I am 39 years old. As an American male, my life expectancy is 76. I’m already in the second half of my life, though I’m often still referred to as a “young leader.”
It’s remarkable how much the world can change in 39 years. Most nations are less than 75 years old. The average national constitution has a life expectancy of only 17 years. The lifespan of a Fortune 500 company is between 40 and 50 years—roughly the same as someone in one of the ten poorest countries in the world. During my grandmother’s lifespan, the number of nations in the world doubled by more than half; at the time of her birth, many had not yet been established.
Our institutions, our governments, and even our nations are still radically evolving. You will likely live longer than the organization that employs you today. The corporations that dominate society are a relatively recent invention, barely a hundred years old. The sector is still in its infancy and the giant businesses that lead it, despite all their resources and systems, are far less resilient than people. As the founder of the Taproot Foundation, now in its twelfth year, it’s hard for me to fathom a time when it won’t exist, but the odds are very low that it will still be around when I die. Hopefully its impact and legacy will outlive me, but the organization is unlikely to do so.
It’s a disturbing but liberating thought—everything is in transition and far less permanent than we imagine. But if little of what we build or experience outlasts us, we can and should give ourselves far more permission to experiment and take risks. Few things cannot change. That means that we possess much more power than we realize, but it also means that even if we make mistakes, they are impermanent and reparable. Things are done a certain way until they aren’t. You can be the one who makes the change.
Playing with Post-it Notes
In 1992, I was in high school while my father was a PhD student at the University of Michigan. My fondest memory of that time was watching him map his ideas for his dissertation. He began with an insight from a conversation, research or a book. He then would roll these giant sheets of paper out across the table, on which he would jot down the insight and circle it. He added circle after circle, drawing lines to show their relationships. When he wasn’t around, I would pull out his maps and look at them, trying to decipher his lines, words and circles–it was a map of his mental world, and looking at it made me feel like I was inside it.
20 years later, I began creating my own circles to find my own insights. My circles took the form of Post-it notes stuck on my office window, which overlooked the downtown New York City skyline. For over a year I arranged and rearranged them, trying to find a pattern and an answer to a question I had been studying for a long time: Is there a science to social impact? How could the work I was doing at Taproot have a bigger impact? Billions of dollars are spent each year trying to move the needle on issues from education to poverty, but what was working? Is it possible to predict success? How could someone design a social impact effort with a high probability of creating change?
The breakthrough came as patterns emerged between the Post-its. The patterns became what I later termed the Five Levers for Social Change in a series for the Stanford Social Innovation Review.1 Based on my research of successful social change efforts, there appeared to be only five ways that social change was ever proactively created: research, policy, public perceptions, disruptive technology, and bright spots. This framework radically shrunk the challenge of architecting social change efforts. What had seemed infinite and overwhelming had become finite and easily navigated.
Once this framework emerged, I took it on the road to see if anyone could break it.
Entrepreneurs, local foundations, even folks at the White House couldn’t find an example of a social change that had been created using an approach other than one of the five levers. But as I continued to test the framework, I personally found that the five levers weren’t enough. Putting the levers to work required large groups of people working together across sectors, backgrounds, and experiences. Leaders weren’t listening to each other or respecting the perspectives of their partners. They were talking at each other, not with each other. They were getting stuck just defining the issue, much less selecting the right levers to pull.
Soon, a new set of Post-it notes began to pop up on my window. Why did such smart people see issues so differently and have so much trouble understanding the perspectives of their peers? How can we get people to work together to put the five levers into action? The answer took about three months to emerge as I moved my Post-it notes around in between conference calls and meetings. As I mapped out all the diverse approaches to advancing progress, five distinct perspectives emerged. What I came to understand was that these diverse perspectives constituted the core of not only how people created change and progress in the world, but also how they experienced purpose in their lives and careers. These perspectives embodied a new kind of diversity, a diversity of purpose.
Purpose Is a Verb
Like so many people, I always thought that gaining purpose in life was about finding my cause. When coaching or mentoring people over the years, purpose always seemed to find expression through a noun—immigration, civil rights, education and so on. And yet this never accurately described the many people I knew who worked in jobs that had no “cause” but still felt a strong sense of purpose in their work, or others who had found purpose working across many causes. What started to become clear to me was that defining personal purpose wasn’t about finding a noun, but instead about finding a verb—an action. It’s not only what you are doing, but how you are doing it and relating to the world. When we assemble a group of leaders in education, we think they share a purpose, but in fact, they only share a cause. Until they can understand the diversity of purpose in the room, the cause has little hope of moving forward or creating meaningful change.
This insight led to a third question and set of Post-it notes. What is purpose? What generates purpose for people, and how can they harness it? And perhaps most importantly, how do we engage people to use their purpose to create meaningful change?
This one was easy at first. For more than a decade, Taproot had helped thousands of people find and cultivate purpose. Reading over 20 thousand application essays had provided me with enormous amounts of data, anecdotes, and stories to move to Post-it notes and find the eventual patterns and insights around the drivers of purpose. This time, the magic number was three. People gain purpose when they grow personally, when they establish meaningful relationships, and when they are in service to something greater than themselves.
The harder part was answering the follow up questions about how to enable people to have work rich in purpose. Upon further examination, however, it became clear that, for many people, living with purpose was a necessity, not an option. This especially rang true with the millennial generation. People were seeking and finding purpose everywhere and in everything. It was in businesses like Etsy, who became wildly successful. It was in models and new markets for things like car sharing, and at the core of the rise and success of social media. It was why so many people were deciding to leave their jobs and work for themselves.
It was during this time that I came across a summary of my uncle Marc Porat’s work from when he was an economist doctoral student at Stanford. In his 1977 thesis, he coined the term “Information Economy,” and he proved that information had surpassed industry as the leading driver of the US gross domestic product (GDP). In reading the summary of his dissertation, I found something surprisingly similar about what he had described and what I was witnessing both through my work at Taproot and in the economy at large. Specifically, the economy was going through another major restructuring, and that just as the Information Economy supplanted the Industrial Economy, and as the Industrial Economy supplanted the Agrarian Economy before it, we were now seeing a new economy emerge.
Like most people, I had come to see technology as synonymous with innovation, jobs, growth, and our future. And while the Information Economy was clearly still the dominant driver of our economic engine, it had become clear to me that a new economy was emerging, one centered on the need for individuals to find purpose in their work and lives. It wasn’t a pollyannaish vision of the future, but rather a natural course in the evolution of the needs of people and the goods, services and jobs they desired. As I began to share this idea of an emerging Purpose Economy with my friends, partners, and colleagues, it resonated with much of what they had experienced and witnessed in their own work and lives. It wasn’t just a trend or niche: as consumers, employers, community leaders, policy makers and employees, we were each playing a small role in restructuring society and the economy to meet the growing demands of the people (and planet).
But what did this mean? What changes could we expect to see? How could we help nudge the economy in the direction that would be most beneficial to people and the planet? The Information Economy changed organizations and the labor market as well as demanded a new enabling environment. Could we expect the same types of changes in the emerging Purpose Economy?
The impact of the Information Economy cannot be overstated. The rise of the Information Economy led to radical changes in government, policy, education, community dynamics, non-market human interactions and the role and design of nonprofit organizations.
Within organizations the Information Economy not only created technology departments, it also catalyzed the widespread introduction of strategic planning, marketing, and human resources. It also completely altered the flow of capital and investments, accelerating both but also creating a culture that focused on debt, scale and short-term investment horizons.
Could we expect to see similar radical changes in organizations over the next 20 years? Would whole new functions be invented? In 50 years, would a company even resemble the typical business of today? The clues could be found in studying organizations like the Taproot Foundation and other pioneers working on the front lines of the new economy, and in trying to understand how Purpose Economy organizations like Etsy, Interface, and Airbnb differ from their predecessors of even a decade earlier.
As I began to study the pioneers of the Purpose Economy, it became clear that marketing, human resources, and strategic planning were giving way to new methods of organizing and working, and that, in order to thrive, organizations would need to rethink the ways they were operating in this new economy.
And those are just the impacts of the Purpose Economy within organizations. We will likely also see radical changes to everything from government to parenting to healthcare.
There are unprecedented opportunities that exist in this nascent economy. It is ours to design and own, to create and expand markets in still unimaginable ways. There is the opportunity to improve the lives of billions of people.
The Purpose Economy 2.0
In the early spring of 2013, I sat down and drafted The Purpose Economy. I shared my insights and stories from the front lines to help inspire and enable everyone to embrace, build, and own the new economy. The book was set to be published in September of the same year, but after a 15-minute conversation with Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, we switched gears and decided to treat the manuscript as a beta and not as the finished book. We printed 2,000 copies and sent them to pioneers and thought leaders in the new economy. We asked them to contribute their ideas and observations about the Purpose Economy, the book, and the concept. We asked them to share their Post-it notes. I wrote the book you are now reading, but in many ways it was co-authored by the numerous people who shared their stories and ideas.
Armed with the generous and insightful feedback from so many thinking partners from around the world, I created a final set of Post-it notes, which became the structure for this book. The Purpose Economy is not meant to be read as a treatise, but as a work in progress and a call to action for all of us working towards building an economy that serves people and the planet.
In this book, you will explore the evolution of markets within the Purpose Economy and the key levers that can be used to advance them, as well as the new approaches to running an organization across sectors that can thrive in this new era. But the most important section in this book is the one about you. At the core of the Purpose Economy is people’s need and desire to find their own professional purpose. This felt like an impossible task when I founded Taproot but just over a decade later, the key ingredients have become clear and have been proven powerful.
This book presents an opportunity of unprecedented potential: an economy that will not only continue to generate jobs and resources, but one that also has the capability to improve the lives of billions of people. But much of this potential lies in how we as leaders move forward and how we frame and invest in this new economy. It is, at its core, the first economy built for humans.
So grab some Post-it notes, and let’s get started.Preview Table of Contents Preview Glossary Pre-Order Book