“Sheryl didn’t actually play, she just organized the play of others.”
Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s brother
In college, I dreamed of being a “manager.” I know, it sounds like a Dilbert cartoon come to life! One of my super techie, successful entrepreneur friends then told me, “one of my biggest aspirations is to make this an amazing place to work for my employees”. That was an “aha” moment for me. My desire to empower people and solve for a better future became a thread I could reliably follow for inspiration and to decide if something was worth my energy.
We spend the bulk of our lives at work. It can be a big drag on our lives inside and outside of the office, or a place where you can learn, grow and contribute. Gallup survey data shows less than one-third of employees are engaged at work and globally, it is only thirteen percent!
Over decades as a regional commercial director and now as an advisor, investor and speaker, I’m attracted to projects at the intersection of the future of work and the future of education to help make “work” a means for people to fulfill their potential and evolve. That means going beyond preparing to be computationally clever and critical thinkers to becoming resilient, agile, curious and engaged. Learning how to move beyond your comfort zones. Sometimes, this is a simple as learning through sports to push your boundaries.
With accelerating changes across technology, globalization and demographics, these are some of the keys to solving our biggest problems as a society. That does not necessarily mean quitting your job, and one size doesn’t fit all - but I know too many “successful” but miserable people and stuck, fearful students in the world that are sacrificing their health, relationships and sanity for elusive, external goals that may not even be valid in a few years time.
Of course, I had to learn that the hard way. In the early years, as a management consultant, I didn’t have time or energy to engage regularly with any non-profit or community beyond work. I travelled almost every week, weighed about 175 pounds and ate so poorly that my kind next door neighbor started making me an extra plate so that I’d have at least one good meal on the weekend when I came home from my latest work trip.
When I moved to Hong Kong, I met my husband, who insisted on proper dinners and good food! I travelled a bit less and went hiking every weekend. Hong Kong is a go-go city but in the 1990s, start-up fever had arrived and it was dynamic and social - everyone always hustling to create something new. This sense of collective purpose was energizing and many of those people are now lifelong friends. I don’t think purpose means working less hours, I just think it means making sure those hours count and understanding the cost.
Once I had a family, I was still working too many hours, travelling, and squeezing it all as an uber-efficient optimizer. Then one day, my best friend, then living in Germany, found her own life to be unbearable and took her own life.
That gave me a wake up call to stop running and start living life on my own terms.
I haven’t dialed down since then so much as shifted my priorities to the relationships in my life, my family, making an impact and more time to be creative and just be. I still work but have shifted out of a position that requires travel once or twice a month. To live my values, I am an Advisor for The Busy Woman Project, as well as contribute to NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) in Hong Kong such as Teach4HongKong and the American Chamber of Commerce. I still work long hours, but it is more flexible. This is my work, but also my “play”; to work with other inspired people to make the world just a bit better off than where we found it.
Don’t feel frustrated if you can’t find that one “north star” that explains why you are here and what you are meant to do. Sometimes when my children can’t go to sleep, I tell them just to rest their eyes. Once they let go of such dogged pursuit of sleep, it comes. Once you relinquish “finding your purpose” as a thing to check off your list, the many purposes in life will come find you.
In the meantime, herald the advice of Elon Musk:
“I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”
So how can you find your purpose? Here are some tips:
- Finding Purpose: What did you want to be when you grew up? What were you passionate about in college? When you get excited about a company, what purpose are they espousing? Write it down and search for some activities that help you.
- Read: Purpose, Incorporated: Turning Cause into Your Competitive Advantage, by John Wood.
- Finding Energy: Start a journal for a week and write down what you do each day. Next to it, write whether or not it was engaging or energizing and rank 1-10. Look at the activities, environment or interactions you had. For instance, when I have to do my expenses, it is neither energizing nor engaging. Speaking is great on both counts but organising an event, while engaging, just sucks me dry. Sequence your week to make sure there’s a balance and have a list of a few nourishing activities like a run, a massage, chatting to a friend that will lift you up.
- Read: Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans of the Stanford Design Lab
- Listen to: Running Fast or Running Free - my attempt to grow out of a ‘perfect’ life into a meaningful one, on my own terms.
Purpose isn’t found and then tucked in a box. It is a journey. Keep questioning, remain agile, reflect on what feels great and what doesn’t or isn’t working, and what might change to make it better. A good grasp on reality and a willingness to grow is imperative!