dedication of great work.

Building a Purpose

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.

The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.

By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.

All of Our Stuff

The Most Good You Can Do is a book written by Peter Singer about a philosophy known as effective altruism.  Those who follow the philosophy are characterized by making large donations and directing greater than 10% of their income to charities and organizations that make meaningful changes in the lives of those who are the most disadvantaged.  Effective altruists are focused on making sure that the good they do by making financial donations is maximized. In this pursuit, they look for new ways to save their money for donations, and for charities that direct almost 100% of the donations they receive toward their cause as opposed to administration, fundraising, or lobbying.

 

Singer argues that more Americans should move toward the lifestyle of effective altruism even though it would mean we would have more people moving away from the standard focus of capitalism which is buying more goods with the money we have for our own happiness.  Throughout his book he shares the stories of effective altruists who make large scale donations despite having modest or average incomes.  He shows that a life focused on helping others builds a sense of purpose that is greater than the joy we receive by owning things.  He advocates that Americans should better budget their money and make more stringent decisions about what they choose to purchase if they want to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

 

“An in-depth study of thirty-two families in Los Angeles found that three-quarters of them could not park their cars in their garages because the garages were too full of stuff. The volume of possessions was so great that managing them elevated levels of stress hormones in mothers.  Despite the fact that the growth in size of the typical American home means that americans today have three times the amount of space, per person, that they had in 1950, they still pay a total of $22 billion a year to rent extra storage space.”

 

Singer uses this example to show that our spending and purchasing is getting in the way of our true happiness.  By having so much stuff we are building more stress in our lives, and repurposing space to better accommodate all of our possessions. Rather than enjoying our space and having leisure time, many Americans are crammed into cluttered spaces and must spend a large amount of time organizing, cleaning, and managing their stuff.

 

“Perhaps we imagine that money is important to our well-being because we need money to buy consumer goods, and buying things has become an obsession that beckons us away from what really advances our well-being.” Singer writes this passage to explain that our purchasing power and habits have not helped us have richer lives, even though our lifestyles may be richer.  What he would advocate for, I believe, is a better use of our financial resources, stricter uses of our money, and a refocused interest in helping others.

Why Do the Most Good?

Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically examines a new movement toward ethical responsibility on a global scale.  What Singer explores in his book is the way in which effective altruists measure their impact in the world and go about trying to make positive changes. In his view, an effective altruist is measured in their generosity by rationally examining their resources and the resources of others so that they can make decisions that would best benefit those who are in the most profound poverty.  This system for an effective altruist not only allows them to assist others, but it also allows them to live without waste in their own lives.

 

Singer highlights part of the identity of effective altruists when he writes, “Effective altruists, as we have seen, need not be utilitarians, but they share a number of moral judgements with utilitarians.  In particular, they agree with utilitarians that, other things being equal, we ought to do the most good we can.” What he is explaining is that effective altruists have a rational approach to life, but they are not only interested in concrete concepts such as the usefulness of individuals, programs, and objects in society.  They may be measured in their approach to aiding others, but they will embrace a program if it reduces suffering for others rather than embracing a program because it proves to generate progress for society.

 

This quote makes me wonder about why we want to do the most good we can do, and why a rational individual would set out to make that their life goal.  Singer offers evolutionary explanations as to why altruistic behavior became part of the human experience, but when we begin looking at rational behavior, we must look past our evolutionary past.  Emotionally we want to donate and assist others to feel positive about ourselves. We want to be able to say that we made an impact in other peoples lives, and that we assisted those who were not as fortunate as we are.  We receive a boost of dopamine when we make our donation or think about the ways in which we have helped others, but a rational individual can come up with thousands of excuses to overcome our dopamine induced desire to help.  We can rationalize donations and see that when we donate we are actually helping society progress by saving lives or reducing the suffering of others so they can become more active.  However, this type of rationalization becomes utilitarian and to me seems as though it would push us toward making local donations and contributions to help those in our community. What Singer describes that sets effective altruists apart is their desire to assist those living in the most poverty stricken situations on a global scale. Effective altruists are focused on stretching their dollars as far as possible to assist people, which often means helping those who live in extremely poor countries, often on the opposite side of the planet. If we live a life focused on doing the most good for others, then our life begins to be shaped by generosity and action in a positive direction. Our sacrifices adopt a story that is greater than our own personal happiness, and that larger meaning helps us feel valuable and encourages us to continue when we grumble and face personal obstacles.  Doing the most good we can satisfies an evolutionary dopamine fueled desire to help others, but it can also give our lives a purpose that is missing in an often self-centered capitalistic society.

Cheerful Sacrifices

Peter Singer in The Most Good You Can Do recounts a quote from an effective altruist who visited Singer’s classroom to speak to his students, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable.  We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.” The speaker was an effective altruist named Julia who faced the challenge of making donations to help others but maintaining a lifestyle that was comfortable enough for her to be a happily functioning human being. Interestingly, Julia’s quote pulls from a quote from the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who said that Quakers should be an example and “walk cheerfully over the world.” What Julia’s quote shows is the importance about doing positive work because it feels good, and because it helps us add value to our lives. If we start doing positive work only because we do not want to feel guilty, we miss the point of giving whether it be our time, money, or resources.

Julia’s argument toward making donations is that in order to fulfill yourself and have the energy and passion required to continue to thrive, earn money, donate money, and inspire others, you need to be able to live with a budget that allows for spending on yourself and things that can help provide happiness, while at the same time donating as much as possible. An effective altruist would contribute a large amount of money toward meaningful causes, but they would see that they would be the most effective if they were able to convince others who are financially successful to do the same. Living a life where others perceive you as living out of a cardboard box does not inspire other’s to adopt a lifestyle of giving and sacrificing.

I have recently started listening to the podcast The Minimalist, and in the show the hosts address the same idea. Having things and purchasing items for oneself is not a bad thing, the hosts contend, if the items being purchased bring you joy and can serve a purpose.  When you are purchasing items for yourself and your own enjoyment without those items bringing you any joy or serving any purpose, then you are just obtaining more things. The podcast hosts would argue that eliminating some of what you had bought or that reducing your spending would actually help you have more time, since you would not be managing “things”, and give you more flexibility to do what you would like to do to help others and impact the world. Combining the thoughts of the minimalists with Julia and her quote above shows that we can support ourselves and enjoy our resources, but that we can find greater fulfillment by making donations and living a life focused on helping others rather than living a life focused on acquiring goods.

Purpose

Colin Wright in his book Act Accordingly wrote a passage about the meaning of life and our purpose. What I liked about his approach to the question is that he brings purpose down to an almost day to day level to examine the goals we set and drive toward.  “There’s much ado about the ‘meaning of life’ which is silly, because that purpose — the pursuit of which is your meaning — changes day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.” Wright continues on to acknowledge the biological meaning of life to pass our genes on to subsequent generations, but he stays focused on the goals we maintain for ourselves, and what we do each day that brings us closer to those goals.

 

In a very real sense our spirituality can be nicely defined by Wright’s ideas.  Many religions have goals associated with the end of life, and include steps for reaching those goals. The goals become a purpose for people to constantly move forward in a positive light, and can be a permanent fixture as life changes course.

 

Wright acknowledges is that our biological purpose for living does not seem to be strong enough to settle the intellectual question of what the meaning of life is, and that is why he focuses on identifying what is consequential to you at an individual level and worth pursing.  Building our self awareness can help us understand what it is that is important for us, and by maintaining that inner understanding we can focus on a destination and  purpose that guide us.  I would recommend that once we set out on this journey we read as much as possible to understand the best path to take toward our journey, but also so that we become more considerate and understand the value and importance of the goals of others.

Finding a Role

In James Harmon’s collection of advice letters, Take My Advice, Dr. Laura Schlessinger writes, “Your role is to find out what your purpose is, and to face it with nobility, integrity, and courage.” She writes this after explaining that the meaning of life lies with our relationships and services to other people, and it is not hard to imagine that Dr. Schlessinger would consider everyones true role to be to find a way to make valuable contributions in the lives of others. Dr. Schlessinger follows her quote up with the idea of each person recognizing their importance to others and the universe, and each person finding a way to improve the universe one small action at a time.

In this sense, Dr. Schlessinger is bringing forth a new idea for each person finding their passion and mission in life. For me it has become trite to hear others talk about finding a true passion and using it to create a career. The problem is that not everyone has a strong business sense to monetize their career, and many people simply have a passion that they enjoy as a hobby and not a career. Deciding that you must be passionate about something, and that you must profit from that passion can ruin what it is you enjoy, or misguide you towards something that you merely enjoy but do not fee truly passionate about.

The advice that Dr. Schlessinger offers combats this idea of passion, because for her, our role is to find those who we can serve and discover solutions to improve what it is we dislike about our world. The end goal in finding a purpose according to Dr. Schlessinger is to become passionate about leaving a positive mark on everything, so that the world is better after you have passed through it. She removes the pressure from monetizing your passion, because we can always do something that will help improve the planet, and we can always live with the idea of helping others before ourselves.

Purpose

One of the writers who sent James Harmon a letter to be published in the book, Take My Advice, is Tom Bobbins. His letter is very short and focuses on refocusing and finding a way to keep mind, body, and soul in harmony.  Bobbins writes, “At least once a month, remind yourself that your purpose on earth is to enlarge your soul, light up your brain, and liberate your spirit.”

His message in this quote and throughout his letter is to take time to remind yourself of what is important in life, and to remember that the material goals that we all strive for are often not aligned with our spiritual goals.  Bobbin’s also writes, “repeat after me, “I’m not a Buick, I’m a Buddha,”” which shows his emphasis on being more connected with your spiritual self than your material possessions.

Last night with a friend I was discussing how quickly life seems to move once you have graduated from college. We get out of school and begin making more money and chasing important positions, nicer cars, bigger houses, and things to fill those homes with.  What we can lose sight of, and what Bobbins reminds us to stay connected with, is our bigger purpose on the planet, and the spiritual importance of being humble.  Living a life focused on BMW’s, the newest washing machines, and the latest apple products keeps us entertained, but it does not give us a sense of completion. That sense of completion Bobbins would argue, comes from knowing who we truly are, reconnecting with our spiritual selves, and understanding that life is about more than the ideas pushed into our minds from car commercials.