Finding your place in the Purpose Economy

Or, how to come alive and change the world


There is an exciting paradigm shift occurring in the way we think about work today. Today’s economy is not led by investment bankers or software developers, it is led by purpose-driven changemakers. These changemakers work on a smorgasbord of systemic problems and opportunities ranging from poverty to climate change to artificial intelligence. They’re working to build a radically inclusive world that celebrates all forms of diversity. They’re leading or supporting big corporations, government agencies, non-profits, startups, educational institutions, and the arts. These changemakers are striving to create a positive impact in their field, while building a life that marries the personal and professional — they’re building legacies of change, and not just careers. The blurring of lines between the personal and professional in this regard is noteworthy, for it is when you’re living out your purpose that the concept of a job becomes redundant. Research in positive psychology even suggests a strong link between purpose and happiness. This shift in the way we think about work today is part of what some call the Purpose Economy.

Purpose is the new paradigm of work

The Purpose Economy grew from circumstances unique to the last decade — the financial crisis of 2008 exposed deep flaws in our perception of value, and the proliferation of social media allowed for instant access to information about every facet of the crisis. There was a global awakening as we peeled back the layers and realized that most of our systems, from financial to food to healthcare, were broken.

Consider these 5 indicators of the Purpose Economy:

1. The economy is reorienting itself around collaborative models of consumption, which gives consumers the benefit of a product or service at lower costs/personal burden and lower environmental impact.

2. There is an increasingly strong demand for sustainable consumption models and sustainable products

3. There is a strong supply of talent eager to meet the demands of the Purpose Economy. Millennials are increasingly choosing non-traditional career paths in pursuit of purpose.

4. There are new ways to finance this reorientation from a purely capitalistic to a more sustainable and purpose-driven economy. From impact investing to crowdfunding to mobile payment methods and even alternative currencies like bitcoin, innovations in finance are cropping up to support every aspect of this new economy.

5. Legislation is evolving to incorporate the rise of purpose-driven businesses. Benefit corporation legislation creates a new corporate form, which legally allows businesses to focus on not just fiduciary impact, but also social and environmental impact (i.e., a triple bottomline). Beyond legislation, there are also ways to become a certified B Corp, which is basically a business that meets rigorous environmental and social standards.

So, not only is there demand for this new Purpose Economy, there are also tools and frameworks developing to support it. But what does it mean to have a career in the Purpose Economy? Consider this Venn diagram:

As the Purpose Economy grows, many of us are moving to that star in the diagram above, and there is room for so many more of us to get there. I have spent the past few years finding my own place in the Purpose Economy. Here are some ways to find yours, based on my own journey thus far.

1. Crystallize your purpose — my “purpose” has been something I’ve felt at a very young age, but it has evolved over time. When I was young, I knew I wanted to help people — what kid doesn’t, right? — so I decided I would be a doctor. That dream died at age 10, when the sight of blood caused me to promptly pass out. But the desire to help people and to alleviate suffering didn’t go anywhere. I was living in India at the time and had just started watching, and being intrigued by, the nightly news my parents watched. I decided sometime soon after that I would be the next Christiane Amanpour. I might have been full of clichés, but I was most certainly full of passion. Full of passion…but not quite purpose yet.

I soon realized a conventional journalism career, if I didn't make it to Amanpour’s level, would not mean much money. And money is important. We often think that if we want to change the world, we’re supposed to discard any desire for money. We expect changemakers — the teacher working with inner-city kids or the non-profit worker fighting plastic pollution — to make dramatically less than the investment banker repackaging some bad debt. That kind of thinking is so incredibly flawed. For one, money is a way to measure value. To pay a pittance for work that has the capacity to transform human lives or the planet is to devalue human lives and the planet. Also, purpose-driven organizations can’t retain good talent without competitive compensation. The good news is that the Purpose Economy recognizes this and is adapting. B Corps and other purpose-driven organizations do an increasingly good job of bridging that kind of compensation gap. Money is an important subject to think about while crystallizing your purpose. It’ll also help you figure out your framework for living out your purpose.

When I was 15, my family moved from India to Singapore. It was after I moved that the overwhelming poverty that previously surrounded me in Mumbai began to haunt me. Singapore talked about its poor, but you could barely see them. India barely talked about its poor, perhaps numbed by the sheer magnitude, and they were everywhere. Theories of economic justice started to resonate with me around that time, but it hadn't quite crystallized into a purpose yet. I left for college soon to pursue a degree in molecular biology, which is a separate story in itself. I had always been a huge science nerd and I was trying to sell my vehemently-opposed parents on the idea of me moving to the U.S. for college — “UT Austin’s program is THE BEST for molecular biology research! I HAVE to go!” I would say, and my mother would calmly point out that the National University of Singapore, which I had just got into and which cost my parents 1/4th the amount, was just as good. “But I already know Singapore, I need to EXPAND my HORIZONS!! Plus, a U.S college will let me explore ALL my passions!” I’d scream in response. Somehow, after plenty of arguing back and forth, I got my way.

I set out at 17 to The University of Texas at Austin to become a molecular biologist. After a year of spending all my time in a lab in a rigorous research program, I started to not like the idea of becoming a molecular biologist anymore, much like my parents feared. “I KNEWWWW it” was my dad’s immediate response. Thankfully, my mom was too busy listening to me gush about my new-found love for economics –I had just taken my first ever economics class –to say too much about me doing a 180 on everything I had sold them on. I applied to UT’s business school and got in, so I could add a BBA in Finance to my BA in Economics and keep everyone happy. My dad still likes to joke about how I duped the family into sending me to the U.S., but both my parents have been extremely supportive of my journey so far.

I was taking an International Studies class at UT, when I decided to dig deeper into the world of microfinance after learning about the Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus. I still had that desire to change the world, specifically through poverty alleviation after that initial realization in high school. So I traveled to India and Bangladesh to conduct research over a couple semesters. It was while I was in Bangladesh, working with the Nobel Peace-prize winning Grameen Bank, that my purpose completely pivoted. We were spending our hot summer days in villages talking to rural women entrepreneurs, analyzing how microfinance was impacting their lives. On one particular day, the guy ferrying us around in the village on a bicycle contraption, asked when the Grameen Bank was going to stop floods in Bangladesh. He was kidding, but it struck a chord with me. Bangladesh as a nation is the most vulnerable to global climate change. While we could theoretically bring several villages out of poverty through microfinance, one flood threatened to bring it all back to square one. So I started to read up more on climate change to better understand the causes, the culprits and the solutions. I spent the last two years of college studying sustainability voraciously, which set me on the path I’m on today.

I’m sharing my journey to say that it’s completely okay to “dabble” and switch courses when you need to. When you find something that interests you, explore it fully to decide if the interest has potential to become your purpose. As long as you’re learning and growing, you’ll get there. There are also programs like Hive, Bold Academy and StartingBloc that are designed to be purpose accelerators. I was part of Hive’s program this year and even though I knew what my purpose was going in, it was a transformative experience. To describe it would need another post altogether, but in a nutshell, it helped me crystallize my purpose and distill it down to its very essence:

My life’s purpose is to create a world where human consumption revitalizes our communities and our planet.

It took me 10 years to get here.

2. Develop your framework — while you’re crystallizing your purpose, you should also think about your framework. Your framework is essentially how you’re going to live out your purpose. It includes your values and the path you’re going to use to come alive and change the world. Like I mentioned earlier, there are several ways to affect positive change.

My senior year of college was filled with existential crises. I had always thought I’d move back to India someday, but 3 years in the U.S at that point and I had fallen in love with my life. I love India, she’s in my blood, but the idea of living out my purpose in India didn't feel right anymore, for me personally. The personal freedom I enjoyed in the U.S. was unparalleled. Plus, I wanted to work in sustainability, and the U.S’ environmental impact was twice that of India’s, which made my decision to find a job in the U.S. easier. This was 2011, and even though the economy was recovering, jobs that required a visa sponsorship from an employer were scarce. So when I managed to land a job at a top consulting firm, I was pretty ecstatic.

I also felt like a sellout. I couldn't work out how I was going to fight climate change while working with Fortune 500 clients on entirely different challenges. But I took the job, because it allowed me to remain in the States and promised to be an amazing learning opportunity. I eventually followed an intrapreneurial path, which can translate to living out your purpose within the framework of your existing organization. Intrapreneurship can sometimes be challenging depending on your organization structure, but it can be very rewarding. More and more organizations are starting to realize the power of intrapreneurship, and are developing channels to harness it. My intrapreneurial path led me to my current role, where I’m helping Fortune 500 companies incorporate sustainability into their business to reduce their GHG emissions and improve their brand equity. That is, a role so perfectly aligned with my purpose, and one in which I’m learning a ton. In the future, I might want to explore entrepreneurship and/or venture capital as my framework. Like your purpose, your framework can and will evolve.

3. Share….everywhere — sharing information related to your purpose on social media is a great way to create your own brand, and to find people and resources that relate to your purpose. But beyond social media, share your purpose with the people in your life. It’s a great way to get feedback and refine your “pitch” in real life and who knows, you might just inspire someone.

4. Find a mentor and be a mentor — heads up, you’re going to need to more than one mentor (it really does take a village……). Your mentors can be people in your desired area of work, but also people that aren't — one of the best mentors I’ve had isn’t necessarily passionate about sustainability, but understands my passion and has helped me navigate an intrapreneurial path. Another mentor is a sustainability expert outside of my organization, with deep experience across sectors. What they both have in common is their unequivocal support of me, oftentimes going out of their way to help me get to my next step. That’s ideally what you want from a mentor. You should look to build deep relationships which you not only learn from, and gain support from, but are also able to provide some value to. When I say add value, I mean don’t just go to your mentor when you’re looking for help. Truly build a relationship by keeping them updated on your progress and engaging them in common areas of interest. Play your part in the relationship. Mentors would love to know they’re making an impact by helping you live out your purpose.

The next step is to mentor others, even if you think you might not be experienced enough. You don’t have to be a subject matter expert to be a good mentor, you just need a desire to help someone else on their journey. We all have advice or support to offer based on our own experiences; “gifts” that another person might need to get to their next step. Share your gifts.

5. Develop metrics to become measurable — you can’t manage what you don’t measure. This is true for both businesses and individuals. Developing metrics can keep you accountable and help you measure your impact, which is great for when you’re trying to set goals for yourself or share your story.

To hold yourself accountable, you’d set personal metrics. For instance, if one of your goals for the year is to find a purpose-driven job, one of your personal metrics could be # of jobs applied for/day, or # of people networked with/week. If you’re trying to measure your impact, you’d set overarching goals that align with general industry standards. Since I’m focused on sustainability, one of my impact metrics could be metric tons of CO2e reduced. Naturally, for something like this, it is hard to measure your own personal impact on a global challenge. But you can frame it differently — for example, of all the projects I’m working on, what is the total estimated opportunity (in my case, of CO2e savings) I’m helping to uncover through my work? Your metrics then become like a progress report you can share with the people who are invested in your journey — your family, your friends, your mentors, your coworkers, your community. The focus is on progress, not perfection. Tracking personal metrics on some level will help you celebrate your own accomplishments and inspire you to dream bigger. It’ll also help you better articulate your purpose and your framework for living out your purpose. Basically, your data will help tell your story.

6. Build resilience — In the Purpose Economy, we’re trying to build resilient systems, but we also need to focus on developing resilient souls. Our souls, that is. Hive did a great job of incorporating the practice of mindfulness, specifically for changemakers, into its program. There is so much good in the world, but there is some pretty awful stuff too — the stuff we’re trying to change. And changing paradigms is never easy. You’re going to face obstacles and personal struggles. You’re going to get slapped in the face with an existential crisis or two. You’re going to lose things that matter to you. The key is to learn to trust your journey and build internal resilience, so you can continue to live out your purpose.

Even the Buddha said, “Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it”. Just think of all the amazing, world-changing things that could happen if we all found and lived out our purpose.