It took me years to really understand my own purpose and the purpose of my work. It only really landed with me a few years back whilst sat at the back of a workshop we’d helped to facilitate in The Sandon, a pub a short walk from the hallowed turf at Anfield. It’s a vivid memory.
As I sat watching the workshop – the culmination of a few months of hard work by my colleagues and I – I felt extremely and suddenly euphoric. And then it clicked. I’d remembered, maybe even realised, my purpose. And in doing so, finally realised what it meant.
The attendees of that workshop were all at the start of a journey to launch their own social businesses in the north of Liverpool, something most of them had never done before. We’d helped design the accelerator, and a key part of the way we brought people together for it was by communicating purpose-driven projects and the personal stories of the people that run them. The 40 or so people there that day had found a connection in those stories one way or another; something in them that made them feel that they had something they wanted to do, too. By the end of the programme, six months later, 27 new socially-minded businesses had been launched, all with their own story to tell.
I’d struggled with my own purpose at the start of my career, in my early 20s. After a few years in my first job out of university, I’d grown deeply unhappy – depressed even. Not because of anything particularly to do with the job or the company itself – it was because I was sure that there had to be something more to it. I’d stop connecting to the job and the work in any meaningful way and I was driven slowly mad by the idea that I should be doing something else, something more, whilst not knowing exactly what I meant by it. That, coupled with a very intense workload in a business driven by growth, meant that it took a mild nervous breakdown to finally get me out the door – a good incentive to leave any job. Whilst I didn’t see the reason for me to stay in the job, I also didn’t see that I had a good enough reason to leave – or know what I’d do if I did.
In the time between the workshop and the leaving the last employed role I’ll ever have, I’d found myself drawn to what I’d assumed was a random collection of people and projects – everything from makers like brewers and bakers, bloggers who championed independent businesses, a car leasing company that funded green energy education in schools, a team making a new independent magazine about craft beer, someone making simple cookbooks to help families cook together, and a gift box company that worked with local charities and helped to create employment in hard to reach communities. Amongst many others.
I ended up helping them to craft and share their story. Sometimes that’d be in a film or a piece of writing, sometimes it’d just involve me sitting with them to talk through the story, so that we were clear about the magic I would be spreading the word about. The day after I released the film about the baker, someone travelled across the city to buy a loaf, telling them that he’d felt compelled to do so after seeing the story. I’d never felt more satisfied with a bit of work.
Giving people the inspiration and tools, so that they feel empowered and emboldened to do the things they’ve always wanted to do – to change the things they want to change; to launch the business they’ve always wanted to run; to find the fulfilment that I didn’t have when I crashed and burned – that’s my purpose. I do that by finding and telling the stories of purpose-driven brands and organisations and people with a clear social and environmental mission and connecting those stories to people that need to hear them.
The reason I was drawn to the people and companies that I love and write about is typically either their purpose, or just as importantly, a clear set of well defined values. Well communicated, they speaks to me on an emotional level; they move me. And that’s why companies that have them get such a loyal following. They can move people to action – in the case of companies like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s, quite literally. They move people not only to buy the things that they buy, but also to support the causes they champion too.
The other lesson I learned along the way is that purpose and passion are different beasts. Doing things passionately means that they’re done with emotion, and emotions for most people fluctuate. A passionate act can be an impulsive or irrational act. On a good day, passion is fiery, heartfelt and exciting. On a bad day, it is uncontrollable, fanatical and violent. But passion is also often fleeting; it comes and goes; ebbs and flows. It can be all to easy to move on from one passion project to the next.
When times are tough, a real sense of purpose gives you the determination to carry on; to find solutions and try again. Understanding why you’re doing something means that you see the bigger picture – it’s about long terms goals. That’s useful when the challenges are many, which they often are. It also helps in your decision making about how you face those challenges when they arrive – ‘Does this decision match my values? Will it prove useful in service to the change that I am looking to bring about?’ Passion combined with purpose and a clarity about what you stand for can make you unstoppable, but alone it’s often not enough.
I also think that passion is too often confused with love. Love, for me, is much more closer to purpose than passion. It’s possible to feel love for something, but true love is expressed. To love something, or someone, is an intentional act. I love my wife, and I feel that in myself, but I display that love (not nearly often enough) through action. I feed my passions, but I share my love.
In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek explains that the way many purpose-driven brands communicate correlates to how the brain works – and, in turn, why I find myself so easily drawn to them. Sinek explains that when many purpose driven brands and people speak, they start with why they do it, rather than what they do. By putting why at the centre, these companies speak directly to the limbic brain – the middle two sections of the brain and the bit responsible for human behaviour and decision making. This is the bit of the brain that is responsible for feelings and emotions. What we do and how we do it are important, but given the choice between two businesses whose products are largely the same I, like many others, will typically pick the company where I’m drawn to them for more than the benefits and features of their products.
The purpose of an organisation like Patagonia – to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis – transcends what the company actually does, which is make clothes. And the reason they care about the environment? Because the clothes that they make are designed to be used by outdoor enthusiasts – outdoor enthusiasts just like them, who care about maintaining the natural environment that they enjoy being outdoor enthusiasts in. Caring about the environment and helping to implement solutions for the environmental crisis also means that the company can’t just make clothes – they have to do more. Like support and launch environmental activism campaigns, lobby the president of the US, encourage people to repair their clothes instead of buying new ones and take a van across the country to repair clothes for people. They evidence this through the actions of the business. It is incredibly authentic.
People and organisations that are driven by, and clear about, their purpose and values inspire trust. Their actions clearly align with their beliefs, and are consistent over time. They don’t change their beliefs with the trends of the time and they don’t break easily under pressure. As a result, people who are led by purpose appear focused over a long period and, in my experience, are easier to help and support. They’re clear about what they want me to do – whether that’s supporting something they ask me to support or what they’ll do as a result of me buying something from them. They’ve made me a promise.
I’m not alone in being drawn to purpose-driven or values-led people and organisations, either. Now, perhaps more than ever before in recent history, people are being drawn to them in their millions. According to a PwC report titled Workforce of the Future, 88% of millennials, who will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025, want to work for a company whose values reflect their own. A 2016 Deloitte study found that two thirds of the millennials it surveyed hope to quit their current role by the end of 2020. This same report states that those surveyed felt that businesses underperformed in terms of improving livelihoods and social and environmental benefits, with too much focus on wealth creation and profit generation.
This bodes well for these organisations, especially those with a clear social and environmental mission. Employees are also consumers and are increasingly looking to spend their money on quality products from companies that match their values, too.
I believe that the world needs more people and business driven by purpose or who can clearly define what they stand for, in one form or another, whether that’s a company helping to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis, or a brewer and baker who want to make the best beer and bread in Liverpool. And I know that finding your purpose, whatever it is, leads to a more deeply fulfilling life. So, what’s yours?