Finding your purpose at work: An interview with Imperative CEO Aaron Hurst

Finding your purpose at work: An interview with Imperative CEO Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and CEO of Imperative, a career development platform that helps professionals discover, connect and act on their purpose in their work. Hurst is also the founder and advisor to the Taproot Foundation, where he was the lead architect in developing the $15 billion pro bono service market.

I connected with Hurst recently to get some insights on his book “The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire of Impact, Personal Growth and Community is Changing the World” and its associated movement. Here’s what he had to say:

What is The Purpose Economy?

The Purpose Economy is emerging as the fourth economy in history and evolving out of the Information Economy. It is an economy that is driven and organized around the creation of purpose for people, not just information, goods and services. The Purpose Economy explains where markets meet individuals as they step out to create their own means of finding purpose through work.

Some of the pioneers of this new economy range from people, like John Mackey at Whole Foods Market, who is creating a market for healthy and sustainable food, to organizations like One Medical that are making medicine personal again, and to Jonathan Rapping at Gideon’s Promise, who is redesigning the role of the public defender in the legal system to be empathetic.

What are some surprising ways people find purpose in their work?

It is possible for people to find purpose in their work even in careers other than nonprofits and helping professions. Many doctors I know just work for money or for status. It isn’t that they don’t care or put pride in their work, but they aren’t really appreciating and focused on the emotional side of their work. It is a job.

Conversely, I have worked with some amazing administrative professionals who truly see the impact of their work everyday and orient their work around growing relationships and making an impact. They see the success of the organization and the people around them as their responsibility. This reminds me of the United Airlines ad that ran during the winter Olympics in which one of their travel coordinators spoke about the pride she felt when the bobsled team she supported won gold. She felt that she shared in that gold medal. She was approaching her work, which is administrative, with a lot of purpose.

Purpose it turned out was something we all can have every day at work and it appears to be largely up to us. If we approach our work self-aware and looking for purpose, it isn’t hard to find. The key is to be present and appreciate the small things that in fact add up to what purpose at work is all about. Purpose isn’t a cause, revelation or luxury. Purpose is what we gain through relationships, personal growth and doing something greater than ourselves.

What steps can employees take to find purpose in their work?

There are three things that most people misunderstand about purpose and that I frankly misunderstood until the last few years. The first is that purpose is a cause. A cause may be a passion or interest but it isn’t the same thing as purpose. Secondly, many people are looking for a revelation to find their purpose and don’t appreciate that it is a journey and not a destination. Finally, I find that we often assume that purpose is a luxury and only for those with means. Research increasingly shows the opposite: those most motivated to focus on purpose are often those with the least power and means.

To start infusing your work with purpose immediately, take two minutes each day to think of one purpose moment you had that day. If you do this for a month you will find that you are doing more things everyday that bring you purpose and that you also come to appreciate them more.

Is there anything human resources departments can do to help employees find purpose in their work?

Managers and leaders need to see the creation of purpose for members of their team as something they help facilitate. It begins with helping people build self-awareness. This is the most important variable. I met with Erika Karp the founder of Cornerstone Capital and a former senior executive at UBS. She is a master at helping to bring purpose to her team from what I could see. What Erika does is very simple. She asks people if they had a good day. If they say yes, she asks them what was the moment that made it good. She is basically asking them for a moment of purpose they experienced. That is the first step. Then over the coming weeks and months she works with them to refine their job to maximize the number of these purpose moments they experience.

This is a process that behavioral scientists call “job crafting,” which involves taking ownership of your job to maximize purpose while still getting the core work done. For example, if relationships and conversation are really important to you, you might modify your job a little and rather than always emailing people you pick up the phone and try to talk to them. The most important thing to do is to be present, awake and grateful. You can gain purpose every hour of every day at work if you practice enjoying the little moments that give you purpose from relationships, growing and doing things that feel greater than yourself. These are the things that matter most.

What do you see as the likely consequences for traditional employers that don't become modern purpose-driven organizations?

I found that the desire for purposeful work is a fundamental human need. Different generations and cultures may have different socialization around purpose and how to express it, but it is a need just like love and belonging. Millennials appear to be the most expressive of this need, which is very encouraging. It isn’t clear if they need it more or simply feel more entitled and vocal about it. Either way it is forcing change in the workplace as employers try to address it.

The Millennial generation is increasingly being referred to as the purpose generation. Eighty-four percent of Millennials are seeking purposeful work and they will represent 75 percent of the workforce by 2025. Attracting and engaging and retaining this talent will increasingly require meeting their need for purpose.