the hardest question with the biggest payoff: why are you here?
They arrived in large cardboard boxes—at least 10,000 letters, written to whomever would read them, beginning with the salutation ‘Dear Reader.’ They were written over a 25-year period by a man named Stanley Pera. After his death, one of us ended up with them on our doorstep.
November 29, 1999
It came to me today—4:30 p.m.—that I did my mission in life. I remained alive long enough so my mother and brother left before I did.
So, now I can end with the century that is about to end. I’ll try to last until 2000 arrives, since my grandma told me that I had a chance to see 2000.
Pera, before his death, came to a conclusion about what his purpose was. It was to take care of his mentally ill mother and brother. The task, inherited by Stanley as a young man, was so big that it hindered his ability to hold a steady job, to keep meaningful relationships, or to simply share his daily thoughts with another adult. Of course, there’s much more to the story of a man who writes to anyone willing to listen. But Stanley’s letters beg a bigger question: Why are you here? Why are any of us?
It’s not often that the two of us dive so deep into the meaning of life. But after a conversation we recently had with Y Scouts co-founder, Brian Mohr, we couldn’t resist. Y Scouts calls itself a purpose-based executive search firm. Basically that means they try to align executives with organizations, based on a shared sense of purpose—the bigger meaning of why we all work and what we all want to achieve through work.
“It was an experiment,” said Mohr. “We created an online purpose-discovery tool for executives. Within three years (and very little marketing) more than 9,000 executives have gone through the process without ever reading a job posting.”
Mohr’s surprising findings have not only given his firm a large pool of talented executives, but also an insight into something much bigger. “I can’t share names,” he told us, “but to say we’ve been shocked by some of the leaders who have sent us their information is an understatement. Big titles. Major players. People want their work to mean something.”
Of course, it would be easy to assume that this desire to find greater meaning at work is new—that maybe it’s a cultural by-product of a shaken economy, or it’s something brought into the workplace by Millennials (who according to research do have a strong desire to work in jobs that have a clear social impact). But the concept isn’t new at all. In 1946, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was published. The book, which has sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages, details the author’s psychotherapeutic approach to survival in a Nazi concentration camp. The method involved identifying a purpose.
More recently, author Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, spotlights three necessary elements of motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose. What’s interesting about Pink’s approach is that most people and organizations understand various methods of achieving autonomy and mastery.
Just last month, Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations recently shared his advice on how to transform a workplace in Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For issue. Bock’s #1 piece of advice was Give Your Work Meaning. “…even a small connection to the people who benefit from your work not only improves productivity but also makes people happier,” he wrote. “And everyone wants his work to have purpose.”
Still, it seems difficult for many to understand, or deem worthy, the concept of purpose. “But why?” asks Mohr. “Why is the business world still stuck on this notion that if work feels rewarding, then it’s not real work? Shouldn’t the opposite be true?”
It’s the biggest question of them all: Why are you here?
Call it whatever you choose: purpose, meaning, or even service. Research is now proving that the intentions to make a bigger impact on the lives of those around you are, in fact, the most successful endeavors. 88% of projects that win awards begin with a person asking some form of the question, ‘what difference could I make that other people would love?’ People who go see how the recipients of their work are impacted are 17 times more likely to be passionate about the work they’re doing. And according to The Great Work Study, 90% of award-winning projects include employees who remain involved until the recipient of the work loves the difference that was made.
Your definition of ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ will most likely be different than ours. And if you are still unsure of your definition, take some advice from Pera—look to find the people in your life and work who need you the most. Then, make a difference they’ll love.
Learn more about the NYT Bestselling book Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love.
This post was originally published on Forbes.