The Purpose Bubble

January 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Thanks to the Harvard Bookstore, I had the pleasure of joining some of my IISC colleagues at a Daniel Pink talk last week at the Brattle.  In Drive, his latest book, Pink argues that aside from the commonly understood motivators of need and desire for reward, we are specially motivated by our desire for autonomy, purpose and mastery.  In his talk, Pink pointed out that the baby boomers are now reaching a stage in life that is defined by purpose, the desire to do something meaningful, to contribute to something grater than their selves.

I suspect that many boomers reading this blog have devoted much of their lives to the work of social change and so they might not be dealing with the same angst.  Nevertheless it is worth noting that since boomers comprise the largest population bubble, they are the ones that have defined the last few decades.  When they were kids we had the cultural revolution of the 60’s, when they became adults we had the money hungry 80’s, and what was is it that just happened this last decade anyway?  Was it their desire to rule the world?

The point is that we are entering a historical moment when the largest portion of our population is looking for meaning in their work – this is of great significance for those of us engaged in the quest for social transformation.  We have not quite mastered the art of the multi-generational conversation, but boomers come into this quest for purpose having achieved a certain level of autonomy and mastery in their lives – we could all benefit from their achievement.  Meanwhile, on the opposite end of our population curve, we are seeing the fastest rate of growth among young communities of color.  If those of us who are in the middle can find a way to bridge these generations, at this particular moment, we would be helping to create the conditions for significant social change.

I often reflect on how much of our work at IISC has to do with helping people to re-learn much of what we have lost.  We are learning how to sit in circle together, as our ancestors did, we are having to re-learn how important it is for us to break bread together and get to know one another if we want anything good to happen in the world.  It used to be that multiple generations have shared the same household, naturally learning from each other, in our prosperity we have also lost this,  but it seems that now is a good time to reclaim it.  How do we design spaces, projects and conversations that maximize the benefits that could come from the coming purpose bubble?

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  • Thank you so much for this insight. I am the author of The Artist Within, that promotes cretivelyfit exercises as a way to access and strengthen right brain skills and thinking (Dan Pink endorsed my book). Being motivated by purpose, connected to a desire to create positive social change and being able to sacrifice personal gain for the common good are all traits of right hemisphere. We can develop these skills and learn how to lead purpose driven lives by listening to our Artist Within! Hope to connect! -Whitney

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Gibran. I like how you reframe our ongoing conversation about process design in terms of leveraging purpose. Another way of putting this is to think about how we at IISC help people to reclaim meaning in their lives. I can’t help but believe that the retreat from place and community has severed us from a deeper sense of what truly matters and what is most sustaining (and sustainable). If all that matters is winning (beating others, taming nature), well, just when are we settled and satisfied? Psychologist Daniel Gilbert said is his NPR program on human emotion that we are successful because we are social. But it seems that many believe the reverse to be true- that we are social so that we can be “successful.” I guess it all comes down to how we define success. I for one am wanting to look more at how meaning comes from what the dominant culture currently seems to define as failure – being dependent on one another, consuming less, staying at “the bottom”, being mediocre, staying small in scale, and being vulnerable.

  • For some, meaning has been an intrinsic part of ‘work’ – this is especially true with family-held businesses – purpose for the family legacy and for the employees. But the need for meaning in work is also a result of wealth (at a macro level, not perhaps micro). We are so ‘rich’ that we can look for purposeful ‘work’ – work is no long a means to survival – to just being able to put food on the table, a roof over our heads etc. So, just as the need to find meaning in work is a very good thing, it represents a progression from the past that we are even able to ponder the question at all and seek out a solution, instead of merely just trying to feed, clothe and shelters ourselves. How far we’ve come.

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