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Can You Build a Career in the Purpose Economy?

A shot of the book 'The Purpose Economy' in a library.

It was about halfway through reading The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact , Personal Growth and Community is Changing the World that déjà vu began to set in.

One by one, themes from previously reviewed works surfaced: today’s graduates must forge career paths unlike those of earlier generations (Body of Work), today’s corporations are increasingly looking to integrate sustainable and responsible business practices (The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist), today’s professionals should first look inward and develop a strong sense of self to find satisfaction at work (nearly every career guide on the shelf).

While entrepreneur and author Aaron Hurst, founder of the Taproot Foundation, may not be pointing to undiscovered trends, he succeeds in showing the reader that they may all be part of a much bigger picture –the emergence of the Purpose Economy.

What is the Purpose Economy?

On the heels of the Information Economy, itself an outgrowth of the Industrial Economy, Hurst explains that the Purpose Economy is, “centered on the need for individuals to find purpose in their work and lives.” In this new environment, both workers and consumers seem to find the most value where there is also a sense of purpose. Take Etsy, for example, a marketplace that allows artists to find meaningful, expressive work, and buyers to make a more personal connection to a seller than big box retailers or Amazon can provide.

After introducing the notion of the Purpose Economy, Hurst lists the ten drivers of the new economy, each of which, save for one, are revisited in a practical way later in the book. These include the blending of the sectors and emergence of new corporate models, shifting family roles, the guiding force of Generation X, and the Maslow Millennial effect: the aspiration among Millennials to become more purposeful as society ascends the hierarchy of needs. He also points to accelerated globalization as a driver of the new economy, yet largely ignores the non-Western world elsewhere in the book. (One wonders if the Purpose Economy, at least for now, is a uniquely American or Western phenomenon and, if so, what that means for parts of the world that have not yet entered this new era.)

Thriving in the Purpose Economy

In striving to enable others to find purpose in their own lives’, Hurst has clearly taken his own writing to heart. The book is one part of a broad effort to make “purpose economy” a part of our lexicon. Look to the chapter titled “Five Ways to Move a Market” to see just what he is up to: He urges entrepreneurs to highlight bright spots, or examples of people and projects that “point to the possibility that something better is possible”, his company Imperative releases the PE100 lists showcasing Purpose Economy pioneers. They have also launched an online platform to help users find their professional purpose.

With this book and their other efforts, Hurst and Imperative are maximizing the market for purpose. Given the wealth of research, case studies, and anecdotes in the book that signal this shift, it looks like they are making the right move. Others jumping on the purpose bandwagon, both now and in the future, will likely look to Hurst as they navigate unfamiliar territory or seek ways to add more meaning to their old ways. What happens to those who fail to make the jump? At least for companies, for now it seems they may still “survive and even thrive without embracing purpose.” Not a strong indication of the movement’s dominance, but in the end, this book is most surefooted in explaining how we as individuals can embrace the culture of purpose rather than why our institutions should.

Does the Purpose Economy benefit everyone?

While significant portions of the book are dedicated to explaining the evolution of the economy and how entrepreneurs might best take advantage of it (My advice? Ask yourself “What Would Aaron Hurst Do?”), at its core it is a career guide for those of us adapting to a new work environment and seeking to infuse our jobs with purpose.

The moving example of hospital sanitation workers who have stepped beyond the bounds of their job descriptions to find purpose and bring comfort to patients and families should truly speak to anyone who struggles to find satisfaction in his or her 9-to-5. Of these workers, he writes: “they weren’t simply doing the job and clocking out – they were taking ownership of their work and finding ways to craft their job to make it meaningful for them.” Did people do things like this in previous eras? Of course. But that doesn’t make the lesson any less powerful.

This “job crafting” can be accomplished through the practice of task crafting, relational crafting, or cognitive crafting, which pushes you to connect each thing you are doing to your overall purpose. “It’s about remembering why you are cleaning the room, conducting an audit, or designing a website.” The section on purpose myth-busting is equally insightful for readers who feel they’ve not yet discovered their calling. Luckily for all of us, the Purpose Economy provides more outlets than before for making meaning, and the book is full of practical steps toward reaching that goal.

Still, after reading the book, I was left asking “why this label, and why right now?” Are we really on the verge of a global tipping point in the way we produce, distribute, and consume goods and services? Or are we just witnessing a new phase of the Information Economy, one that better incorporates our desire to achieve purpose? Doesn’t the fact that companies can continue to thrive without embracing purpose in some way belie the importance of this wave? Finally, do these answers really matter?

In the end, regardless of the Purpose Economy label or the trends that it signifies, Hurst’s book sheds new and exciting light on how each of us can connect to purpose in all that we do.

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About the Author | Kari's underlying philosophy of work in the nonprofit sector is that we need to ensure equal and easy access to the things that make us who we are: the arts, culture, and lifelong learning. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, she received her Master’s of Nonprofit Organizations from Case Western Reserve University and spends her time as a Consultant with Grants Plus and member of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's national board of directors. When she's not cheering on the Cavs or scouting out the nearest coffee spot, you can find her posting on Facebook,Twitter and LinkedIn.

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