Getting to Our Mighty Purpose
You were born to change the world.
You can make the most of this unique opportunity by mastering three vital skills:
1. Articulate a purpose worth the rest of your life.
2. Make wise career and relationship choices in this changing, uncertain world.
3. Make every day matter by mindful attention to your thoughts, actions, and results.
My own improbable career—as a Jesuit seminarian and later as an investment banker—illustrates just why these particular skills are essential to a meaningful life in the twenty-first century. I was fortunate enough to serve on three continents as a managing director at J. P. Morgan & Co., which achieved the enormously ambitious goal of completely changing the company’s business lines and delivering superior results while doing so. (Readers unfamiliar with business can think of it this way: we successfully overhauled and retrofitted our airplane while it was in flight—and under enemy attack). Daily life can feel similarly challenging as we teachers, lawyers, and homemakers juggle work, home, and relationships while adjusting to each day’s often unwelcome surprises. The most effective of us are mastering those very skills that J. P. Morgan exemplified: understanding our strengths and weaknesses, taking control of our lives, making tough choices, and adapting as changing circumstances require.
But modern psychology informs us that healthy, happy individuals also have a deep sense of purpose. That is, they stand for cherished values, feel connected to other people, and serve causes greater than themselves and their egos. Many of us, frankly, don’t find those life-giving qualities modeled in our workplaces. On the contrary, organizations can be stressful, soulless places where inauthentic managers mouth platitudes such as respect, yet treat subordinates like tools to be used and discarded. Executives articulate appealing visions, yet they lack the courage and commitment to make sacrifices for them. The worst organizations offer pay but are spiritually bankrupt, utterly incapable of providing the joy, fulfillment, or peace that we find, for example, in our families and spiritual traditions.
Many of us look to religion or spirituality for what is missing in the workplace. And though we frequently find solace and inspiration at mosque, church, or temple, we often emerge from our worship services without clear guidance for the complicated choices that the workweek will bring. Our religious traditions often provide unparalleled wisdom but no straightforward approach for weaving that wisdom through daily life. My thousand-page Bible, for all its riches, is not a strategy. Our spiritual traditions provide answers but also leave us with an increasingly vexing question: how do I connect my deepest beliefs to what I do all week at work and at home?
And so our challenge is to create a whole-life strategy that is both spiritual and worldly. Yes, we need to make tough choices, get things done, and adapt to an ever-changing world—just as the best companies do. But at the same time, we need to find peace and fulfillment by grasping the greatness that we are called to as human beings. We are here on earth to live for some mighty purpose that uplifts and stretches us. We are here to become visionaries who look beyond our self-interest and our own lifetimes, because our hearts and spirits are greater than any job or sum of money. And by transforming ourselves into who we should be, we will lead our civilization toward what it should be: not a small-spirited, self-absorbed humanity but a great-spirited civilization that loves life, other people, and the world.
What follows, then, is a how-to book for the business of being human, but it is one that rejects conventional how-to thinking. Most how-to books guarantee a result if only you read the book; this book guarantees no result if all you do is read it. Those other books typically chop our lives into pieces by focusing only on whatever problem they promise to solve—becoming a millionaire, finding a mate, getting into college, or getting a job. This book challenges us to transform work and home, beliefs and actions, body and spirit, into an integrated whole. Those books map out easy steps toward a goal; this book traces a hard path that requires lifelong practice.
The time for easy fixes is over because the easy fixes have failed. For example, too many of us are working hard but finding little satisfaction in our jobs (or, worse yet, are bored by them). Or we feel as if we are leading split lives, torn apart by competing work and family demands. A rapidly changing world bombards us with choices, and too often we choose poorly—in our relationships, careers, or lifestyles. We worry whether we will have a job tomorrow, what world our children will inherit, and, more profoundly, whether our hard work really makes much difference in this huge and complicated world. Increasing numbers of Americans report, in survey after survey, year after year, that they are mistrustful, unhappy, or unfulfilled. Half of us say that we have it worse than people did two generations ago, and 60 percent of us believe that our children will have it even worse than we do.1
I reject that prognosis and wrote this book out of the hopeful conviction that we can surmount the preceding afflictions, feel better about ourselves, be better versions of ourselves, and inspire our families and colleagues to be better versions of themselves, too. I know it can happen because I’ve seen it happen, and in the following pages we will visit family homes, the slums of Caracas, corporate boardrooms, and the garbage dumps of Manila to profile a few of the countless ordinary people who are better versions of themselves for having found a purpose worth living for, a vision worth fighting for, and values worth standing for.
I also know that this book’s strategy can work because its key practices have been working for nearly five centuries. For if the book’s strategic skeleton has been influenced by J. P. Morgan (and other great organizations), its beating heart is inspired by sixteenth-century Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of priests and brothers. Ignatius pioneered invaluable techniques for confronting life’s fundamental questions and charting a path in response to those questions. By weaving his insights into a robust strategic framework, we will create a uniquely powerful approach to our most important business: leading our own lives.
Much (but by no means all) of this book’s language will draw from the Christian tradition that I share with Ignatius of Loyola. But I’m not asking Muslim, Jewish, secular humanist, and other readers to embrace my beliefs. Instead, please ponder your own tradition’s life-giving resources as you read, and I have no doubt we will all be walking a common path forward. This book’s ideals are rooted in an understanding of human purpose that many great spiritual and humanistic traditions share. In fact, not my own Christian tradition, but the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama, best summarizes the book’s “case”:
If you seek enlightenment for yourself simply to enhance yourself and your position, you miss the purpose; if you seek enlightenment for yourself to enable you to serve others, you are with purpose.2
This century desperately needs legions more people who are willing to step up and live for a mighty purpose, who know how to make wise choices, and who can make every day matter.
Create New Strategy for a New Time
Navigate a complex and fast-changing world.
Create strategy for your whole life.
Navigate a Complex and Fast-Changing World
We modern humans absorb more information and make more decisions in an average day than our ancestors might have made in a month. Outwardly, we adapt well to this intense pace. We effortlessly transition from telephone to cell phone to instant messaging to whatever will come next. No one feels genetically urged to train carrier pigeons or to go back to using rotary-dial telephones.
But inwardly, things often go less smoothly. The multiple competing demands of daily life pull us to pieces. We work long hours to serve our families, yet in ironic consequence, we end up spending too little time with them. We make lots and lots of decisions but feel more and more stressed as we do so. We work efficiently in highly technical occupations within gigantic multinational companies, but we go home and wonder whether our work really matters.
As you read this page, four crucial factors are radically changing the landscape in which we all must live and work. Those factors are change, culture clash, increasing scale, and complexity. I’m about to tell how my onetime employer struggled to master change and complexity successfully. But this story about big business is also a parable about your life and mine. The realities that have rattled the business environment have shaken our worlds, too. In fact, we often suffer worse tremors than our employers do—because they sometimes cope with change by dumping its fallout into our laps.
Change, culture clash, increasing scale, and complexity are not going to disappear; they will accelerate. Successful organizations have been bludgeoned into understanding that a business-as-usual attitude will no longer work for them. We must realize that it won’t work for us either.
Creative Destruction and an Identity Crisis
The economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) coined the term creative destruction to describe the displacement of existing technologies by new ones. Televisions, computers, cell phones, and automobiles are among countless twentieth-century innovations that spawned new businesses, changed our lifestyles, and enhanced our prosperity. But innovation often shapes new businesses by shattering others. Hence, Schumpeter spoke of destruction rather than evolution or transition.
Creative destruction has become even more severe since Schumpeter penned his thesis. Compare the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. When Thomas Edison first showcased his prototype lightbulb in 1879, it was (pardon the pun) lights out for candle makers and kerosene-lamp manufacturers. But it took decades for America to be wired for electricity. Kerosene-lamp makers had time to figure out their next career moves as their sunset business slowly slid into the good night of obsolescence.
Less than a decade after Edison’s lightbulb debuted, George Eastman patented the first Kodak camera, and for decades Kodak confidently hogged some 60 percent of the global film market. Company advertisements featured smiling children who reminded us to preserve our “Kodak moments.” But no company executives smiled when Kodak’s own moment of truth arrived with the debut of the digital camera. The new technology required no film and no chemical processing; Kodak’s core businesses suddenly faced obsolescence. Film sales plummeted, and Kodak faced extinction. Candle makers had decades to outmaneuver electrification (and many of them did, judging from the extensive commerce today in candles of all shapes, sizes, and scents), but Kodak executives had months to reinvent their company. Creative destruction took a terrible toll on a company that proudly counted some 150,000 employees about two decades ago and now numbers a mere 30,000. One business reporter summed up Kodak’s plight this way: “They had the brilliance to change an industry, but their hubris led them to believe that the evolution would stop with them.”??1
Kodak epitomizes the profoundly altered reality of business—and life—today. For much of their history, Kodak executives knew who they were: the world’s leading manufacturer and processor of film. But today’s executives live with less clarity and no long-term certainty; competitors, clients, and even core product lines can change radically over just a few years. As a result, companies and their executives must ask themselves what once would have seemed implausibly dumb questions: Who are we? What are we trying to accomplish?
Consider my own former employer, J. P. Morgan, as another example. We Morgan management trainees in 1983 knew that our key businesses were lending money to large corporations and investing their pension funds. We also knew what we didn’t do: manage a retail branch network to provide mortgages and checking accounts to “ordinary” folks like you and me (I was lucky enough to be hired at J. P. Morgan, but I wasn’t wealthy enough to be a customer).
Although Morgan was rated perennially America’s “most admired bank,” even we 1983 trainees knew that our venerable business model was doomed. Profit margins were shrinking as banks tripped over one another to lend money to big companies that enjoyed plenty of cheap fund-raising alternatives. Bankers are often portrayed as stodgy, lumbering, and change resistant; but even lumberers learn to tap-dance when change becomes imperative. Faced with grim prospects in our core business, Morgan’s management launched a strategic odyssey to graft profitable, growing financial businesses onto the roots of the “old” Morgan.
To put it plainly: we were reinventing ourselves, and continuously; our businesses changed, and so did the cast of starring and supporting players. Morgan couldn’t commit to businesses indefinitely, so it couldn’t commit to employees indefinitely either. Businesses and employees had to “grow or go.”
Some employees hunkered down fearfully, worked hard, and hoped for the best. But many others began thinking of themselves as free agents, keeping their eyes peeled for attractive job opportunities and determining never to fall in the periodic harvest of layoffs (or downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, or—in the ludicrous euphemism recently coined by a major U.S. company—enrollment reductions). The 1983 J. P. Morgan, in which many company veterans had long worked side by side, yielded to a workplace by the late 1990s in which lots of folks were just passing through. Of fifty or so management trainees who joined Morgan with me, not one was still with the company twenty years later.
Not only are employees passing through rapidly changing organizations, but whole companies are passing through as well. The company that today is JPMorgan Chase is an agglomeration cobbled together over the past two decades that might more accurately be called “JPMorgan-ChaseManhattan-ManufacturersHanover-ChemicalBank-BankOne-BearStearns,” and so on. I’ve omitted a few names, but you get the idea. Marketing gurus wisely concluded that JPMorgan Chase fits more easily onto business cards. Like all of its competitors, JPMorgan Chase remains a work in progress that will very likely absorb new corporate DNA before this book is printed.
The companies that constitute JPMorgan Chase today were each large to begin with; now they have formed a truly colossal enterprise. In 1983 I joined a company of 20,000 or so. That seemed bewilderingly large, but it’s downright puny compared to the 170,000-strong JPMorgan Chase. Today’s largest companies can be likened to sizable cities: Walmart, for example, employs some two million people; that exceeds the population of Philadelphia, Detroit, or Dallas.2
It’s easier to find a common culture and shared values in a small village than in a cosmopolitan city, and it was likewise easier to instill a J. P. Morgan way of doing things when the company was smaller and its culture so palpable that we saw and touched it—literally. I sat on the same banking floor as the illustrious J. P. Morgan Jr. himself once had; the same ornate chandelier that illuminated the titan’s stern visage had brightened my desk. But today’s thousands of annual hires can no longer find cultural enlightenment by meditating under the old man’s chandelier and communing with his ghost; J. P. Morgan’s historic banking floor, sold to real estate developers, is now a condominium lobby.
I don’t recount this history out of nostalgia or bitterness. J. P. Morgan’s managers very correctly realized that our old model was no longer viable, and I played my own small but certain role in consigning the good old days to the corporate dustbin. The company has continued to thrive only by doing business differently. We can think affectionately of the good old days, when the business world felt smaller, more predictable, and more manageable. But we can’t linger there if we are to survive, for these stories of creative destruction serve as parables for our lives beyond the banking floor or the superstore. All of us are buffeted by the same storms that shake these companies, whether we work in a bank or in a hospital, live in a large city or out in the country, are beginning our careers or entering retirement.
We, too, must grapple with the questions that make or break big businesses today: Who are we? Why are we here? What are we trying to accomplish? Change, complexity, culture clash, and increasing scale force us to answer these fundamental questions about ourselves. And in answering them we will create the firm foundation of an enduring strategy for life.
Massive changes have affected our lives over the past decade or so: What changes—at work, in the culture, or in technology—have made an impact on yours? How is your life different today from how it was two decades ago?
Change Forces Me to Figure Out Who I Am
Once upon a time, companies like Kodak and J. P. Morgan identified themselves with particular products (Kodak was a film manufacturer and J. P. Morgan was a moneylender). Those businesses often remained relatively stable for decades. Now companies and organizations must reinvent themselves and their businesses continually.
Once upon a time, individuals too identified themselves with a particular “product,” the work they did. In fact, our ancestors’ identities often literally derived from their jobs: think of surnames such as Carpenter or Baker. Mr. Baker was, well, the town baker (a profession that his son and grandson likely pursued).
But technological advances, corporate competition, and the relentless pursuit of productivity have all but obliterated the traditional career as Webster’s New World Dictionary defines it: “a profession or occupation which one trains for and pursues as a lifework.” That nice idea is thoroughly outdated for a great majority of us. Very few people nowadays will train in school for an occupation they will pursue at one company throughout their working lifetime. Instead, it’s estimated that today’s college graduates will typically work for some seven to ten different employers during a career. I know people who have cycled through ten different companies by the age of thirty.
Most of us will live decades longer than our great-grandparents did and will grow old in a world unrecognizably different from the one into which we were born. Many adults have already lived through the advent of televisions, cell phones, personal computers, and jet travel. And anyone who dares predict the technological landscape of 2050 will likely be as far off base as the nineteenth-century U.S. Patent Office commissioner who is said to have predicted that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”??3
A relentlessly changing world forces us not only to adapt and be flexible but also to confront fundamental questions about our identity. One of our great-grandparents might have said, “I am Mr. Baker, the town baker.” But a job never has captured the fullness of a person’s identity. That is especially true now that most of us will pursue multiple jobs and enjoy many further productive years once our working careers end. Not only does it make little sense to derive our identity chiefly from a job, but also it is no longer possible to do so, given all the changes that shape our work life.
When careers were more stable, life’s key question seemed to be, What job will I do? Now the key questions are more profound and more challenging: Who am I? Why am I here on earth? What kind of person will I be? I may do lots of jobs during a career, but as I move from one job to another—even from one company or profession to another—what remains? I remain. Who is that person, and what is he or she living for, beyond the next paycheck? If I can’t consciously articulate some overall, unifying meaning to my life, then my life ends up as a series of disconnected episodes as I drift between jobs, through relationships, and into retirement.
Culture Clash Forces Me to Figure Out What I Stand For
As companies and individuals navigate change, conflicts arise about how work should be done and how life should be lived. I was privileged, for example, to live and work on three continents, which put me center stage for sometimes trivial and sometimes profound cultural clashes. We Americans thought we knew how business ought to be conducted: internal meetings in New York were freewheeling affairs in which everyone from lowly trainees to managing directors frankly disputed the merits of various proposals. Client meetings quickly came to the point as we pitched business transactions and all but bullied our clients into awarding us deals.
But when we Americans disembarked airplanes in Japan, our certainties evaporated. We couldn’t figure out whether to bow to Japanese colleagues or shake their hands, or both. We strode into business meetings and pitched aggressively for deals, leaving our Japanese colleagues and clients a bit embarrassed and appalled by our forwardness and seeming insensitivity to the building of long-term relationships.
Life in this global era has dunked us into a wonderfully refreshing yet maddeningly diverse cultural pool. We speak numerous languages and eat from a variety of cuisines. Many of us believe in God, and many of us don’t. Some of us won’t have sex before marriage, and others will “hook up” after exchanging a few e-mails. My grandparents passed virtually their whole lives in one town among familiar neighbors who shared a common worldview and values. In contrast, I often brush by as many people in one day as they met in a lifetime. The common worldview of their small village has yielded to my cosmopolitan cacophony of religious, ethnic, generational, and other cultures.
Change forced us to ask, Who am I? Why am I here on earth? Cultural diversity adds other fundamental questions to our growing list: How should I behave and treat other people? What values are important and fundamental, in business and in personal life?
In a homogenous, stable culture, we often absorbed the answers from home, school, and neighborhood—and mostly we took the answers for granted. Now we must consciously ask and answer those questions for ourselves.
Scale Forces Me to Consider Why I Matter
We face other life-defining questions thanks to another modern phenomenon: companies that have become gigantic in a world that’s shrinking.
Modern media bombard us with news and images from an ever-smaller world: we watch in real time as Britons escape buses shattered by terrorist bombings while we simultaneously send instant messages to our business acquaintances there to confirm their safety. Yet, as the world becomes smaller, we often feel smaller, too. Every night we see earth-shaping events in faraway places that might affect our own safety and livelihoods; yet we feel powerless to do much about any of it—or we switch the channel to lighter fare, only to be reminded that our humdrum, work-and-come-home lives pale beside the apparently rich, full lives of celebrities.
The galloping gigantism of modern commerce further compounds the impression that we are relatively insignificant cogs in the world’s large-scale machinery. My grandfather, basically a subsistence farmer, could see face-to-face the good he accomplished. He lived among the growing children he nourished; he helped build the house that sheltered them.
I, too, helped to feed and shelter people. J. P. Morgan financed and advised supermarket chains, home builders, and food manufacturers; our company employed thousands of people, enabling them to support their families with dignity; we managed pension funds that ensured countless retirees a stable, comfortable old age. My J. P. Morgan colleagues and I helped feed and shelter more people than either my late grandfather or I could possibly imagine.
That’s just the problem: I couldn’t imagine. Big can be beautiful for the efficiency and expertise that result when humans join together to embrace common goals on a great scale. But big can be demoralizing when bankers, accountants, administrative assistants, and human-resource professionals search for meaning in our work. My grandfather’s generation, most of whom were self-employed in small shops or farms, often knew and interacted with the people they fed. Employees in my generation, often moored to workstations in a sea of cubicles, watch numbers on spreadsheets, not families eating the food we grow. We can feel alienated—cut off—from the products our employers produce and from the humans they serve. We service loans that finance factories we never visit; the factories bake bread destined for nameless towns strung across the continent.
We know our work must make a difference, yet it’s sometimes impossible to discern just what that difference is. Even if I heroically shouldered the workload of two people—and sometimes I did—it neither lowered the cost of J. P. Morgan’s services by a penny nor raised the company’s earnings per share by a penny. How discouraging! When I left Morgan, someone replaced me, and business hummed along as business always had. Indeed, so many colleagues came and went that it became ever harder to find community at work; we rode elevators alongside nearly anonymous colleagues who spun through the company’s revolving doors each day, all of them segmented into specialized departments that were scattered all over J. P. Morgan’s worldwide network.
Scale and its by-products, such as highly specialized occupations, can leave us feeling alienated, insignificant, and isolated. In 1800, four out of five people were self-employed and thus quite connected to the people affected by their labor.4 Our connection to work is very different now. Hence, further questions accumulate on our growing list: Why do I matter? What makes my life meaningful?
Put differently, giant-sized companies can often offer pay but not meaning. Increasingly, we must find meaning for ourselves.
What principles do you follow in dealing with other people?
Are they rules you learned growing up, in church, in your professional life?
What makes life deeply meaningful for you? Why is it important that you are here in this world of six billion people?
Complexity Forces Me to Figure Out How to Make Good Choices
The three trends just discussed—change, clashing cultures, and scale—are conspiring with a host of others to render contemporary life enormously complex. We enjoy vastly more work and lifestyle options than our grandparents did. But more options translate into more decisions we must make. We choose whether or not to attend college, which college to attend, what job to pursue, where to live, whom to marry, when to switch jobs, and how much to save for retirement. In fact, we will make some of those choices multiple times during our long working life before deciding when to retire. And let’s not forgot life’s more mundane choices, such as which of some one hundred brands of breakfast cereal to buy.
You would think that all of that decision making would turn us into astute decision makers. But evidence suggests the opposite. Researchers have discovered, for example, that whether it’s 401(k) investment choices or brands of jam in a supermarket, humans tend to choose most conscientiously and wisely when weighing only a limited number of variables. We become bewildered by large arrays of choices and intimidated by the complexity of sorting through them. So, we go with our gut, mimic a friend’s choices, or play Eeny Meeny Miney Mo.
In other words, the sheer number of choices we have to make—along with the complexity of those choices—has eroded our ability to make those choices well. And sometimes Eeny Meeny Miney Mo seems as good an alternative as any, given the tough choices that often confront us. We face seemingly irreconcilable trade-offs, like having to decide (under time pressure, of course) between a job transfer that will benefit our career but that may hurt our family life. Or, worse yet, we don’t feel sufficient control over our circumstances to make good choices, like countless folks who cling to unfulfilling jobs to retain benefits that they don’t want to risk forfeiting.5
A New World Approach to New World Realities
A list of uncomfortable questions has piled up throughout this chapter:
- Who am I?
- What am I trying to accomplish in life?
- How should I behave and treat other people?
- What values are important and fundamental, in business and in family life?
- Why do I matter?
- What makes my life meaningful?
In the ancient world of, say, twenty years ago, we could skip these philosophical questions and get right to the nitty-gritty ones, such as where to work and live. But change, culture clash, scale, and complexity won’t allow us to operate in that old-fashioned way any longer. Before we are bankers, priests, astronauts, or film manufacturers, we are human beings. So the first and most strategic question we must ask is, What does it mean to be a fulfilled, purposeful, successful human being?
If we don’t tackle the question of what makes human life meaningful, we may end up becoming expert and successful in ways that we’ll discover, late in life, were not very meaningful at all. Before worrying about what we’re doing for a living, we need to figure out what we’re living for, because our “career” in the environment of the new world is not a job. It is our whole life.
So how do we go about answering the big questions? And how do we translate our answers into good choices in life and effective day-to-day performance? We do so by engaging this complex, changing world in a much more deliberate, proactive, and purposeful manner. We need a new approach to the business of living. We need a strategy.