Pursuing purpose in your career and life

Society in the western world has lived in a dearth of purpose since the 1970s, but now is a great time to pursue it once more, says McKinsey Consultant and author of Outgrowing Capitalism, Marco Dondi

What role should your job play in your life? The range of possible answers today is quite different to those of 100 years ago.

If you’ve never thought about this question, now might be a good time because the answer is often a window into the quest for our life purpose. Those who rarely ponder the question are likely to end up regretting it on their death bed.

A good sign that you are pursuing your purpose is that you are proud of who you are and are not afraid of people getting to know you. But what should you do today to be proud of yourself? What should you do to make your future self proud? You spend most of your waking time working – is this time spent in a meaningful way?

The historical decline of purpose

A century ago, most people gained pride from their role in the family, namely with men as breadwinners and women as caregivers. Work led to a material increase in living standards for both one’s own family and society at large, and in times of war, it contributed to survival, freedom and national pride. Over the last 50 years, these historical sources of pride and purpose have declined in the western world.

The fight for survival and freedom has, thankfully, almost disappeared from our day-to-day lives. Raising a family has become insufficient or secondary to finding purpose, as more women have joined the workforce and both men and women have delayed marriage and having children. Increases in living standards as a source of pride, meanwhile, started to plateau once the masses reached middle class. And work, that should have strengthened its contribution to purpose, has instead been sullied by a ‘wicked’ turn of capitalism.

At the worst possible time, the prevailing narrative among economists and politicians made shareholder profit the sole purpose of a business, and a person’s salary became the main measure of their worth. From the late 1970s, society has lived in a dearth of purpose. Some clung tightly to their family values, but divorces and wage stagnation among the middle classes made the road to purpose more arduous. Others espoused the pursuit of higher salaries and personal achievements, only to find out later in life that this road too often leads to perdition and narcissism.

But here come the 2020s. From the ashes of rising inequalities, social divisions, and the failures derived from letting greed loose in the financial markets, a new society is starting to take form. Businesses are repudiating shareholder capitalism and are placing all stakeholders – as well as purpose – back on the agenda. Some governments are prioritising people over money and ideology. Covid-19 lockdowns forced people to break away from habits and gave them the uncommon luxury of time to reflect. In addition, climate change provides a common enemy to fight against. By the end of 2021 the world was facing the start of The Great Resignation. Could this be the dawn of a new purposeful society?

The road to purpose in the 2020s

While a good dose of optimism is justified, younger generations should not be naïve in thinking they have tailwinds. Gender equality has long been a priority for most actors in society but after decades of struggle we are nowhere near a satisfactory situation. Much of the power to enact change has historically lain with senior white males at the top of the ladder, siloed by several layers of mostly male executives and managers. In this context, conscious and unconscious bias has made the road to gender equality a terribly frustrating one for hundreds of millions of women to this very day.

The road to purpose is likely to face similar barriers. There are decades-long habits and mindsets ingrained in your peers, your more senior colleagues and – depending on your age – they might even be ingrained in you too. There is a window now where people are more open to consider alternatives and look more favourably to a diversity of approaches for individuals to pursue purpose in their own way. But creating new habits will not happen overnight. People showing up less in the office might still be labelled as ‘they care less’. People de-prioritising a fast career trajectory might still be labelled as ‘less ambitious’ or ‘less capable’. All the while, businesses still need to turn profits, with markets pressuring for higher profits and faster growth than the competition. Many executives and managers will still look at numbers before people and have expectations of you.

Navigating your path to purpose

How can you navigate your path to purpose in these choppy waters? Is quitting the only solution? Should you set up your own business? Or should you hang on and chart your path in your current organisation?

The answers are, of course, many and diverse but here are four suggestions:

  1. Take time to reflect and gain clarity on the version of yourself that you would be proud to show the world and for the world to know – the version that you’d be proud of when looking back at your life. What would this version of you do, and why would you do what you do? This should give you a glimpse of land beyond the choppy waters and can be your guiding North Star.
  2. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses and set a path to purpose that plays to your strengths. Be humble when choosing or you’ll be, quite literally, fooling yourself. Ask others for an honest opinion, after all, it’s not too difficult to listen to others’ talking about where you excel.
  3. Stay open to changing what you do to live up to your purpose. There are multiple paths to reach your North Star, so you might want to stay relatively detached from any one path in particular. Stay nimble and acknowledge that some waves are too big to surf.
  4. Be consistent with who you want to be even when you’re faced with more complex situations. We have a cunning tendency to create justifications when we take decisions that are at odds with our principles. This helps superficially but a deeper reflection will uncover the inconsistency. It is better to keep a tight grip on the steering wheel than to follow the waters wherever they take you and fool yourself into believing that it was your intended course.

Now is a great time in history to pursue purpose. However, the pursuit is yours to captain.

Main image credit: Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Marco Dondi is a Strategy Consultant at McKinsey & Company and former global manager for economic development working on labour markets. He is also the author of Outgrowing Capitalism (Fast Company Press, 2021). Marco holds an MBA from INSEAD and a master’s in management, economics and industrial engineering from Politecnico di Milano.  


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