purpose

By Mark E. Smith

After talking with my vice president of human resources about the pros and cons of joining the enormous career social network site, LinkedIn, I built my profile, an online resume of sorts. In a mere two weeks, I accumulated over 450 “connections” with people I know from my career.

However, I’ve noticed an aspect missing from LinkedIn, the same aspect missed by most employers and employees in the hiring and career process. While LinkedIn is great at demonstrating what we do and what we’ve done, it’s not a vehicle that conveys why we do what we do – that is, it doesn’t convey the purpose in our lives.

Now, this isn’t a fault of LinkedIn, but a cultural one, where most career paths are more about literal job roles and salary than an individual’s purpose. And, that is a shame because when we don’t feel we’re living to our purpose – as in, I really want to be a photographer but I work in sales because it pays the bills – we lose a part of ourselves, including passion, in the processes. Yes, all of us need to make a living, but when we don’t feel purpose in our lives, it pulls us down, a sense of longing that we carry.

I’ve been very blessed to have career for which I feel purpose. My company manufactures mobility products, and the difference our products make in the lives of those we serve is profound – they allow individuals with severe disabilities to pursue education, career, family and community. On a daily basis I encounter harrowing stories of injury, illness and injustice, and to contribute solutions to individuals’ situations – as one with a severe disability, myself – it fills my life with purpose and passion.

In fact, I see so much purpose in what I do that I’m inspired to constantly spread that passion in my leadership roles. Every Monday at 4:30, I meet with our company’s new employees of all levels and talk about the purpose in what we do. “All of us need to make a living,” I say. “But, at our company, we’re also able to make a difference – that’s a remarkable opportunity in any career.”

Monthly, I also speak alongside our CEO at what we call our birthday lunch, where employees with birthdays in that month gather for a celebration and a company update. I speak to the vital role each employee serves, regardless of position, toward empowering our customers. After all, what’s more powerful than being reminded how you’ve positively impacted the lives of others – that’s purpose.

What’s intriguing to me, however, is when I read anonymous employee reviews online. I see disgruntled comments by our employees – as a large company, we get those – yet, even within the most disgruntled reviews, there’s almost always a positive mention of helping others. No, I don’t want anyone hating one’s boss or feeling underpaid, but the fact that one acknowledges seeing purpose in one’s job is a powerful sentiment.

At the other end of the spectrum, I also spend my days speaking with those who are unemployed. My peers with disabilities have a 75% unemployment rate based on remaining social barriers toward employment. Nevertheless, when I speak with my peers about their employment goals, it’s never about money or status. Rather, when I speak with my peers about their employment goals, they touch upon simply wishing to make a difference – that is, they want to live with a certain purpose.

Now, although purpose and career are a meaningful match – who doesn’t want to feel purpose in his or her work, right? – purpose extends much farther. I mean, the definition of purpose in our lives is that we feel that we have impact. For some, this may mean parenthood, while for others, it’s creating art or volunteering, and on and on. Purpose is what gives internal meaning to our lives. And, when we don’t feel purpose, we can feel a void and longing. So, how do we move beyond that void, into purpose?

A lot of times, it takes courage. My friend and colleague, Bryan, a triple amputee wounded Iraq veteran, shared with me that he felt so much purpose when on the road speaking, acting and volunteering. But, when he was home in Chicago, he felt a certain void, alone in his condo. However, he realized that much of the roles he loved serving – his purpose – were based in Los Angeles. So, Bryan took a leap of faith, packed up, and moved to L.A. His life and career have never been better, where he’s now able to constantly pursue his passions, right down to appearing in the current blockbuster movie, American Sniper.

As we think about our purpose in life, the question is, what do we feel truly fulfilled doing? Then, we must have the courage to live to that purpose. For me, I believed 14 years ago that my purpose was in serving my peers with mobility needs, so I moved across the country to join a small team to start a division of a parent company that subsequently grew into an industry-leading company in its own right. For Charles Bukowski, he worked at the Los Angeles post office as a filling clerk while going home at night to follow his purpose, poetry, going on to be a 20th-Century great, publishing thousands of poems and over 60 books. All of our purposes are different, but the way we achieve them is the same: in our hearts, we all know what ours is – we just need the courage to live it.

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