The article orginally appeared as a TEDx Berlin talk.
"What if the world was holding its breath waiting for you to take the place that only you can fill?" -David Whyte
I am inspired by this quote. Because I have been battling with these questions.
Is wanting a purpose-driven career in times of turmoil just pure entitlement? Is it narcissistic to want to have meaningful work? Or blatantly naïve to pursue it?
You might consider me as lucky. Because whenever I didn’t follow my calling my life became unbearably painful. It meant my life was always full of meaning. But it also meant that I spent a lot of time being utterly unhappy.
And when back in the days I was at the crossroads of returning to management consulting, after a 100k elite MBA, doubling down on our long-term hobby project of building a network for purpose-driven leaders of my generation felt like a direct ticket to stupidity land.
Today – and sure I wouldn’t be here otherwise - I feel, it wasn’t. I will never regret living through the fear of losing our business through COVID. Or the tears of joy of being flashmobbed by my team and 40 alumni on one of our reunions.
Hence, I wanna give some solid reasons why pursuing meaningful work is neither narcissistic nor naïve. And leave us with 3 questions to help identify what that could be for each of us.
From the perspective of an organization a fulfilled workforce is overwhelmingly good.
World-wide the top quartile of organisations with the most engaged employees outperforms the bottom quartile in almost any area: Their profitability and sales are both about a fifth higher. Fluctuation up to two thirds lower. Absenteism down by 41% and safety incidents even by 70%.
But is “trying to be fulfilled at work” also a good idea for humans? Or are we potentially better off to opt for the simpler, less demanding route of limiting our relationship with work to one of mere provision?
After all, especially for those with a pretty good career following our calling means to put our hearts at risk. Failure in passion-driven work feels worse than just a technical malfunction, but a kind of failure in our quintessence. So it wise to prioritize purpose even over money?
First of all let’s admit that above that magic and much quoted cut off point at around 75000 US Dollars per year more money doesn’t make us significantly happier. However not having enough money for sure makes people unhappy. So far so good. You knew that before.
But let’s – just for fun - filter out entrepreneurs or those engaged in entrepreneurial activity: Not only are they healthier – for instance in terms of obesity, diabetes and life expectancy. They are also happier. In comparison to employees they – across the globe – report higher levels of professional satisfaction, relationship quality, self-acceptance and – wait for it – work life balance!
What is more, life satisfaction grows over time up to an extent where – as an established entrepreneur – you are significantly happier than your employee counterparts pretty much regardless of your income.
Last but not least: On average we ALL value purpose over money. Even your parents. As we age “meaning” becomes an increasingly bigger contributor to workplace happiness. Whilst “money” declines. This is by far not an invention of the millennial generation.
I think in today’s world for many of us, the degree to which we know and follow our calling wisely, the degree to which we master the art of making money with our life purpose is pretty much decisive as to whether you are living a great life or just a life.
"Knowing your calling is an asset. Following it an even bigger one."
Having worked with hundreds of millennial change makers, I found there are three main questions -or let’s say question areas - we have to get aligned on in order to build truly purpose-driven work.
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So get out your pen and paper and join me on this experiment, this adventure into your own matrix, that software that each of us has created within their own head.
For the first question I will invite you to sit down, close your eyes. And imagine a situation where all the annoyances, maybe the small and big fears or moments of sadness of the past weeks just magically disappear. So that a large sense of quiescent, yet grounded wholeness can emerge. Zoom out to take a look at the lifeline of yourself from birth to death and try to sense into: What is that person truly pursuing? Which longing? A longing to heal? A longing to stand up for something? To make something better or faster? Imagine: What is that one value that there is MORE of in this world, because you follow your calling? Is it joy? Fairness? Things running more smoothly? Love and contribution? In your mind answer the first question:
What am I instinctively creating?
If you like open your eyes and write it down.
I like to call this the sponsoring pursuit. That one thing that you create, reproduce, generate no matter where you go. It might be hidden in the ways you make decisions or lead conversations, who you promote and what ideas you like. But it for sure shows in three things: the kind of teams you are surrounded with, the leadership you radiate and the culture you build as a result of it.
So let’s start with your team. Think about your dream team. Imagine the kind of colleage you would be inspired to work with. Around 40% of happiness at work is driven by interpersonal relationships, so let’s try to really understand what we seek in order to spot these guys when we meet then.
Now let’s fast forward further down the line: We also tend to think that in order to attract great people we have to pay top salaries or put bean bags and green smoothies into our company cafeteria. But the BEST people resonate with us, because of what we are building. People hang out with us because they want to stand in our energy.
I love to imagine we are all running around with an umbrella from which it rains that energy which we are spreading all the time to our surroundings. When you are a force of what you instinctively create: What does it rain under your umbrella? Empowerment? Peaceful reflectedness? Or are things being fast, dynamic – boom-boom-boom? Whether you want it or not: Whatever it rains under your umbrella, that’s your leadership style, the culture we give rise to no matter where we go; the reason why people follow or run away from you.
The second question is:
How does what you instinctively create relate to the world you are in?
For this you wan to understand your stage, your role and your audience.
As for your stage: Think about the industries, organisations, products or services that you deeply resonate with you.
Pick a role you seek to play in this, a role where you get to do the things you love: talent or acquired skill. Are you the artist who masters and perfects their art – be that excel sheets or people management? The preneur who takes charge of running things and getting the money in? Or the cheerleader who loves to listen and support so that others can do the work they are best at?
And your audience are the people you serve. Those who need what you have to offer. Put simply: What is the hell they are in because they haven’t met your product or service yet? And what heaven you catapult them into afterwards. That difference between their heaven and hell is the problem you solve for them. And if you define it well, it is something you can likely be paid for.
And the third question:
What long-term lifestyle do you wish to cultivate?
For instance: Are you and your 5 children living in a big house on the countryside? Or are you jet-setting between London and Kuala Lumpur?
This means to write down your estimated monthly or annual expenses (and no – please – do not leave out pension, insurances or taxes) and your time requirements for yourself, your social life and your hobbies.
And it means to be clear on how you finance it. Will you have one job? A part time job and a passion project? A scholarship? Or found your own organization?
So here we are. These are my three big points.
Maybe I could convince you that “following your calling” does not at all have to be rash, but an expression of how you navigate your world.
When going through these questions, maybe some of them end up being blank. Maybe you think: My answers contradict each other! Or: How am I supposed to know all of this NOW?
And you don’t have to. But the better you know the easier it will be for you to build work that inspires and fulfils you in the long run.
And by now you will hopefully agree that:
Knowing your calling is an asset. Following it an even bigger one. The world is waiting for you.
Written by Astrid Schrader, Founder of The Arc – Leadership Bootcamps and Coaching for impact-driven individuals seeking to build a meaningful career.
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