No Purpose? No Problem

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Sure, it’s great to have purpose in your work. But don’t sweat it if you don’t. Three tips for the purposeless.

“I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively,” Mark Zuckerberg told Harvard’s Class of 2017. “The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”


Baloney. A sense of purpose is like an appendix. If you’ve got one, good for you. If you don’t, you’re not missing anything important.

I’ve always been purposeless. As a kid, I kinda worried about it. I thought I was missing something essential because all I wanted to be was a New Jersey Lottery winner. (In those days, the grand prize was a cool million. Pretax. Woo-hoo!)

But getting a purpose was never a burning issue for me. Getting a job was far more important. I needed money — mainly because the only thing my parents ever agreed on was that one kid wasn’t enough.

Sans purpose, it did take me a long time — 15 years — to find work that worked for me. But I learned some lessons along the way. I offer them here as shortcuts to everyone else who drew a blank ticket in the purpose lottery.

1. Forget purpose. Do something you’re good at.

You’re good at something. Everybody is. I’m not talking about that pipedream you have of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter or a craft beer brewer. I’m talking about a proven talent — something that makes your professor pony up an A+ or your boss give you a raise or your friends’ jaws drop.

I suck at math and biology makes me woozy. But I was always a good writer and I love to read, which made me a better writer. The only thing I liked about consulting was writing the reports. And I even got better at that, thanks to a boss who edited my work while verbally abusing me to a degree that would be actionable these days. (Many thanks, Saul Astor!)

I could have saved a lot of years getting to good work if I had simply started with what I was good at. You can, too.

2. Quit early and often.

When you don’t know what kind of work you want to do, you have to do different kinds of work until you figure it out.

Being purposeless (and random by inclination), I checked out everything from carpentry to consulting. I made banana splits, laid carpets, drove forklifts, sold security systems, pumped gas, painted houses, and telemarketed pay TV — before saying “pay TV” was redundant. I carved thousands of identical plastic parts on a lathe surrounded by 10 ladies on lathes of their own. None of us knew the purpose of the parts.

Unknowingly, I was a pioneer in the solar industry. First in Tucson and then, because I started missing waves, in Pensacola, a solar water-heating company paid me to knock on people’s doors and collect sales leads in return for contest entries. You’ve heard of MBWA? This was MLBWA — making a living by walking around.

The only regret I have about all of these jobs is that I wasted too much time doing them. In each job, I constantly should have been asking myself why I couldn’t — or wouldn’t want to — do it forever, and as soon as I figured out the answer, I should have quit.

Don’t work another day at something that doesn’t work for you. Move along.

3. Beware of corporate carrots.

Over the years, I had a few bosses who tried to imbue me with a sense of purpose — a corporate purpose, that is. “Knuckle down, Ted, and this could be yours,” one pasty partner told me, gesturing with a bottle of Maalox around his Depression Era corner office in the Lincoln Building. I tasted the Maalox — clay, a hint of mint, a long, chalky finish. It wasn’t very good.

The problem with corporate carrots is that they take years to reach and virtually everyone gets trampled over along the way. Sure, a select few get a carrot. But you’d be surprised how many of them take a big bite of it and suddenly realize that they never really wanted it in the first place.

Resist the siren call of corporate nirvana and keep hunting for work that works for you. If you like what you’re doing and it affords you a life that you like, go for it. But do not sacrifice your happiness or your freedom or your very limited time on this planet to give Mark Zuckerberg or any other sense-of-purpose-spouting mogul another billion bucks. Not one of them would do it for you.

One last thing

The idea of purpose has a Kryptonite glow about it that makes it hard to resist. Most everyone who promotes and writes about purpose takes for granted that it’s essential to a good life. They act as if there will be a gaping hole in your life without it. Employers love this because they know if you make your work your purpose, you’ll work harder.

I say if you’ve got an innate sense of purpose, by all means pursue it. But if you don’t, don’t waste your time looking for it. Live, love, and be happy. Provide for yourself and your family. Try not to hurt other people while you’re at it. That’s more than enough. No matter what Zuckerberg says.

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