More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX




It’s two months since my father passed away, and nearly a year to the day since he went into hospital for scheduled heart surgery. Sadly, although the operation itself appears to have been a success, the ordeal seemed to trigger a whole series of complications and underlying conditions: within 6 months he was admitted to a dementia ward, and by late last year, he was in a nursing home undergoing palliative care. Less than three months later, he passed away, the shadow of his former self.

I was able to spend several weeks back in the UK over Christmas and New Year, visiting him up to three times a day. Most of the time, he was living in his own little world, and I would simply sit with him and listen to some of his favourite music, mainly baroque and opera. But in his lucid moments there were flashbacks to the distant past, and some recollections of more recent memories. On one occasion, even though he had lost most of his capacity for speech, he did manage a sage piece of advice: “Don’t play with fire”.

More recently, I was in the UK again to scatter his ashes and help sort out his study and his workshop. Memories of impromptu DIY lessons came flooding back. There were also several quirks and surprises in his personal archive: photos of him at management conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, a scrapbook of his time in Germany in the late 1950s during National Service (including some chilling images of Belsen), and a spreadsheet showing his annual income and income tax right up to his retirement.

Although he was fortunate in being able to take early retirement in his late 50s, he spent the next 25 years volunteering, building a portfolio of interests and serving on multiple committees for the arts, small business, veteran affairs, U3A and other community projects. My mother likes to joke that he’d rather chair a committee than mow the lawn. He also continued to learn, and I found recent certificates of proficiency for speaking German, and for formatting Word documents (very handy for writing up agendas and minutes).

He was the product of a classic liberal education, not a polymath, but possessing a solid knowledge about lots of different things: the arts, politics, language and history as well as science and technology. All the things you need to solve The Times crossword.

There are probably three key things that my father taught me:

  • Think for yourself
  • Don’t follow the herd
  • And of course, being an engineer, don’t take something apart unless you know how to put it back together again.

The latter is particularly useful when working with clients on their business reviews!

Next week: Music Streaming Comes of Age

The Startup of You v2.0

Through my blogs on startups, meetups and portfolio careers, I was recently interviewed by Peter Judd from News Corp., who is trying to bring the discussion on entrepreneurship, startups and innovation to a wider audience, particularly people who may be looking at a career change. (We both agree that the National Innovation and Science Agenda is not cutting through to the general public.)  Apart from being an advocate for portfolio careers, I also pointed out that entrepreneurship or working with startups is not for everyone. Instead, it may be possible to change your current role to the one you want. Alternatively, taking a new look at your current circumstances can provide some fresh perspective on finding your dream career.

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

The impetus following the 2012 publication of “The Startup of You” has done much to fuel the current entrepreneurial phenomenon, combined with lean startup business models and agile product development processes. The drive for innovation in response to digital disruption and lowering technology costs also means that launching your own venture can be increasingly de-risked.

For example, I recently saw some data by Ian Gardner from Amazon Web Services, that showed the “cost of failure” has come down from $5m to $5k, in just 15 years. This is based on a comparison between what it typically cost to launch a new business at the height of the boom/bust in 2000, and what it costs today. With a mix of open source tools, cloud computing, APIs, SDKs and social media platforms, launching a new business has never been cheaper or easier.

Of course, there is a paradox here: if an increasing number of people, especially younger graduates and new entrants to the workforce, are more interested in doing their own thing and less interested in joining large or established organisations, it’s going to get harder for employers to attract and retain the best talent; on the other hand, without appropriate experience, on-the-job training and personal development, how do these aspiring entrepreneurs acquire the necessary business, technical and leadership skills to succeed in their own ventures?

For some people, it may be appropriate to take their entrepreneurial spirit of adventure into a “traditional” role to test some of their ideas, as well as build networks and get some practical experience. Equally, I can see a huge opportunity for companies to create the right opportunities to engage employees for flexible roles aligned with specific projects or objectives (rather than plugging them into org charts). Companies are also finding new ways of tapping into their existing workforce to identify hitherto hidden and unknown skills and knowledge. Many employers also recognise that leadership roles will increasingly be filled by people who are comfortable with rapid change, increasing complexity and heightened uncertainty, as well as having enhanced soft skills. (There’s even some current thinking that utilising “rebel talent” is a good thing.)

Whether you are starting out on your entrepreneurial journey, looking to reboot your career, or searching for meaningful work that aligns with your values and purpose, there are numerous opportunities (via meetups, hackathons, pitch nights and networking forums) to explore your options before you make a decision. And for companies looking to re-invigorate your workforce and unleash hidden talent, there are many ways to experiment through taking informed risks, by building in-house innovation hubs, running consultative and collaborative workshops, and inviting ideas and inspiration from your existing people, who are familiar with the challenges you face.

Next week: Banksy – an artist for our times?

Finding purpose through self-reflection

We hear a lot about “finding your purpose” these days, whether it’s to develop a personal career plan, or to validate a business idea. My colleague Carolyn Tate, founder of the Slow School of Business, spoke on “purpose” at the recent Huddle Design Fest drawing on her TEDx talk for Telstra entitled “Profit on Purpose”. During her presentation, Carolyn referenced the Japanese concept of 生き甲斐 (“ikigai” = “a reason for being”) which is sometimes represented in the following diagram:


“Finding the purpose of your life”. Graphic representation by @emmyzen (Emmy van Deurzen). Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Variations on this theme include, for example, the work of Lianne Bridges and Susan Biali. Earlier, more prosaic, interpretations might be found in the work of Richard N. Bolles (“What Colour is Your Parachute?”) or Spencer Johnson (“Who Moved My Cheese?”).

What it all boils down to is connecting with your values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates you, what rewards you, what you can contribute, and what people want from you.

For me, a the starting point is developing a personal narrative, to understand how you have arrived at this particular point in your life and/or career, in particular your influences, achievements, challenges, experiences and insights. Through this self-reflection, some common themes should emerge that can form of the basis of defining your own purpose. This should include your core values, the things that are important to you, and your own particular passion.

Where I may differ in my interpretation of “purpose” is that I believe that our purpose can change over time. I don’t see purpose as singular or even linear – it’s multi-dimensional, dynamic, situational and contextual. Our needs and our circumstances don’t stay the same. Likewise, our relationships and the the external environment are constantly changing. So our purpose will likewise be different at different points in our life. For example:

  • Early in our career we may be technically qualified, but without relevant experience we may not be able to command the most senior roles or the highest pay – so our purpose may be to hone our skills and knowledge
  • Later, we may find that our focus on things like marriage, children and a mortgage means we may be willing to get well-paid for work that we don’t actually enjoy – someone I was coaching recently stated that “I’m caught in a job” which was preventing him from pursuing his passion (thankfully, he has since decided to pursue a portfolio of interests, rather than stick with a single job he no longer enjoys)
  • During the “third act” of our career, financial or material rewards may not be so important, but we still need to be engaged in work that we enjoy, that motivates us and which can still sustain us at more than just a basic level of food and shelter
  • Throughout, I think it is essential to keep connected to our true passions (especially creative outlets), in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external imperatives, in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and even to connect with new technology – for example, in my own case, my interest in electronic music has led me to recording an album using iOS devices, releasing it via social media sites Soundcloud and Bandcamp, getting it broadcast on the ABC, and beta-testing new music apps

When working with clients to help them re-connect with their business or their career purpose, I like to do an audit of where they are now, and where they could be in 3-5 years time. Through a process of exploring what might be possible, and reframing the present to re-position it for future growth and development, we can discover ways to regain balance by prioritising what’s important, reconfigure or even abandon what isn’t working, and re-establish goals and objectives.

While it is important to strike a balance between the “four pillars” of the ikigai model, my experience is that rarely will all four be in equilibrium – at times they may even be in conflict with one another, or at least in a state of flux. But it’s the resulting points of friction, when we look at them objectively, that can be the source of ideas, context, clarity and resolution. Making time for regular self-reflection enhances our pursuit of purpose, and allows us to take stock of our current situation, without undermining our core values or abandoning our particular interests.

Next week: Challenging Monocultures via Crop Rotation