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Challenging the Double-Edged Sword of Purposeful Work

A note that says 'Find Your Purpose.'

“There’s a study on zookeepers I think you’d like,” Gabe said.

“Oh yeah?” I answered. I was in a hotel room in Indianapolis where, earlier that day, I’d led a series of workshops on the topic of “purpose.” My cell phone was balanced in the crook of my neck so I could talk to Gabe—the researcher my organization had hired to help us mine the existing academic research on “purpose”—as I was typing an email to a potential partner at the same time.

“The researchers found that, generally speaking, zookeepers feel ‘called’ to the profession,” Gabe continued. “They describe themselves as animal-people, say it’s their destiny to care for and preserve vulnerable species, and so on. So they studied zookeepers to see how ‘calling’ affects people’s lives.”

“Interesting,” I said as I typed. “What did they find?”

“That purposeful work is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, zookeepers see their profession as important to society, which allows them to find meaning in even the most unpleasant daily tasks like scrubbing down hallways. On the other hand,” Gabe continued, “that same sense of meaning and moral duty has them making personal sacrifices to get the work done that negatively affect other aspects of their lives. They’re paid very little, they’re vulnerable to being exploited by managers who recognize that because they are mission-driven they won’t quit in the face of poor benefits, poor working conditions, and so on. Oh, and they work crazy hours.”

“Can you send me this research Gabe?” I exclaimed emphatically. “I’ve seen these same things play out in the social sector. We really need to start talking about them.”

Gabe paused. “Um, Linda? I need to mention something here: It’s 11:30 p.m. and we’re on the phone … talking about work.”

I stopped typing.

“Touché, Gabe. Touché.”

Work on Purpose

Let’s be honest. There’s a lot of talk these days about “purpose.” So much, in fact, that you might start to get the impression that if you could just find your purpose, your life would be perfect: Brilliance would flow from you like a river; you would be relaxed, yet engaged; and, somehow, when you imagine yourself living this kind of life, you even look a little bit thinner.

I’m the director of Work on Purpose, a program of Echoing Green that helps emerging professionals build meaningful careers so that they can help solve the world’s biggest problems. In this role, I’ve seen that getting paid to do the work that matters most to us—as most zookeepers are—has its blessings, but it has its curses too.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of Echoing Green’s Social Investment Council members, Margaret Wang. When I first met Margaret, she was working in corporate strategy and business development at an investment bank. Margaret watched her peers work through the night, sometimes even sleeping under their desks, but Margaret was not drawn to such a life. She cared about too many other things. Margaret spent her evenings and weekends mentoring and volunteering for various social-good organizations and initiatives. Her volunteer work gave Margaret a sense of purpose that felt so good it became addicting. So last year, she decided to move into a career that better matched her passions. And in order to get there, she spent a year living off of her savings from having worked in finance and working for free. In her words:

“I looked on Idealist and saw a position to help launch The B Team, an organization focused on responsible capitalism conceived by Sir Richard Branson. I read it and I was like ‘Yes. This is everything I want.’ The B team basically helps corporations do business better, going from corporate social responsibility to systemic, innovative social and environmental impact in which change is woven into the fabric of how corporations do work. So I left my job in finance to join this energetic team. We have all these bomb people with us and we’re all saying ‘We’re going to change the world.’

“I had a view of my old office building from The B Team’s office—a reminder that you can be in the same area but have a completely different life, work for a different mission, have a different context.

“But what was interesting actually, and I’ve heard this from a lot of social entrepreneurs, was that work-life balance was much harder to obtain. When I got an email at 11 p.m. from The B Team outreach guy saying, ‘Can you look this up for me?’ I had to decide whether to answer it. I didn’t want to be working at 11 p.m., but I cared about the mission so much.”

To be sure, Margaret loved her world-changing work at The B Team. And most of the time when we talk about people working on purpose, the story stops there. But it’s rarely the end. Margaret’s life from the windows of those two office buildings came with different rewards (more money versus fulfillment), but it also came with different challenges (feeling like her work didn’t matter enough versus feeling like her work mattered so much that she felt guilty taking time out for herself).

What About That Double-Edged Sword?

So, how do we get the personal benefits of doing purposeful work—and study has shown there are plenty of them, from psychological wellness to productivity to creativity—while protecting ourselves from its threats of overwork, underpay, and a depletion of energy for our lives outside of work?

For those of you teetering on the edge of that double-edged sword, here’s a good place to start:

STOP: Every once in a while we’ve got to stop our mad dash through our lives—even when our vocations connect to our desire to make the world a better place—and check in on ourselves (as Gabe made me do that night in Indianapolis). We all have people in our lives that we check in on—our kids, parents, grandparents, friends—but when’s the last time you made a date to check in on you?

GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO RETHINK THINGS: If we find that we are falling victim to our purpose more often than we are being fed by it, we must remember that purpose is fluid—it shifts and changes, and our interplay with it can shift and change too. The way in which you live your purpose out today doesn’t have to be the way in which you live it out tomorrow. If we really want to solve the world’s biggest problems, we need people committed to making a social impact in every role and sector of society.

Now Margaret is in business school studying how she can merge her love of business and social impact. And in a year, she’ll have to ask herself the same questions she asked herself while working in finance and again while working at the nonprofit startup—determining how she wants to structure the next phase of her life. Because that’s what working on purpose really looks like.

As for me? I’m still loving being paid for my purpose, but since my conversation with Gabe, I have a new rule for myself when I am on the road for Echoing Green. After 9 p.m.: less working, and more Parks and Rec reruns.

This post originally appeared on The High Calling.

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About the Author | Linda Kay Klein directs Echoing Green’s Work on Purpose program where she is also the lead researcher and content creator. She is an NYU Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and an advisory board member of NYU’s Of Many Institute for Multifaith Understanding. She speaks at colleges, nonprofits, and conferences on topics including how to live and work on purpose.

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