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Finding your Why - Purpose at work really matters

April 6, 2021

Rather than focusing on purpose at work, we have long tended to focus on function. This is simply illustrated in that oft-repeated question to children: what do you want to be when you grow up?

Do you remember being asked that question? Johnny wanted to become a vet because he loves animals, and Anja wanted to be an astronaut because her father found the idea horrifying. Johnny became a software engineer, and Anja makes jewelry in Bali and is studying to become a yoga teacher. That fixation with what we want to be is not much more than a way to create a funny memory. To laugh at having once wanted to become a professional wrestler when we ended up in financial accounting. The question itself might therefore be seen as harmless fun, but it does take the space of a much more important question: Who do you want to be?

The role of education in purpose

If we take it as read that the jobs our young learners will end up doing are unlikely to even exist, yet then we can get down to the really important focus.

The more our schools and parents can support young people to find their Ikigai, and to feel supported in pursuing it, the more likely they are to figure out who they are at an age where their whole lives are ahead of them. This is absolutely not to say that their lives will be stress-free, but they will at least be more connected to heart and head, purpose, and passion.

Allowing learners to play, discover, fail, reflect, iterate, collaborate, test ideas, and truly grow, is the key to it all. This means a bottom-up model instead of top-down "tick these boxes and meet our outcomes" approaches, and things are shifting in that direction slowly but surely.

So what about those of us who are trying to work out our sense of purpose in our 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's? The generations that had to select subjects at school we had never even done, and study them for years with no idea how they could even be used? For those of us who never had anyone ask us "why", how do we begin to ask ourselves that question?

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Values first

Discovering your core values has to come first. What is really important to you? From creativity to compassion, family to fairness, sorting through the values that you hold dear will be truly revealing.

There are a number of great ways to structure your reflection around this, and we like the step-by-step approach recommended in this Psychology Today article.

However, values are not static. As we encounter new experiences, we can grow through conflict, connection and collaboration. Our values can change with us, and so it is important to check in with ourselves every so often; especially following major life events or things that have impact on us from the external world, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Journaling can be one of the best ways to do this, and we find that the best way to avoid repeating the same patterns of thoughts and to find new revelations about ourselves is to journal from prompts written by someone else! The Daily Om's A year of journaling to uncover the authentic self is an example of a very effective approach.

From values at home to purpose at work

Knowing yourself takes work, and listening to yourself takes practice. The allure of the job title that commands respect, the high salary that convinces us we can put up with things that don't feel right; it is easy to stray from what we instinctively know is the way forward.

Nobody wants to go through their professional life robotically, though many of us do. We might see "stability" in our job as at odds with the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves, but there is no reason not to have both. Sometimes, it is just a case of finding that perspective.

This could mean exploring the impact your work has on the people around you and the wider community. If and when you find a connection between that impact and your personal values, this can only be positive.

You do not have to be the Dalai Lama to make a difference. The supermarket cashier who values connection decides to smile and engage in conversation with customers; making all the difference to that one person who hasn't talked to anyone else that day.

Purpose, therefore, doesn't always show up in the job description. It can show up through mindful application of your own unique talents in support and service of your core values, and that can be anything from a flair for leadership to a simple authentic smile and sense of humour.


It is also important to mention here that sometimes work is a means to an end, and that end can therefore be where your sense of purpose lies. A construction worker that dislikes her work in the cold winter might only be able to volunteer at the after school club with local children because of the stability and regular hours her job affords her.


As those of us in the world of education know, however, there is only so long we can derive purpose from our contribution to people's lives, if we know there is a disconnect above us.

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Employer authenticity and purpose at work

Humans are hard-wired to detect inauthenticity, and when we do, the reaction is visceral.

There is nothing more likely to disappoint and disconnect your team from the organizational culture, than to be inauthentic around values. Anyone can say they value something, and anyone can print those values on company stationery and the homepage of a website. Values, however, exist authentically in action. Every action must be consistent with those values, and when they are not, the false note will ring in the ears of the people who look to us for leadership. For an organization, that means making hard choices. Are you prepared to say no to business in defence of that inner voice which says "this is not who we are"? As employers, we also have a responsibility to help our team to find their purpose within the work they do. Transactional leaders with lofty speeches will not do the trick. Continuous and authentic communication and an evolving understanding of how we can all find meaning in the work we do is fundamental to a successful organization.

NEO Academy and our purpose

A question we often ask ourselves is this: how do we as adults live and work according to our values so that we lead by example for the next generation?

Brene Brown in her #daringclassroom initiative, reflects on the flipside of this; namely-what happens when the strategy outranks the core values? She concludes that "if my work doesn't align with my values, I'm out of my integrity". It is as clear as that. Strategy follows values, and never the other way around.

By working with any school, college or university we can boost their enrolments, their engagement and their overall success. That, however, carries a weight of responsibility.

We believe passionately in an approach to education that truly prepares learners for the world of the future; innovative, learner-directed and purpose-driven. Our values of trust, integrity and creativity are at the heart of this.

That is where we find our purpose, in aligning ourselves with the institutions that share that vision. By helping them to grow and succeed, we support that vision with action.

This is not the easiest path, but it is the right one, and that will sustain us through whatever might be next around the corner. If you share that sense of purpose, and would like to connect with us, please reach out to start the conversation.

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