50Plus: Finding Purpose - Good Advice at Any Age

A repost of this Brain Pickings article from February 2012, "How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love", via a Facebook share, made a direct hit on me. Maria Popova has been a favorite blogger of mine since she and I first met in person on a NYC street corner across from Grand Central in 2009. I read this post in 2012 but hadn't remembered it. The direct hit was because my wife Noelle and I have been sorting through our options since moving to Portland, Oregon in December. We are both asking what's next, what should we do going forward? On the top of our list is "finding purpose", doing something we love, that will make a meaningful impact on the world. We are members of the 50Plus demographic and as we look ahead we assume our lives will span at least another 30+ years of healthy, engaged, active living. Therefore, "finding purpose", doing something we love, is critically important.


Maria's post is so impactful because she pulled together insights on finding purpose from seven amazing authors. Paul Graham and Steve Jobs are two that I have long been a fan of. I read Paul's writing long before he became well known for Y Combinator and many of the now famous alumni of Y Combinator's acceleration process. I started following Steve Jobs' career in 1981 when I bought my Apple 2+ computer. Maria cites Steve's 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University which has gained fame from his reference to what has become known as "the passion hypothesis". Steve said, "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it." 

It turns out that the most recent book I read this summer, So Good They Can't Ignore You - How Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport, is the first serious writing I have read that dares to question "the passion hypothesis". How can anyone question it, who wouldn't want to find and commit to work that they love and why shouldn't they? Newport starts his cross examination of the passion hypothesis by making a very important point about Jobs himself:

“If a young Steve Jobs had taken his own advice and decided to only pursue work he loved, he would probably have been one of the Los Altos Zen Center’s most popular teachers. But he didn’t follow this simple advice. Apple Computer was decidedly not born out of passion, but instead was the result of a lucky break - a “small-time” scheme that unexpectedly took off.”

— "So Good They Can't Ignore You" by Cal Newport

Derek Sivers, my original source on Newport's book, highlights Newport's broader conclusion - "the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there's a magic "right" job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they'll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem of course is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt." A very sobering conclusion.

In the end Newport's well researched message is quite simple. It starts with the admonition not to obsess over your "true calling" rather take time to acquire "rare and valuable skills" which he describes in economic terms as "career capital". He goes on to say once you begin to earn career capital it can be "invested" to gain "control over what you do and how you do it". He finally suggests that it is the wise "investment" of career capital over time that will eventually help you to identify a "life-changing mission". However, that quickly begins to sound like a very long road. It can be for millennials or others who have not had or taken the time to amass sufficient career capital. However, for our fellow travelers in the 50Plus demographic the good news is that we are collectively overflowing with experience, talent and knowledge, lots of legitimate career capital in Newport's definition. Our biggest challenge is how to use it to find "purpose", a "life changing mission" or a "true calling", pick your term, without it taking too long.

On the subject of how to find a "life changing mission" Newport references Little Bets by former venture capitalist Peter Sims who describes his work by saying that Steve Jobs, Chris Rock, Frank Gehry and the story developers at Pixar all have one thing in common. They all have taken small steps, experimental ones at that. They didn't start with a big idea trying to foresee final outcomes but made little bets about what might be a good direction, learning critical information from lots of little failures and some small, but significant, wins that allowed them to find unexpected avenues to arrive at extraordinary outcomes. In Newport's view using the "little bets" approach, supported by career capital, to find a "life changing mission" is the prescription. 

As a serial entrepreneur, I see Sim's "little bets" approach as a takeoff on Eric Ries' lean startup method which I have been teaching in startup accelerator programs in CT, in the MFA in Design for Social Innovation program at School of Visual Arts in NYC and as a mentor to a handful of entrepreneurs in recent years. My shortened version to describe this approach to creating a successful business is, make a series of guesses about what to offer potential customers, which channels to reach them through, testing if they see enough real value in what you are offering to be willing to pull out their wallets. The key is to prove your guesses one at a time, if you are wrong, change direction by making a "pivot", and try again. Once all of your original or revised hypotheses have been shown to be true - facts instead of guesses - you are onto something that will very likely succeed if customers are willing to pay enough to cover your costs leaving you with a sufficient profit. My conclusion is that success in "finding purpose" is basically an exercise in "entrepreneurial thinking" using the "little bets" or "lean startup" approach to test hypotheses along a potential path to a "life changing mission". Done right you will get there.

My advice to my 50Plus demographic is that it is imperative that we all understand and incorporate entrepreneurial thinking as we set out to find purpose this time. I can help you. I will be expanding on this advice in more detail in a series of new blog posts during August and on a new website in early September. Stay tuned.

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