The Myth of Purpose

By admin | Uncategorized

Jun 21

Earlier today, I posted this article on LinkedIn. A quick letter from a reader described dissatisfaction with how MBA programs are ranked.

The argument, to summarize, is that post-MBA salary and prestige are not capturing the essence of what an MBA should be for creating the flexibility to pursue the career or passion that you want to.

To my pleasant surprise, a stream of comments came through, which I enjoyed. One friend made the very fair point that a ranking system without analytical rigor is silly, and I agree because that’s what a listicle is. Another suggested that the ease with which we can compare each other is the culprit. Undoubtedly true, based on my experience at Booth.

But one comment has me stuck. A person in my second-degree network declared: “The reality is that most young people don’t know what they want…” I’ve heard the argument. I’m sure that you have, too. We, if I may include myself, seem to have a tendency to struggle with finding our place in the world. OK. I get it.

But why?

Why do we have so much trouble identifying what we want in the world?
I’m not the only one to ask this question. There are thousands and thousands of career quizzes, assessments, guides, hacks, and cheat sheets to finding your true self. Or something. I’ve taken no fewer than ten organized, robust, data-backed personality assessments to understand who I am and how I tick. Much to my amusement, they all agree on somethings and widely differ on others.

But we still don’t know.

I dug some more. Many people blame education and the disconnect between both academic subject matter and how we analyze it with real job skills that we need to employ. Others suggest that we have way too much information, and it paralyzes us from making good decisions. I have a different theory.

We do a terrible job of owning who we want to be and how we want to live.

It’s not because we don’t care, or don’t try. Humans tend to rely on heuristics, life’s shortcut to knowledge. We look to those that we know and understand to define how we should approach problems and situations. Unfortunately, we build realities that do not suit us.

In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose explains that averages, by in large, are a compatible fit for a tiny number of people. Like, less than 1% of all individuals match an average. In the world of clothing or shoe size, we can work with these imperfections around an average. In designing your life, or as Todd Rose explained, in the context of designing cockpits for fighter pilots, an average that doesn’t fit is not an option.

So, what’s the solution?

Like so many things, the solution is at once obvious — but not so easy.

  1. We need to embrace the notion that our life will not and should not look like someone else’s. It is illogical to expect that you can look at someone else’s path and replicate it for yourself. This is a scary idea — I get it. But the moment you accept that the only person who can build the life you want is you, it makes it much easier to take responsibility for the things that you need to change.
  2. Distinguish between not knowing what you want to do and how to do what you want to do. You don’t know how to create the grand teeter totter that allows you to balance your challenges and obligations with your freedom and your fun. “I would snowboard all day if I could,” you might say, “but I would be poor forever.” OR “I want to be a painter, but I don’t know how I would sell any work.” These are real problems, and ones that you would need to consider judiciously. But to be clear, the problem is not a lack of clarity on what you love. The problem is a lack of clarity on how to do what you love to support the life that you want. There may be a slim number of ways that you can pursue your dream and have it support your lifestyle. But your life isn’t supposed to look like anyone else’s, is it?
  3. Talk to people. If your dreams only live inside your head, then you are left to your own devices to figure out how to make them a reality. One of the biggest things that holds us back is the lack of a credible example of what we seek. We crave validation like crazy. Today, I spent an hour trying to figure out what a coach for the hospitality industry looks and feels like. So I googled: there’s a guy:

The Hospitality Coach – Learn from my mistakes
“I really love Pete’s warmth and honesty and the way his opinion has obviously come from putting in the hard yards…

His name is Pete. He already exists. I’m chatting with him next week.

I’m writing this article because I want to challenge the idea that we can’t what we want. More specifically, the problem is not that we don’t know what we want. Nobody is immune from daydreaming of the wonderful life they want to lead or the wonderful things that they want to have.

So, take your turn. Change your thinking. Go for it. I can’t wait to see what you do.

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