Over many decades I’ve helped, directly or indirectly, thousands of people discover their purpose in life.  One night long ago I was awakened by a voice that said, “Your purpose is to help others find theirs.” 

That’s pretty clear and it’s made for a very interesting career. I have worked with, and spoken with many, many of the “Live Your Life On Purpose” experts from Stephen Covey to Anthony Robbins to Deepak Chopra.  I have also read most of the popular books, social research, and philosophical and religious texts that address the purpose of life.  I’m just giving you this background so you understand that my conclusion about life’s central question is not superficial but rather the result of decades of study and teaching.  Here’s what I have concluded.

  1. Answering the question, “What is your life’s purpose?” is vital. When you are clear on your purpose you will make both big and small decisions that will fulfill you. Without that conscious knowledge you will most likely struggle with dealing with the constant demands of others who are trying to recruit you to meet their needs.
  2. Your purpose has two dimensions.  The first is universal.  The second is individual.  The universal purpose of everyone is to learn to live in a conscious state of inner compassion for yourself and every other living thing.  This is not optional if you desire inner peace. The default alternative to inner peace is chronic anxiety.
  3. The individual dimension of your life’s purpose has been popularized by the writer Matthew Kelly who said the point of our lives is to become the “best version of ourselves.”  I love that expression because it captures the unique human capacity to imagine ourselves being better than we currently are.  Our  vision of our ideal future self is a gift!

It turns out human beings have been fascinated by the power of our ability to imagine our best future self for thousands of years. The Greeks call it Arête.  It was their ideal that the highest virtue of work is that it enabled you the become the “best person you can be.”

So now we come to this very interesting question that few of us consider. “Does your work make you a better person?” I have found this is a very unusual question that few people actively consider.  But remember that the universal purpose of life as defined by virtually all spiritual/wisdom traditions is to live in an inner state of compassion.

Compassion has been defined as “loving empathy.”  This doesn’t mean compassion is weak or sentimental.  Mother Teresa was filled with courageous compassion.  Walt Disney created Disneyland to create positive experiences for families because his childhood was so unhappy. So compassion can be very powerful.  Being motivated by compassion is like switching on a self-cleaning oven for your soul.

So my question is “Does your work make you more courageously compassionate for your colleagues and your customers?”

I have found that for most people the answer is “It doesn’t but it could.”

The most basic examination of work that makes you a better person is that the outcome of your work does not harm others.  Buddhists are encouraged to seek a “Right Livelihood.” It is based on the belief that you will never be truly happy by making other people unhappy. There are many businesses that take advantage of human weakness.  These businesses thrive when people do things in excess that cause them to be unhealthy or unhappy.  Giant fast food companies called their meals comfort food but that’s just a code for delicious poison.  Casinos make money by you losing money.  You can call it ‘entertainment’ but it’s based on a human weakness that is wired into our brains.  Do you think there’s been more suffering caused by gambling than joy?

The point is that there are many good people working for companies with bad business models. Humans are great at self-justification and making bad things appear to be good, or blaming the weaknesses of individuals as the cause of their own suffering.  However neither self-justification nor blame develop compassion.

So what is the path to work that makes you a better person.  Three things:

  1. The work you do improves the quality of life for your customers and/or coworkers. If your present work doesn’t, how might it?
  2. You are learning valued skills and gaining abilities that make you more capable of improving the lives of others.
  3. The quantity and pace of work that you do enable you to live a healthy, enjoyable life and be in harmony with your loved ones.

All three conditions for work that makes you a better person are important.  The one that seems to be the rarest today is number three. The average full-time American worker works 47 hours a week.
That’s too much.  Productivity research is very conclusive that human beings operate a high productivity a little over six hours a day. Several studies have shown that people doing identical work accomplished no more in 50 hours than those who did the same amount of work in 40 hours.  In fact overwork is a leading cause of mistakes that create rework. That’s right, overwork causes more work. So burn this into your brain.  Working more does not make you more effective.  It does not make you more successful.  It’s certainly does not make you more happy, loving or lovable.

What I see in most corporations is that they are understaffed and their talent is poorly deployed. They are also poorly managed and poorly led.
Research confirms that only about 20% of senior management is good at managing.  About 33% are terrible.  They actually hurt the success of the business.  The result of all this poor management is that it is unnecessarily hard to succeed.  The best leader I ever coached had one goal…to make the success of his employees easy.

My career advice is simple. Your goal is to become the best person you can imagine. Your work should offer you great opportunities to develop into a better person. The goal of work is not status, or self-definition. You are not your work.

You need to work for organizations whose primary business model drives prosperity by improving the genuine quality of life of it’s customers.

You need to invest all of your capability in doing great work eight hours a day five days a week and no more. If your work routinely demands more than that, it is not healthy.  Science is clear that overwork causes chronic stress and dramatically increases your risk for depression and heart disease.

Overwork is as big a health risk as diabetes. So you may need to go on a work diet.  Stop your binge working.  Stop doing non-nutritious work – work that doesn’t matter or that will have to be redone. If there is too much work and constant fire drills I guarantee you are doing work that is caused by poor organizational and work design, a lack of prioritization and poor management and leadership. Refuse to be a “workabetic.”

If your current job is not enabling you to become a better and happier person either change it or move on. If you stay in a rut too long it will become a grave.  So please do not sacrifice your life to help other people achieve their goals at your expense.

You have a purpose. The world will become a better place as you fulfill your true self. Follow your imagination.