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What is your purpose? (Can’t stand this spiel anymore)

By Nathalia Toledo

I admit. The trivialization of this word makes me want to stop right here. Suddenly, the well-being market, the business market and the self-care market, among others, incorporated this “purpose” talk to reformulate their brands, their communications and their sales. The market, you see? A business that does not play to lose, and that would never incorporate an idea if there were no… demand. Oh yes, the market. So I propose to you (and myself) to try to put aside the disgust for this superficially explored subject and reflect on why this demand exists today. Why is the pursuit of purpose so trending? Is it something fleeting?

  1. ME

I start by telling a little about my personal experience. A millennial female, a journalist and a determined person who has always known the steps to take and the career to build. Everything was laid out, and, little by little, I have achieved each goal, fulfilled each dream, and shaped the plan. I spent the last 11 years looking for what made sense to me: a successful career in a big company, with recognition from my colleagues, the public and my family. And, of course, with a remuneration that would allow me to live comfortably and enjoy my free time. But wait… what free time? That’s where the big turn comes in.

Certainly driven at some point by a pandemic epiphany, in 2020, I stop to question myself about the quality of my time in and out of work. Since the early internships during college, I gave up weekends, holidays and commemorative dates for a journalistic routine that does not obey the logic of “working days”. I got used to working on shifts and normalizing a tense day-to-day life, with adrenaline and stress in the same measure, where the breaks I had were never enough to recharge the battery, nor to do everything I wanted in my personal life. The time account did not close.

Okay, none of this was a surprise. I was well aware of what awaited me. But maybe not conscious enough. Gradually, I realized the price of all that in my own body: migraines, weight changes, and the need for surgery to get rid of painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs. When the body screamed, I decided to listen.

Then, I shifted my career, my mindset, my lifestyle.

  1. THE OTHERS

I am far from being alone in this one — quite the opposite. More and more workers are reassessing their relationship with their jobs. According to LinkedIn’s recent Workforce Confidence Index, 59% of workers are either actively seeking to change industries or considering doing so. The report surveyed around 5,000 respondents between October 9 and October 22, revealing that better pay is the main reason (54%), while an increasing amount of people (48%) expresses interest in finding a job that is better in line with their values, and many (44%) want more opportunities to advance in their roles.

Another report, by Escape the City, shows that 89% of respondents now “wanted a career with a strong sense of purpose”. That compares with 71% in the pre-Covid-19 world. Seven out of 10 people say that coronavirus has made them re-evaluate their career path.

And it is not by chance that the United States, and perhaps the world, is experiencing the so-called “Great Resignation”, a wave of resignations for multiple reasons. In October, 4.2 million workers — nearly 3% of the US workforce — left their jobs voluntarily in the country, according to data from the Bureau of Labor. Not necessarily leaving the workforce, but simply resetting what their careers look like. This piece from BBC suggests a proper calling: the Great Reshuffle. 

And what do the new arrangements look like? It depends on each one’s… purpose. With more focus than ever on topics such as climate change, sustainability and equality, a positive social impact definitely counts. And this leads us to also talk about the companies’ roles.

  1. THE ORGANIZATIONS

Here I ask permission to share with you a super interesting article I recently read on the subject. According to a professor interviewed by Gama, there are some ways to analyze the appropriation of the speech of purpose by businesses. Based on Marxist thinking, one of them asks: to what extent can a company, which has profit as its purpose, be committed to collective, social and community well-being?

The other one reflects on the diminishing role of the State. From this point of view, the government and its institutions lose strength amid the discourse of the minimal state, and thus, companies need to have purposes and embrace causes to make up for the lack of a more active State. In this way, businesses assume a role in maintaining people’s well-being in the new configuration of the social and political system. “This has to do, for example, with the fact that purposeful companies grew up in the pandemic. Yes, because they occupied a state function”, says Pompeu.

The piece highlights that the number of companies that have been born to positively impact society is growing. And there is space from small entrepreneurs to big investors to be at the forefront, either through private social investments or through the creation of a new initiative, within the brand that adopts a specific purpose.

Not only does the community benefit from the purpose in business, but the internal environment of companies is also positively affected. Employers need to identify company and leaders’ values similar to those they carry. This connection gives meaning to work.

“Companies are still figuring out what purpose is, and how to bring it to life within the organization. In this process, there will be moments of fragility. The important thing is that the debate starts and, as time passes, only those who invest in a true way will stay in the game”, said the neuroscientist Ana Carolina Souza in the same article.

  1. THE PURPOSE

According to Gama, the expression “purpose at work” began to be popularized in the mid-1980s, exactly when Generation Y, or the so-called Millenials, was born. With the global economic crisis of 2008 and, more recently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fascination has been overshadowed, and people seem to be treating the relationship between purpose and work in a less and less romanticized way.

Returning to my case, the “successful career in a big company, with recognition from my colleagues, the public and my family members” path I walked no longer made sense to me. It no longer had a purpose. Where would it be then? I have heard a quote that echoes in my mind every day: “It is not the companies that pay our salaries. We are the ones who sell our time”. So my purpose today is to make the most of my most precious possession. By selling the amount I want, for the price I want, to whom I think it is worth. May my job, hobbies, and people be in balance — under my direction.

However, let’s point out a crucial fact: aligning livelihood with life ideals is not part of the rule; it’s a luxury. It is not questionable that there is a high grade of alienation, illusion and disconnection from reality in evoking such purpose speech (and then my disgust comes back). It is necessary to talk about it carefully and down to earth. I believe it is an eternal search, common to all beings, where the purpose changes shape throughout life. It is up to us to know how to accomplish a healthy pursuit – and a possible one, of course.