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What’s the point of working?

Be honest: it’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point over the last few years.

Often as another Sunday night races to a conclusion and your career outlook shifts from showing up and working hard to frantically searching “how many tickets do you need to buy to win the euromillions?” with complete sincerity at 1am.

It’s not a question about the value of work. We all know in a practical sense, having a job is vital to survival. It’s a question of:

Why am I doing this specifically?

What is it about this job that gets me up in the morning? What is my purpose? And does my purpose align with where I am in my life right now?

The great awakening

Earlier this year we published The Great Workplace Shakeup. Our guide to redesigning employee experience, post-pandemic. It’s about building workplaces fit for the future, centered around concepts of connection, flexibility, vision, and purpose.

We talk about the world of work undergoing a profound change. A ‘great awakening’ if you like, for both employers and employees.

Tired from years of normalised burnout and seeking more sustainable alternatives, people are rethinking their purpose, priorities, and impact, and asking big existential questions about what fulfilment looks like – both in and out of the workplace.

At the heart of these questions is a renewed sense of how much time and energy we dedicate to work, and a desire to see ourselves rewarded – beyond remuneration.

People are increasingly looking to businesses and the private sector to tackle some of society’s biggest problems, hoping innovation unlocks solutions to things like the climate crisis and social inequality.

Against a backdrop of deep uncertainty, it’s no wonder employees want to know the business they work for cares about them, the world, and their impact on both.

There is a growing trend among businesses, to either adopt or outright provide a sense of purpose themselves. One recent high profile example is American clothing brand Patagonia. Company Founder Yvon Chouinard made headlines in September this year with news he was going to “give the company away”.

Source: New York Times

“Rather than selling the company or taking it public, Mr. Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization. They were created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits — some $100 million a year — are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.”

“The unusual move comes at a moment of growing scrutiny for billionaires and corporations, whose rhetoric about making the world a better place is often overshadowed by their contributions to the very problems they claim to want to solve.”

Global management consulting firm McKinsey says: “Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. Employers need to help meet this need, or be prepared to lose talent to companies that will.”

They surveyed over a thousand American workers to understand the importance of purpose in the workplace. What they found is that purpose can be looked at in three different ways:

Source: McKinsey

“If an employee gets very little purpose from their work, the size of the middle circle will be smaller. By contrast, if another person finds their work very purposeful, it will be larger. Intuitively, then, the size of the middle circle represents the portion of one’s purpose that is accessible by work—and also how much purpose employees want from their work—and it may grow or shrink. Employers should view this middle circle as a target they strive to understand and meet. They should influence the expansion of this circle if they can.”

  • Naina Dhingra, Andrew Samo, Bill Schaninger, Matt Schrimper; McKinsey

Asking the big questions

Existential questions come up a lot more frequently in a work context than they used to. Both employers and employees are much more attuned and receptive to them now. And it’s good to explore big questions, because the answers you find may potentially be life altering. Which is where coaching comes in.

How do you align work, values, and purpose in a complex, ever changing world? How do you convince your actions to meet your thoughts?

Existential questions might be front of mind for many, but what if they aren’t? What if increasing a person’s personal wealth or simply achieving security in a job they don’t have to worry about is the only apparent, meaningful purpose in their life?

Whether you’re changing the world for the better or providing for your family, if you feel like you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing, more power to you. It’s when you don’t that there’s a problem.

What unfortunately does tend to happen – to all of us – is you get older. This is inevitable. You’re then faced with your own mortality. Also inevitable. Slamming into this realisation often triggers certain questions to ping around the old noggin:

What have I contributed? What did I stand for? How will people remember me?

Thing is, people now are faced with these sorts of questions much earlier in life. Mainly because the world appears to be burning in a new way every day, and we can stream it all live on our phones. Look at the news and it is crisis upon crisis upon crisis. Even if you’re nowhere near the twilight of your career, given the state of the world, it’s perfectly natural to question whether what you’re doing with your limited time of earth is worthwhile.

Because purpose isn’t really about needs and wants. It’s about value. How valuable you are. What you stand for – even when things get difficult – rather than: “what do I want in order to make my life better?”

What are your values?

There’s a character strength survey some of our Coaches use from time to time. Positioned as “the only free, scientific survey of character strengths in the world”, you’re presented with a series of statements like “I thrive in group settings” and “I frequently speak up against injustice” and asked to indicate your most representative answer on a scale of ‘extremely me’ to ‘not very me at all’.

This particular content writer scored really quite poorly for gratitude, self regulation, and zest. Great to be around, as you can probably tell. And perhaps predictably, achieved strong scores for creativity, humour, and judgement(?!). Traits which arguably help me in my current position but might hinder me in others.

The survey doesn’t claim to reveal your earthly purpose to you, but it does tell you what you appear to value and where your apparent strengths are. This is a really good first step to understanding what you’re meant to do with your life: identifying where you already are.

Take the survey.