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Why finding purpose at work drives the economy

Finding purpose in your career? What an idealistic thought in this day and age. The idea of finding purpose in your career, where the work you do truly makes you happy and impacts the world in a positive way, is largely seen as utopian and even unrealistic in today's difficult economy. With the job market being as competitive as it is, how many up-and-coming young minds actually have the time to find a career that can not only support them, but where they find purpose, happiness and believe they are truly making a difference?

Aaron Hurst, entrepreneur and founder of the non-profit foundation Taproot, believes purpose in the workplace to not only be of utmost importance, but to be the driver of today's economy. In his book The Purpose Economy, Mr. Hurst describes how the focus of our economy is now on enabling individuals to find purpose in their work and their lives. He believes this to be "the first economy built for humans."

Mr. Hurst's non-profit foundation, Taproot, engages professionals in pro bono work for other non-profit organizations. A large number of professionals have dedicated hundreds of hours of their time doing work for free. Why? Because they receive, as payment, a sense of purpose.

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After interviewing hundreds of professionals, entrepreneurs and volunteers alike, Mr. Hurst has concluded that most of what we know about purpose is wrong.

According to Mr. Hurst, purpose comes when we feel we have worked towards something greater than ourselves – something that matters to us, and benefits not only ourselves, but society and others as well.

Purpose is a verb, not a noun. It is not about finding purpose in a job, but is in fact a way of approaching your work – in other words, it's your direction, not your destination. You don't have to be working toward finding a cure for diabetes or ending puppy mills to find purpose. All work generates purpose. We believe, that unless you are a Mafia hitman, you can find purpose in virtually any job.

Similarly, finding purpose does not come from having a revelation. You are likely to hold many jobs of different calibres. On your career journey, you have plenty of opportunity to find what suits you and what your mission statement is – you just need to be aware and embrace new experiences, and not just wait around for it to miraculously hit you.

Just as well, purpose is not solely for those who are financially stable. It is a universal need, not something you'll look into when you have the time or the security. Purpose requires giving of yourself, and for lack of a better analogy, the statement 'no pain, no gain' certainly rings true.

The great shift in culture is likely one of the reasons for the development of the Purpose Economy. There has been a shift in values in the workplace. No longer is importance being mainly placed on salary, benefits, and promotion opportunities. Rather, Mr. Hurst finds that there is a greater desire for community, happiness and opportunities for self-expression.

Millennials, one of the drivers of the Purpose Economy, seek purpose everywhere: work, community, relationships. They intrinsically desire to have a positive impact and share their passion with others. The careers they seek are therefore ones that are tailored to these values and since they are the future of our economy, organizations better start embracing them.

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According to Mr. Hurst, we spend at least 50 per cent of our waking hours at work. If we are not finding purpose at work, chances are we won't have satisfying levels in our quotidian lives in general. Mr. Hurst puts it well: "If we see work as a transaction and series of tasks rather than being about relationships and practicing our art, we will never be able to look up from our screen to embrace the purpose all around us."

Mr. Hurst's research shows that most managers have no idea what motivates their employees. They believe that salary, security and promotion opportunities are at the top of the list, when in reality, appreciation, feelings of acceptance and an understanding attitude are most valued. As we can see with the attitude of many millennials, the notion that success equals money is increasingly being rejected.

By building community leaders and allowing their organization to form a bottom-up culture, rather than dictating top-down solutions, leaders will find their organization achieves success through the empowerment of their employees. A sense of community and the feeling of working towards something greater automatically boosts the motivation of employees and their performance.

Mr. Hurst suggests that being collaborative won't be just a choice for much longer. With the growing need for purpose and a sense of accomplishment and happiness in the workplace, organizations will need to start molding themselves to suit that. And why shouldn't they? After all, happy employees are good for business.

Karl Moore (@profkjmoore) is an associate professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. Sienna Zampino is a research assistant of Mr. Moore's who is a freshman at McGill this fall.

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