Finding Your Purpose with Prof Antony Burrow

Scott Galloway, NYU professor and early predictor of the demise of WeWork (whose No Mercy, No Malice newsletter is a must-read) thinks that “finding your purpose is bulls**t.”

Billionaire investor Mark Cuban agrees.

Both, instead, suggest discovering what you are great at, and that your purpose will arise from there.

Clickbait headlines notwithstanding, I tend to agree with the sentiment: “purpose” is not something you find—it is not out there on your metaphorical road waiting to be tripped over. Nor do we typically discover purpose through contemplation and introspection…at least not through contemplation and introspection that is divorced from daily effort connected to that discovery process.

Rather, purpose is, as it’s beautifully described in this Hidden Brain 2.0 interview with Cornell professor Antony Burrow, cultivated.

I found this episode, and Prof. Burrow’s description of this cultivation process, refreshingly grounded and nuanced.

Professor Burrow’s story begins with his time in 4H, an agriculture club for kids in his hometown in Bremer County, Iowa. The program was focused on teaching agricultural skills to kids.

Prof. Burrow discovered the first seed of his own purpose by making a presentation on growing different kinds of crops in different soil types, at the tender age of 9. After making this presentation, he saw that, even as a little kid, he had something to teach to adults, and that his knowledge could change peoples’ understanding of the world:

I realized that I had something to say. And people might understand the world they’re living in differently as a function of what I’m saying…and that was a profound experience for me as a young person.

There is so much to unpack in this episode, not least the difference between goals and purpose: the backwards-looking orientation of the former versus forward-looking direction of the latter. Perhaps the easiest takeaway to grab on to is where purpose comes from, which Prof. Burrow says most often is the result of either:

  1. Gradually development of purpose in pursuit of passions and hobbies, and consistent reflection, like Prof. Burrows, of the elements of those passions/hobbies that are meaningful to us.
  2. Response to major life event, for example something wonderful or tragic happening in one’s family that motivates us to pursue that topic as our life’s purpose.
  3. Observing someone else who has purpose, and drawing inspiration from their example

One last subtlety that bears repeating: nowhere in this narrative of cultivating purpose do traditional outside-in job types and job titles appear (doctor, lawyer, fireman).

Rather, like Prof. Burrows’ 4H presentation, one constructs a sense of likely purpose from a set of component parts. It is a process of gradual discovery: “I’m comfortable standing in front of people, and I find it powerful that what I know, what I convey, and how I convey it can influence them.”

I wish someone had told me 20 years ago that this boiling down into activities and moments when we feel connected, at ease, with a sense of flow…these are the moments to notice and reflect on, because they are teaching us about one small part of the purpose that we might be able to cultivate over time.

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