Playing the Long Game

Finding your purpose, even during a pandemic, is an intentional move.

Posted Jun 15, 2020

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” —Howard Thurman

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash
Red flower in field of yellow flowers
Source: Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

This often-repeated quote by American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman is great advice for each of us, no matter our stage in life. I am of the belief that we all want our work to connect to something that we might call purpose. We all want to know that what we do matters. Indeed, whether you frame it in terms of systems theory, influence and motivation, or engagement, there is a good bit of research out there that supports this idea. But how do you figure out what that greater purpose is, if you don’t feel like you have one? How do you answer the question, “What makes me come alive?”

This is, in many ways, an easier task to accomplish for those of us with greater tenure and experience. I am more able, today, to say, these are the ways that I am willing to spend my time and energy, and these are not. Or, to put it another way, I’ve earned the right, with twenty-plus years of experience, a track record of success, and three degrees to say that I’m just not willing to do work that I don’t find fun.

Ten or fifteen years ago I wasn’t as able to say that. Ten or fifteen years ago, I wasn’t as able to define what “fun” meant for me at work. Over those twenty years, I have grown into my strengths, my interests, and my skills in mostly intentional ways, which have allowed me to find my purpose both through and from my work.

When you’re first entering the workforce, there’s a lot of pressure to “find your purpose” or to “find your passion.” In fact, Gallup and Bates College published a report last year that encouraged higher education to prepare students to lead meaningful and engaged professional lives, and to help students to “efficiently pursue a path to purposeful work.” As I’ve written here in another post, I don’t love that way of thinking. It’s a lot to ask of both individuals and institutions of higher education, on a good day.

And right now, I think we can all agree, is not a good day. Unemployment is higher than it’s been since the Great Depression. Industries, organizations, and whole sectors of our economy have been destroyed, and there’s little indication if, or when, they will come back. Not to mention the very real impacts for people who are just trying to figure out how to survive each day. What new grads need is not “purposeful work”; they need tangible experience to build their skills and their strengths.

Like many people, I have been watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance over the past few weeks. There are a lot of great takeaways and lessons there for leadership, management, and teams, but I was particularly struck by an episode early on that focused on Dennis Rodman. Rodman never wanted to play by the rules and is known, these days, for his outfits, his relationships, and his behavior which can sometimes overshadow his exceptional athletic abilities and his contributions to several teams. What struck me in particular, was this quote: “I think the second or third year in the league, I figured out what I could do best: rebound and play defense. Basically I just started learning how to perfect that.”

Did you catch that? Just a couple of years into his first professional role, Rodman identified his strengths and set about working on them, doing the work to improve and to learn and to grow so that he would be the best in his role, which ultimately impacted his entire team. The sexy role, the role that got all the attention, was the Michael Jordan role, the one who was making those incredible, gravity-defying shots. But as Scottie Pippen, another teammate, notes, “Dennis knew how to play his role well. He’s a huge reason for our success.”

In her book, Radical Candor, Kim Scott discusses how every organization has rock stars and superstars. The superstars tend to get all the attention, and there is an organizational bias towards treating everyone as if they, too, should be superstars. But every successful organization needs, and has, rock stars. These are the people who show up and do their job, and do it well. They figure out what their role is, and they work on getting better at it, every day. Michael Jordan was a superstar, without question. But even with all his talents, he alone couldn't be successful without Rodman, Pippen, and the rest of his team.

Cal Newport wrote a best-selling book on this topic a few years ago, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, in which he outlines the idea that instead of focusing on the what (follow your passion) people should instead focus on the how (grow your strengths and skills to a point of excellence). Or, as recent research by Carole Dweck and others at Stanford found, you’re far more likely to develop something you might call your passion and purpose over time, by pursuing the things that interest you. In doing so, your passion and purpose will find you. Much like my own experience, you will grow into the knowledge of what fuels you, of what makes you come alive.

So what does all of this mean for you? Instead of getting hung up on trying to find that one thing, right out of college or in your first few years of work, that you might call your purpose, do this instead:

  • Take the pressure off. The next time someone asks you what your passion is, be OK with saying, “I don’t know.” This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about things, but let go of the pressure to find or to name that one be-all, end-all passion or purpose that should orient your life. Figure out what you’re interested in. Find the places where you can get better and smarter and let the passion and the purpose find you.
  • Lean into your strengths. Rodman says he “figured out what I could do best” and then he got to work growing those strengths and skills to a point of excellence. He was never going to out-Jordan, Jordan. So instead he found the place where he could stand out, and he went to work learning and growing into that role. What sets you apart from others? What can you do better than others? Lean into those things. Work on them, find opportunities to use them strategically, until, as Newport puts it, you’re so good they can’t ignore you. And as a bonus, when you’re good at something, you tend to enjoy it more. It may never rise to the level of “passion” but then again, it might.
  • Privilege learning over knowing. Nobody is great at their role right out of the gate. Nobody graduates college and knows everything there is to know about their field, their role, or their purpose. It’s a process of learning and growing. Those who set themselves apart aren’t the ones who are naturally gifted. Those who set themselves apart are the ones who are willing to work harder, to get smarter, and to do the work. For as talented as Jordan was, he out-worked and out-hustled everybody else, every day, and that's what made the difference. The good news for you is this is an incredibly low bar and not many people choose to overcome it. And, by learning your role, you will gain clarity about what you do and don’t like, and what you want more or less of as you build your career.
  • Play the long game. Playing the long game means taking the necessary steps, now, to set yourself up for long-term success. It means not sacrificing long-term gains for short-term wins. Unless something unexpected happens, you’re looking at anywhere from a 30-50 year career. That may seem overwhelming to think about, but it’s also quite freeing. You don’t have to have all the answers on day one, and you won’t. Think of your career as a pyramid, where you get closer and closer to that thing you might call your purpose with every role and opportunity. It’s all data to help you make more informed choices, to help you figure out what makes you uniquely come alive. Even during a crisis like a pandemic, especially during a crisis like a pandemic, remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself.

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