A false purpose is defined by author Robert Greene as money, pleasure, attention, power for its own sake or a cause to join. “Many people seek to create purpose and a feeling of transcendence on the cheap, with the least amount of effort. Such people give themselves over to false purposes”.
This shows up in a myriad ways today; from doing work we hate to buy things we don’t need, to seeking reprieve from the grind through travel, alcohol, drugs, sex, and voyeurism, to aligning ourselves with activist groups and refusing to see any merit in opposing arguments, or loudly boasting “TGIF!” come Friday morning.
While slightly dated, a 2011 report found that 60% of Princeton seniors went into either finance of professional services such as accounting, law, and management consulting. Thirty-five percent and thirty percent of Yale and Harvard seniors respectively pursued these professions.
While these graduates go on to earn competitive salaries and develop some important, transferable life skills, more often than not they’re attracted to these fields for questionable reasons to begin with. Firstly, most twenty-one-year-old college grads lack the requisite life and work experience to know where they should be investing their precious time. Second, upbringing, societal conditioning, ego and conforming to society’s definition of what success looks like no doubt also plays a significant role. After all, we evolved to avoid being ostracised from our tribe at all costs. The world may look vastly different today compared to our hunter-gatherer beginnings, but biologically, little has changed.
Here’s a glimpse into the kinds of tasks qualified college graduates find themselves doing in such prestigious organizations:
- Helping large companies find loopholes in tax law
- Moving money from A to B and taking a percentage of each transaction (aka rent seeking)
- Working on elaborate Powerpoint presentations
- Reading IBISWorld and Gartner research reports
- Performing checks and balances
I once heard the expression equating the audit profession to ‘stabbing the wounds of dead soldiers on the battlefield’. While audit serves its purpose, I tend to agree — this is not how most, if not all, of our high potentials should be spending their formative and in some ways, best years.
Not only is the nature of this going to fail to help realize their potential, but their day-to-day is characterized by:
- Hour-long meetings, by default, to discuss matters that can usually be handled virtually in one’s own time
- Unnecessary consensus-seeking for reversible, non-consequential decisions
- The relentless pursuit of “inbox zero,” a badge of honor in most workplaces, but a symbol of proficiency at putting other people’s goals ahead of one’s own
- Traveling, often long-distance, to meet people face-to-face, when a phone call would suffice
- Wasting time on a specific task long after most of the value has been delivered
- Rudimentary and administrative tasks
- Political game playing
- Projecting an image that usually is not in alignment with one’s authentic self
In short, little value creation, and a hell of a lot of posturing.
As a result, 53% of Americans are dissatisfied at work.
And what about those who pursue the supposedly progressive pastures of the Silicon Valleys and Alleys of the world? Perhaps Jeff Hammerbacher, co-founder at Cloudera put it best; “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” — Jeff Hammerbacher, Cloudera
People joining Facebook probably thought that they were helping to connect people around the world when what’s becoming clearer by the day is that what they are really helping to do is capture people’s attention so that Facebook could sell more advertising. Not only that but by capturing that attention for their own gain, they deprive the world of everything that comes with attention; problem solving and creativity, conversation, real human connection.
Not only that, but 95% of startups don’t make it, with ‘no market need’ accountable for 42% of failures, according to CBInsights. Most tech startups usually fail to generate much, if any, revenue but are essentially propped up by venture capitalists taking what effectively amount to bets on a diversified pool of startups. They’re simply hoping that one to three in a portfolio of 10 deliver enough returns to cover the losses from the remainder and help them hit their target returns.
As Adeo Rossi of the Founder Institute put it, “Rather than solving the world’s problems, entrepreneurs are filling our social feeds with wave after wave of useless consumer products and services”. Rossi says that entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley is no longer about solving big problems — it is just one big game of arbitrage. The goal? To leverage today’s cheap production and promotion channels to create profitable unit economics, and get rich, no matter how useless or destructive the products are.
“Rather than solving the world’s problems, entrepreneurs are filling our social feeds with wave after wave of useless consumer products and services” — Adeo Rossi, Founder Institute
Speaking of destructive, not only are social networking tools engineered to capture our attention, but whatever you think about apps like Deliveroo and UBER Eats, apps that essentially make it easier for us to eat junk food without leaving our homes and by avoiding human contact, particularly in an age when we’re fighting an apparent loneliness epidemic, and three-quarters of American men and more than 60% of women are obese or overweight, they can hardly be ‘net good’.
So What Does ‘True Purpose’ Look Like?
Greene defines a true purpose as one that comes from within. “It is an idea, a calling, a sense of mission that we feel personally and intimately connected to”. False purposes come from external sources, true purposes from internal ones.
Doing work aligned to not only our true purpose but our strengths and natural inclinations is the path to becoming an actualized version of the person we could otherwise become, without being chained to the fruits of a false purpose.
As Howard Gardner, psychologist of Education at Harvard University and visionary behind Project Spectrum, a curriculum that intentionally cultivates a variety of kinds of intelligence, says, “We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them to identify their natural competencies and gifts, and cultivate those”.
“We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them to identify their natural competencies and gifts, and cultivate those” — Howard Gardner, Project Zero
When we have meaning at the center of our work, we are far more likely to ride out the highs but also the inevitable lows. We emerge from our slumber each day with a spring in our step, rather than an immediate bias towards staying in bed longer or contemplating whether or not we can call in sick. We revel in the positive feedback loop that comes from doing work that’s aligned to our strengths and natural inclinations.
Sadly, many people have never really reflected nor are in a position to know what their purpose, strengths or natural inclinations really are, not having amassed enough experiences to aid the necessary pattern recognition and decision making. We deal with uncertainty by exploring lots of different variables.
In the case of our professional lives, by collecting dots across disparate areas we gain a much better appreciation for what we like, don’t like, what our natural inclinations and strengths are, what conditions we truly thrive, where we feel challenged and in flow, and what really gets us out of bed in the morning. Without a broad set of experiences, we also fail to develop the executive decision making and creativity that’s vital to success in a fast-changing and increasingly uncertain 21st Century.
A consequence of all of this is that genuine value-adding businesses can’t find great talent.
Recently, when discussing the hiring woes of a friend of mine’s health business, they proclaimed that “an intern at PwC could probably do a better job than some of the ‘experienced professionals’ I’ve hired”. Sadly, she may have been right. I too have seen this play out first hand on more occasions than I’d like.
Imagine if just one percent of the capable talent, currently wasting away reconciling trial balances for listed companies, redirected its attention and focused on problems worth solving, with companies trying to make a genuine difference in the world.
Not only would the impact on their own lives be significant, but so too the world.
Comments and thoughts welcome.