Why Do You Do What You Do?

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The last days, I had some time to reflect and one of the things that consistently surfaces is the amount of irritation and frustration that many people experience in their jobs. Now, to be clear, the people that I work with and that I meet are no complainypants at all, but generally serious, hard-working people that are looking to make a difference. And yet, lots of frustration and stress.

The key factor differentiating the companies where I meet the more severe cases, though, is concerned with purpose. The companies that have little purpose beyond earning some money seem to be the most afflicted with internal tension, strife and politics whereas companies that have a very clear sense of purpose, though far from perfect, seem to be doing much better. Paraphrasing the former CEO of Whole Foods: We need to make money in the same way that our bodies needs to make red blood cells; we need red blood cells to live, but the purpose of our lives is not to make red blood cells.

Interestingly, in several of the startups that I am involved in, there is a clear sense of purpose and an openly expressed reason for the existence of the company. The employees of these young companies rally around this purpose and often the primary reason for being at the startup often is a desire to make a positive impact in the world through the activities of the company. For larger, more established companies, the sense of purpose tends to be subdued or even missing altogether. And even if there is a mission and set of values on the corporate website, it fails to be connected to the day to day work and interactions in the company.

At the individual level, I often experience a similar confusion or lack of purpose for many people that I meet. When it’s not clear what the purpose of your professional life is, then other, extrinsic factors take over like winning the competition with a colleague or competitor, the job title, size of the pay package and associated leasing car, etc. The problem, as we all know, is that none of these things give a lasting sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

Now, you may ask, what is my purpose then? For me, my starting point is that I am a hardcore modernist and I believe that technology and its use in society to the largest extent has positive implications for mankind. At this point, digitalization, which I define as “software, data and AI” is the most important technological transformation. Hence, my professional purpose is to help the software-intensive industry to accelerate their digital transformation in order to make the benefits available to society as a whole. This is why I run Software Center, consult with dozens of companies and am involved in several startups. Now, this purpose undoubtedly does not work for you, but it most certainly works for me.

I have noticed that many people have a vague, inarticulate sense of what they would like to accomplish in their lives. This easily leads to bad decisions that are not in line with your purpose. When that happens, often, you feel in your gut that things are not right, but you push through anyway because your rational mind tells you it all makes sense. The result is a constant tension between what you’re doing and what you should be doing, causing unhealthy behaviors and outcomes.

Some people seem to be waiting to be struck by a sudden awareness of what the purpose of their life is. To me, that is the wrong approach. I believe that life is fundamentally without purpose and that you, as an individual, choose what the purpose of your life is. This purpose doesn’t have to define your entire life, but can instead last for a few years before you evolve your purpose. As the saying goes: the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose.

Concluding, as you’re reading this, my suggestion is that you spend a moment to reflect on why you do what you do. To make your purpose explicit and express for yourself, preferably in written form, what the meaning of your life is. Then to reflect on the extent to which your current life is aligned with your purpose. And, finally, to make the changes required. Because the world deserves you acting in accordance with your purpose!

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