I have been thinking about purpose. How much does it contribute to our well-being? How does it relate to our interests? If purpose is so important, how can we develop it for ourselves and our children?

We all want to make an impact. We want to do something important. We want our lives to mean something. We want to live to our full potential. We want to look back on our deathbed with no regrets, having lived a complete life of meaning and joy. How do we do this and where do we start? There are no shortage of self-help books and life coaches telling us to think positively and follow our dreams. While I am a firm believer in an optimistic attitude, I believe this is often very dangerous advice. These admonitions to find your perfect job can lead to the opposite effect – a life filled with constant discontent, devoid of any real meaning and impact. In order to avoid this trap, we need to look carefully at the relationship between the 3 “P”s – purpose, passion and practice.

How important is it to have a strong sense of purpose? Is our personal goal of raising great kids enough or do we need to have find meaning and purpose in our professional lives as well? Evidence-based research in positive psychology is confirming what ancient wisdom and religion have been teaching for years – people with a strong sense of purpose are happier, live better, and live longer. Specifically, this sense of purpose is associated with increased optimism, resiliency, well-being and longevity. A recent study examined data from the longitudinal midlife in the US (MIDUS) sample for 6000 participants over a 14 year period. 589 of participants had died (9%) over the follow-up period. Those who died reported a lower sense of purpose and fewer positive relations than did the survivors. The authors conclude that “purposeful individuals lived longer than their counterparts… even when controlling for other markers of psychological and affective well-being. Moreover, these longevity benefits did not appear to be conditional on the participant’s age, how long they lived during the follow-up period, or whether they had retired from the workforce. In other words, having a purpose in life appears to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years”. [Hill Patrick, Turiano, Nicholas: Psychological science May 2014 Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality across Adulthood.] What this and other research studies have concluded is that purpose is clearly important in our ability to lead better and longer lives. In order to understand the most effective method of developing purpose, we need to look at its relationship with passion and practice.

There are many diverging theories on the best way to develop a sense of purpose in life. Do we find our purpose from our passions – i.e. do we only get good at something that we like to do? Or, does our sense of purpose arise from our “practice” – do we get really good at something first and then find meaning from our expertise? These are important questions to answer. The ability to create meaningful and great work requires a strong sense of purpose. This is the type of work that gets you jumping out of bed in the morning and is crucial to leading a meaningful and great life. It turns out that two key components of this type of work are impact and control. Think of people that you know who are leading truly successful (good) lives. I’m referring to the type of lives that are filled with enough wealth, close relationships, work/life balance, service, and personal/spiritual growth. Chances are that they have developed careers that offer a certain amount of control in how they spend their time (and money) while delivering a substantial amount of value/impact to the world around them. So how do we find these great jobs and valuable careers? How do our passions contribute to this search?

Cal Newport explores this very question in his excellent book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The title of the book is from a famous response that Steve Martin gives when answering frequent questions about what made him successful. In this book, Newport debunks the “passion hypothesis” that is so prevalent in our society today. This hypothesis states that “the key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you are passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion”. His most famous example is Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. In his early years, Jobs was dropped out of Reed College, a small liberal arts University where he studied western history and dabbled in Eastern spiritual enlightenment. He was more interested in long meditation retreats and life on a farm commune than he was in electronics. He only turned his attention to the tech field when he needed cash. He worked the night shift at Atari and stumbled upon a business opportunity with Steve Wozniak (the true passionate tech wiz) to design and sell circuit boards for home computer kits. This quickly evolved into designing and selling fully assembled computers and the rest, as they say, is history. Throughout the early days, Jobs was only trying to make a little cash to keep his very ascetic lifestyle going. He was hardly passionate about building and selling computers at first but clearly learned to love his work. While giving his famous commencement speech in 2005 at Stanford, Jobs implored the graduating class to find what they love to do because that is the only way to do great work. Unfortunately, this advice is misleading. If Jobs had followed his initial passion, he may be teaching Zen Buddhism and leading meditation retreats in India. Instead, he learned to become passionate about what he became good at doing. This work became his life’s purpose or his Life’s Task and enabled Jobs to create a meaningful and lasting legacy. Viewing Job’s story in this way leads to more interesting questions – how can we find work that we will eventually love to do? How do we find purpose and meaning in that work to be able to create a great life?

Newport goes on to discuss the concept of “career capital” which I find very helpful in answering the above questions. Great careers (and lives) that provide purpose, impact, control, autonomy and wealth are both rare and valuable. In order to get these types of jobs, you must be able to trade equally rare and valuable skills. Newport refers to these skills as “career capital” which can be developed and traded throughout one’s life for more professional and personal satisfaction. Others have described this capital as “deliberate practice” from the famous 10,000 hour rule developed by Anders Erikkson or “mastery” as discussed by Robert Greene in his book Mastery. Whatever term you apply, the concept is the same. You need to become really good – world class – in a particular field. You can then trade this rare and valuable expertise for more control and impact (which are also rare and valuable) as you move throughout your professional career. This is where the relationship between purpose and “practice” is important to understand.

Throughout history, we have countless examples of successful individuals completing years of intense practice. This practice may have been developed in a formal apprenticeship in the printing business as in the case of Benjamin Franklin or in the informal music clubs of Germany as in the case of the Beatles that we discussed in chapter 2. The story of Benjamin Franklin is illustrative. He desperately wanted to be a writer. Against his father’s wishes to continue the family candle making business, Franklin signed up for a longer apprenticeship in his older brother’s new printing business. Although this would entail harder work and longer hours, Franklin would have access to new books and would learn to develop his own writing style by reading the work of established writers. Through his hard work and focus on his goal of becoming a better writer, Franklin turned an otherwise grueling nine years into an apprenticeship for writing while also learning the printing business as well. The critical concept in this or other examples of “mastery” is a love of learning combined with a strong desire to get better. All of these individuals tried to learn as much as possible in order to become the best in their field. This type of “practice” should be done at all times in one’s life. The ability to immerse yourself in whatever job you happen to be doing will build skills that most will only attribute to talent or luck.

When I was in radiology residency, it became clear that the ability to perform research was an important and fairly rare attribute in a successful young physician. It required extra time and effort in an already busy period of work. I came to work early, stayed late and worked on the projects over the weekends. I read countless research articles, learned how to design and conduct experiments, and perhaps most importantly was able to develop a coherent writing style to publish my results. It is important to note that I did not arrive in residency with a burning desire (passion) to perform research. Once in that setting, I recognized that skill to be valuable, immersed myself in learning how to do it well, and in the process was able to differentiate myself from other radiology residents. There were two unexpected results from my research experience. I actually learned to enjoy the process and felt that I was contributing to the field of radiology in my small way. Secondly, this differentiation led me to opportunities that I could not have predicted. I was viewed as one of the leaders in my class, elected as Chief Resident, allowed to tailor a unique combined residency/fellowship track, and offered a faculty position. In other words, I had built career capital which I was able to trade for more professional satisfaction. I repeated this same process while in my first private practice job but replaced research with learning the business of radiology (an equally rare and valuable attribute). These business skills allowed me to be viewed as one of the leaders of my group, elected to our executive committee, and eventually be recruited as a physician executive to a radiology start-up company where I currently work.

Everywhere you turn, there are articles or coaches telling you to stop wasting your life, quit your job and go follow your dreams to do what you love to do. This is good advice if your current job is harmful to other individuals or society in general. Most people, however, have jobs that are not evil but are often difficult and tedious. The answer is not to keep searching for that perfect job that provides endless hours of “flow” and never seems like work. This constant searching leads to unhappiness since producing anything of value will always require effort.

What is not as popular for career and life coaches to proclaim is the following answer to people looking for more meaningful work:

Whatever work you find yourself doing, do it better than anyone else.
Always give your best effort.
Learn more about your business than others know.
Invest in your personal and professional growth.
Become indispensable. Keep your word. Don’t cheat.

By doing the above, we can become experts in our field or at the very least develop enough career capital to get us closer to finding our unique calling.

Very few people are living to their full potential. Even fewer are in touch with their inner core being, unique calling or dharma (sacred duty). The path of most successful individuals (other than professional athletes) is usually not a straight line but more of a “connect the dots” picture. We never know when a side road will lead us closer to our dharma. Therefore, it is critical to put ourselves in a position to be offered the opportunity to pursue other paths. This opportunity will only come to those few people who have been able to differentiate themselves in their work and who have the courage to move beyond their safe comfort zones. We must learn to treat everything that we do as the most important thing in the world and then do it with our very best effort. By constantly improving ourselves and delivering exceptional results, unexpected doors will open and new paths will become visible.

Having new paths to consider is not sufficient to ensure success. In order to correctly navigate these roads of new opportunities, we need to be aware of what it is that makes us tick. What do we do at work that doesn’t feel like work? When do we feel truly alive in our life? What did we love to do as a child before the indoctrination of school, society and parents? By answering these and other questions, we can develop stretch goals or BHAGs – big hairy audacious goals for ourselves and then work hard each day to get them done. This rare combination of self-awareness and exceptional effort can allow us to return to our core – the essence of our being – and move us closer to our unique version of great and meaningful work. The type of work that we are all meant to do.