Woman stands bravely, gazing towards her purpose. Her shadow is caped.
SIphotography @ iStock

“Purpose” has grown as a business buzz word since the late nineties, and there’s a reason why. Companies that embrace a purpose mindset tend to perform better. Employees fulfilled by purpose tend to stay at one company for longer, tend to outperform their peers, and tend to end up in higher positions within a company.

But when purpose is so easily confused with corporate social responsibility and there’s no clear delineation between passion and purpose, it can be difficult to determine if you’re approaching purpose correctly.

As it turns out, there’s a rainbow of approaches to purpose.

Dr. Jane Horan, founder of The Horan Group, and purpose expert, shed some light on purpose in 2020 and how employees at all levels use it to enrich their lives. 

Ideas about purpose change depending on your background.

Why wait until you hit mid-career to find purpose?  I suggest starting now.

Jane Horan

Dr. Horan, you’ve coached just about everyone—the executives and the newbies, the baby boomers and Gen Z’ers, in nearly every country in East and Southeast Asia. What are the differences?

There are many different paths to purpose. I heard a variety of comments in my workshops. So in Japan, for example, people will say, “Oh, I need to wait until I get a little bit older to think about purpose.” In China, I heard some participants saying, “Okay, the work is the work. After I’ve made gazillion dollars, then I’ll do the purpose thing.” But I can’t agree with that! That’s how we get people in their thirties or forties saying, “I hate my life.” So, why wait until you hit mid-career to find purpose?  I suggest starting now.

It’s funny because I just can’t see younger generations putting off purpose. My younger sister really resents doing anything she thinks is unfulfilling. I don’t imagine you do corporate coaching for 14-year-olds very often, but have you seen any generational differences? 

Haha, yeah. In my conversations and research, the younger generations—millennial generation and Gen Z, or the Satori Generation in Japan—have a real drive for purpose. Like, some will say, “I’m not going to join a company unless it’s joined up with what I believe is important.” And I also found these conversations around meaningful work skewed a lot younger in Asia.

In China in particular, research suggests young people have been asking these deep, big questions in their late twenties: Who am I? What’s the meaning of life? What am I doing? These are powerful questions, and they link to uncovering purpose. So I’ve found in my coaching that the younger workforce will turn down a job or not work for a company or even leave a company if that purpose is misaligned. I’ve also found employees leaving a firm if the stated values don’t match the firm’s culture, or how things work.

And then there’s a gap. Some of the research has indicated that Gen X, the generation between millennials and baby boomers, may not see purpose as a driver—though of course, it’s hard to generalize across entire generations.

But once you get to the baby boomers, there’s definitely more evidence that they’re purpose oriented. They’re just at a different level in their life, pre-retirement or what some may call “encore careers,” where they’re thinking of leaving. They need something worth staying for. So it’s this fascinating group of people that, at different parts of their lives, are looking for purpose.

And then I found across all of these generations, women are more purpose oriented no matter what.

Data from the 2019 Workforce Purpose Index shows that purpose mindset employees are more likely to be fulfilled, and top performers.

Women are more purpose driven.

I remember reading that women are more purpose oriented in your book. Can you talk a little more about that?

When I was interviewing women across the Asia Pacific Region, many kept kind of referring to this sense of spirituality. But as I dug deeper, it wasn’t necessarily spirituality from a religious sense. It was actually purpose, but they didn’t name it as purpose.

They were talking about having an impact. And so it was, “I need to have a job when I get back from leave”—whether it be a sabbatical or maternity leave, whatever it was. They wanted to go back to a job that had meaning and impact, and if they couldn’t have that, they were going to leave. And I thought, “Oh, this is interesting,” because we always talk about women leaving organizations at critical points in their careers. And so there was something around purpose, and they don’t see it as separate from their overall life purpose, either.

Do you have any theories why women become more purpose oriented?

I have some ideas, and I would take a stab at it like this: first of all, I found quantitative data from Aaron Hurst at Imperative Consulting. He worked with NYU to survey the state of purpose in the workforce as a whole and showed that women are more purpose oriented than men. This confirmed what I saw in my coaching and what I found in my research.

So women (globally, but especially in Asia) are viewed as responsible for the parents and the children—though this notion is changing now.

An important point for organizations to understand is, when women go back to work, they’re looking for a job that matters. A role that has impact. There’s this sense of, “I’m smart and I know what I’m doing. Don’t put me in a paper-pushing position. I’ve got other things I can do.” And true to form, if relegated to meaningless tasks, women will often vote with their feet and leave.

Many single women said something similar. It doesn’t make a difference how much money they were making. Right? Because they knew they could find something else that would be more fulfilling. Having meaning in life is just pre-baked into our cultural expectations for women.

And all the women interviewed were multifaceted. I think our bigger responsibilities to the world that make us think differently about work. It’s about a joined-up approach to work and life. I don’t know if this is the true answer. It’s a hard question, but that’s how I started to unravel purpose.

There is no “right” way to do purpose.

Clear up [purpose] first. And then let yourself go—don’t bother asking for permission. Still do what you’re doing at work, of course, but don’t ask permission to do other things. Don’t try, just do.

Jane Horan

We took a look at Aaron’s 2019 Workforce Purpose Index. It seems like purpose at work is more important than ever, and yet people are still struggling to figure themselves out.

Yeah, I think that’s why it’s important to find purpose every day. Getting people to think, “What’s that one thing that I really want to do, and how do I bring that into work?”

The example you talked about in your book was, if you want to be a movie director, then look at how you can shoot a video with the resources you have available, just to see what it’s like. That example was kind of revolutionary for me because I think a lot of people feel like they need permission to do what they want to do.

I think you’re right about permission. I’ve been in Asia for a very long time, and I’ve noticed a tendency to ask for permission. To be fair, it happens in North America too, depending on the organizational culture. This sense of, “Well, I have to ask, or I can’t really do that.”

Whatever you want to do, I think you just have to try it. I’ve always had people say, “I just want that big job!” And then they get to that job and they hate it. You have to try it first. It might not be what you want.

I find this typically happens when you’re not really clear on your purpose. So clear that up first. And then let yourself go—don’t bother asking for permission. Still do what you’re doing at work, of course, but don’t ask permission to do other things. Don’t try, just do. Like Yoda. I’d just add, be clear on what you want before you do.

It hit me really hard. Like, there really are people like this out in the world thinking, “I’ll just do this for a while, but then I’ll write some poetry.”

Jane Horan

Yeah. In my own life I’ve been seeing all of these subtle, slow culture shifts moving in that direction of embracing what you want to do, whether it’s younger people emphasizing purpose at work or intentionally placing something purposeful in your life that’s not your job.

You know, I was facilitating a workshop with a group of very young bankers just hired for a Swiss bank. And I sat at the lounge table with a group from China and this young man—I think it was his first job—said to me, “Look, I’m just doing this job to make a lot of money, but I’m planning to quit in five years.”

I’m like, “Okay, but what do you plan to do after 5 years?” [laughs] And he goes, “I want to be a poet.”

When people say that sort of thing to you, you know they’re being authentic. It hit me really hard. Like, there really are people like this out in the world thinking, “I’ll just do this for a while, but then I’ll write some poetry.”

If you’re looking for a little purpose yourself, you can find Dr. Horan’s book, Now It’s Clear: The Career You Own on Amazon, online, or wherever good books are sold.