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.

Walking the path

I recently had the chance to have dinner with a small group of amazing nonprofit leaders. Our host gave us all a gift by asking us to start the meal by going around the table and each sharing why we do this work.

Each member of the group was honest and open, and, in listening to story after story, I began to see that they were all essentially the same.

They were stories about role models, whether a mother or a grandfather, a teacher, a social worker, a friend.
Stories of seeing their own relative good fortune – because everybody is more fortunate than somebody.
Stories of the call to serve.
Stories of stubbornness in the face of the impossible.
Stories of discovering that their talents can be used for good.
Stories of getting hooked on the feeling of making meaningful change.
And stories of them fighting each day to keep walking the path and making a difference.

You may think, in hearing this, that these are other people’s stories, that you are still seeking out your purpose and your role, that others have arrived while you are still looking.

I ask that you consider two things:

  1. That you are on the path already. There is no moment of arrival. It is your job to keep walking, to keep listening, to push yourself to go closer to what is real so you can understand it, because understanding is the precursor to being useful. It’s also your job to invest in building the skills and the self-knowledge you will need to make a real difference – including confronting your fears and your self-imposed limitations.
  2. You don’t know it, but you are already inspiring others. The courage to look, to listen, to care, to dream – all of this already sets you apart. Each of the stories I heard started at a very young age, and the path from there to today was never straight.

Keep walking.

Which purpose?

Having started my professional life as a management consultant, I’m all too familiar with the snarky refrain of people exiting the sector, “I got tired of flying around the world to make the world safe for Fortune 500 companies.”

Clever enough.

What’s perplexing is that when you’re making a shift from something you did for some extrinsic reason (it appeared safer, more lucrative, was what everyone else was doing, was what you thought people around you wanted you to do) to an intrinsic reason, it can be hard to make out exactly what kind of “purpose” you’re looking for.

Put another way: “purpose” and “social purpose” are not the same thing.

Right now, in US at least, there is a supply/demand imbalance in the “social purpose” sector.  The number of positions in high-performing organizations in the social sector is a lot fewer than the number of people looking for those jobs.

But opening the aperture a little further to organizations with a purpose…I bet there’s a lot more out there.

Every entrepreneur worth her salt has a purpose, and most of the people who join their cause sign up for that purpose.  Every organization that sees the world one way and wants to look another way has a purpose. 

Purpose creates passion and zeal and focus and fun.  Purpose gets you out of bed in the morning.  Purpose is not apologizing for what you do when you explain it to others.  Purpose is knowing that, even if the thing you’re fighting for blows up tomorrow, you’ll walk away and say “that was worth fighting for.”

There’s a lot of purpose out there, if you look…with purpose.

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