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Purpose-Driven Work: Advice for Jobs, Careers, and Success in Challenging Times

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • C. Clinton Sidle Founding Director, Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University

In the news recently, there has been much said about the importance of creating jobs. While unemployment is ravaging every part of the workforce, perhaps hardest hit are fresh college graduates who can't get started. For these young people the damage can be deep and long-lasting and create what Peter Coy from Business Week calls a "lost generation."

So how do we advise them, or any career oriented professional looking for job success and satisfaction? My simple answer is "You just need one job." It may not be in your field and it may be a rung down the ladder from where you belong, but all you need is just one. Then, follow your bliss.

My field is leadership and I am concerned with not only how to track people in successful and satisfying careers but also to stir them to make a positive contribution to the world. My question is how can we inspire young professionals and future business leaders "to do well while doing good," in ways that stick? My answer seems like common sense, but may be elusive because of its simplicity: Craft the work you have to you until you find work that you love (or come close). The amazing thing is that when you do, you will not only be more likely to succeed and create more opportunities, but also feel better about yourself and serve in positive, responsible ways.

How does this work?

It's been nearly a half a century since mythologist Joseph Campbell first coined the phrase follow your bliss to show the profound wisdom of tapping into the energy that makes you tick. "There are many things in life that will catch your eye, he said, "but only a few will catch your heart--pursue those." Why? Your odds of success and satisfaction increase greatly when you put your time and energy into things that matter most to you.

Here is a simple process.

Play to your strengths. This now familiar success strategy was made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Marcus Buckingham, and others. Csikszentmihaly introduced his concept Flow as total immersion in highly rewarding activity that closely matches our natural talents. When you are in your Flow, you are so immersed in exercising your natural talents that the sense of "work" disappears. Finding opportunities to apply them is a powerful source of self-worth, and in turn of happiness and success. So the message is to know your talents and then shape your job around them.

Many of us, however, default our life choices to our learned ambitions rather than our innate abilities. In that bargain, we expend a great deal of energy going against our own grain. No matter how hard you try, however, it's unlikely you will be more than average in areas where you have no aptitude.

How different might it be to follow your bliss instead? One effective principle is the simple rule of play to your strengths, and manage around your weaknesses. Baseball players, for instance, use their dominant hand to throw (play to strength), and use the other hand to catch (manage around weakness) with the help of a glove, a tool. Tiger Woods, Bruce Springsteen, and Warren Buffet did not become great by working on their weaknesses. Working with your natural talents brings success, confidence and enjoyment.

Assessing natural talents is not always easy, but there are plenty of tools available. I introduce The Leadership Wheel as one in my book, This Hungry Spirit: Your Need for Basic Goodness, which is based on the Native American Medicine Wheel and Tibetan Mandala-models of human effectiveness, growth, and change that withstood the test of time for thousands of years. Each direction represents a particular intelligence - intellectual, emotional, intuitive, action, and spiritual - among our potential range of talents. An HR manager who is a more of a data person (intellectual) than a people person (emotional) can be successful by providing the information to serve others on the front line who have those skills effectively.

So these talents, then, do not necessarily channel into specific careers. People with the same or similar talents can be successful in different fields. A career choice is first about knowing strengths, and then about playing to them through the opportunities that life presents. As Aristotle said, "Where your talents cross with the needs of the world, there lies your vocation."

Serve your purpose. Do you want a job (a teacher who thinks they just teach history), a career (a teacher who thinks they're in the business of education) or a calling (a teacher who thinks they're teaching young minds how they can make history)?

Once you begin to discover your talents, ask how you can use them in ways that give you meaning. What is your purpose in applying them? Purpose guides you to make conscious choices, instead of simply defaulting to the script. It also motivates and inspires you--especially in tough times. It taps into who you are deep inside--your beliefs, values, and passions for living - and is your source of power, magic, and influence.

Finding a real purpose is not easy because it must be heartfelt and based on a personal truth. As Victor Frankl said, "We do not invent our missions in life, we detect them." Try answering this question for yourself. Ask, "What is my true purpose in life or, who am I?" Either will do. Write down every response that pops into your head, a phrase is fine, and keep at it until one tugs at your heart. You may write a hundred that don't stick; when one pulls on your heart, you are onto something. That's your purpose for now. Repeat this process periodically, and as you grow your purpose will grow.
This step is key. I have helped thousands of students and professionals through this process and almost without fail, people want to do good in the world.

As I have shared before, in his purpose statement one of my students wrote, "I will work for the success and betterment of myself, my family, my community, my nation, and my world. I will wake up every day wondering how I can do this. I will work hard to learn as much as I can, because with knowledge and understanding comes influence and strength. I will stay true to my beliefs. If I have achieved this, I have achieved success."

Imagine what our world would be like if all our business and political leaders had such a purpose! So are you a banker or a servant to community development, a hairdresser or a counselor, or a pharmaceutical sales person or a purveyor of public health? It makes a difference.

Craft the work you do to you until you find work you love (or come close). So the final step is to craft your work to you by playing to your talents and purpose in your job until you find work you love more. It's a journey. As Peter Drucker said, "The chances that the first career choice you make is the right one for you is roughly one in a million. If you decide the first one is right for you, then the chances are you are just plain lazy." It's not likely that you will know your calling early. However, if you play to your talents and your purpose, you will likely do well, and that will create new opportunities for you. Then you just continue to follow your bliss until you are led to it, or come close.

Most career progressions only make sense in retrospect. The key is to shape your job to you and not the other way around. Even in the most routine things, you can exert some control over the essence of your work. When you do, it's like Confucius said, "Find work you love and you will never work another day in your life."

When in doubt, return to your purpose. Finally, when you face a tough situation or difficult decision, go back to your purpose. You will always have bumps along the road. When in doubt, ask, "How do I serve my purpose in this situation?" How is this situation an opportunity to do that?

This purpose, of course, is an expression of what is right, virtuous, and compassionate about being a human being. Serving it, you serve yourself and your growth. In career choices and the business world in general, you constantly face opportunities and decisions with no clear answers. When you face new opportunity and the road is not clear, draw on your purpose for guidance. If you face an ethical dilemma--a sticky problem with another person, or at odds with your boss and uncertain what to do--ask, "How do I serve my purpose?" The answer typically becomes clear, and you can act with confidence, authenticity, and courage.