Why do you do for a living?

“We even identify our own selves with the jobs we do: ‘What do you do?’ is the first question we ask each other at parties, as if a job title could express a fundamental truth about our personality.” — Tom Hodgkinson

In Start with Why, Simon Sinek tells us that purpose for leaders and businesses is the key to greatness. I believe that purpose for any individuals is the key not only for greatness too, but also for happiness. Unfortunately, when we meet someone for the first time, and even long after, we never really get to know what is the person’s purpose. We simply go for the “what do you do for a living” question. As if the what of our life “could express a fundamental truth about our personality”. Asking what we believe in would tell much more about ourselves.

What job titles say

When we meet someone for the first time, it’s convenient to say our job title. Not only does it say what we do, it also tells about how the organization we work in is structured. It’s easy because it’s codified. But it’s restrictive because we tend to just stick to it.

what we do: our industry, our knowledge and abilities, our achievements structure: our status, our power, our position in the hierarchy

In my previous job, I struggled to find an adequate title to put on my business card. I eventually came up with “Organization hacker”. My job was to lead an agile transformation of the company and create a new organization. Hacker sounded pretty cool for someone with an IT background. I now have set up a new structure, so I say that I am a “Co-founder”. Still I’m not yet happy with this title. What is the message behind those job titles?

  • Founder: I created something (even small)
  • CEO: I am (lonely) at the top
  • Chairman: I am powerful without having to work
  • Chief something Officer: I am uniquely important
  • Manager: I have important responsibilities
  • Director: I make strategic decisions
  • Lead / Leader: People (have to) listen to me
  • Consultant: I know a lot of stuff (in theory)
  • Analyst: I am smart
  • Developer: I can code
  • Administrator: People depend on me
  • Engineer: I know how to make things work

Job titles set expectations in both a flattering way for the ego and a restrictive way for the soul. It puts the light on what to expect and leave in the dark everything else.

Knowing those limitations, we still love our job titles because it allows us to be on the world mental map of someone we just met. What if we could switch that mental map from traditional power hierarchy to a hierarchy of purpose? What if we gave up our job titles and replace them with purpose? What if the true first question we had to reply to was “Why do you do for a living?”.

Finding our purpose

Then first, we’d have to know our purpose. Not much in our society, from our education to our daily lifestyle, help us to find it. That’s how many end up going through a mid-life crisis. If you spend the first part of your life trying to please others because what you learned from childhood is that you have to please in order to be loved, then no wonder you wake up when you reach the second part of your life realizing that you may need to start to live the life you want now. It doesn’t have to be that way.

As Brene Brown explains beautifully in The Power of Vulnerability, parents need to understand they are here to tell their children: you’re perfect the way you are. It doesn’t mean that their children have nothing to learn and change. It means their children are enough for what life will call them to do. By letting kids find their element, that is their talents for something that deeply resonate with themselves, we might also find that adolescence doesn’t have to be a crisis either. By quitting school Logan Laplante has a much better start in finding his purpose.

A purpose is not a mission statement, it’s not a wishful projection. It’s not what the people who gave life to us, our parents/founders, wish or dream for us. It depends on our talents. It’s something that we need to listen to and sense. In Holacracy, Brian Robertson explains that the purpose for organization is “evolutionary”: it changes over time, people in the organization have to listen to the organization and use their sense to find its truthful purpose and actualize it. Similarly, we personally need to spend time “sensing” about ourselves to find that purpose. Being in the state of flow, our element, is a hint to our purpose. Practicing mindfulness helps us to let go of judgment to seeing us as we are.

A what that prompts a why

Having found our purpose, how can we capture it in just a few words for a business card? Well the answer is we can’t. But we can choose something that will prompt a why question and offer us the opportunity to explain our current purpose. Frederic Laloux might seem to have given up on job title, but in fact, his “experimenting life without a job title” is a clever way to lead from what to why. Brian Robertson from HolacracyOne is a “recovering CEO”. The “Co-founder” title isn’t that bad in the sense that it does lead to the question of why did you start it? But the answer would be the purpose of the organization, not of the person.

These days I prefer to say that I’m an “Organization tinkerer”. It’s not originality for the sake of it, it’s conscious originality because we have something deeper to say about what we believe in. By choosing not to use a traditional job title and being a bit more creative, we send the message to others that they might consider shifting their hierarchy paradigm. And we invite them to enter the realm of purposes, where a purpose is a holon. It is simultaneously a whole and a part. A whole in a sense that it makes us feel whole and a part of a greater purpose held by an organization. Our purpose is usually not the purpose of the organization, but we tend to choose environments where we can contribute by expressing our purpose, in other words by being truly ourselves. And that is the key to happiness.