A few nights ago my stomach was rumbling as I chopped vegetables for a quick dinner before I went back to the computer. The day had been full of writing, responding to emails from friends and colleagues, and capped with a long project meeting before I made my way home. I thought to myself, “Life is really good right now. I’m happy with work. I’m healthy. I’m getting to cook tonight and eat a good meal. And, I’m doing all this while living overseas—a dream that I’ve had since my first trip out of the US at 16 years old.” At that moment I realized how content I am. This is exactly where I want to be. Nowhere else, just right here.
The beckoning call for those of us born in 1980 and after sounds like this: Find your Purpose! Pursue your Passion! Follow your Dreams! Millennials—myself included—are undertaking an ambitious, idealistic lifestyle change where play and work become one—the life of “Do What You Love. Love What You Do.”
Purposeful, passionate pursuits have become the focus of many businesses and leaders who offer courses, books, career training, and even jobs appealing to this new generation in search of living their passion and doing meaningful work. On Amazon, a search for ‘meaningful work’ yields a startling 19,578 items in the books list. On Google, the list is even longer with 90,000,000 results. This is obviously a valuable topic that we all seem to be pursuing.
A forthcoming book The Purpose Economy, backed by social benefit corporation Imperative, is the newest comprehensive framework exemplifying this movement. Described as “an economy where we enable purpose for employees and customers—through serving needs greater than their own, encouraging personal growth, and building community,” the thirteen chapter book provides a guideline to understanding, identifying, and creating a purposeful career. Beyond the book, Imperative’s goal is to enable 10,000,000 professionals, 10,000 organizations, 1,000 cities, and 100 markets with “purpose.”
As someone with an interest in social enterprises and design for impact, this formula sounds superb. I’d love to spread this message and have more fellow human beings catching their dreams, and working—or playing—for purpose. However, after the initial wave of excitement washes over me, some underlying questions begin to bubble up.
What does this utopian vision look like? Is everyone able to achieve ‘purpose’ in life? And most importantly, at what expense can we achieve this end result?
My mind immediately drifts to those performing laborious work, such as the street sweeper who cleans the sidewalks and picks up litter. Would his current role qualify as a passionate, purposeful, dream job? Doubt it. So then does he get left out of the purpose economy? Or does he need to find different work to reach his utmost potential and purpose and fit into this vision?
Journalist Miya Tokumitsu illuminates the “Do What You Love” culture’s omission of labor workers whose efforts quietly support the prosperity of creative pursuits. In her article “In the Name of Love,” she writes:
By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love.
This is a potential outcome that is being disregarded, pushed under the rug, and swept over during discussions of passionate work. Are the street sweepers and countless other labor workers included in this discussion? Or is it at their expense that others are able to live their dreams and pursue their purpose? Eventually, if we don’t look at all the participants in a society, we could then be contributing to a class division. Tokumitsu explains:
Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.
For my fellow designers out there pursuing social impact, public interest, community-led design, this work could go one of two ways: 1] aiding and abetting this class divide by keeping ourselves continuously employed in the name of “passion” or 2] equipping people with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to take on responsibility, ultimately empowering others to do the work we currently do. With terms such as ‘inclusive,’ ‘participatory,’ ‘responsible,’ and ‘dignifying’ being used, this design movement appears to be on track for the latter outcome.
Nonprofit architecture firm MASS Design Group’s recent video “Kankwanzi” demonstrates how design and construction–‘creative’ and ‘laborious’ work, respectively–can achieve positive outcomes together. By teaching construction skills to women and enabling one of Rwanda’s first female master masons, Anne-Marie Nyiranshimiyimana (a.k.a. Kankwanzi) has become empowered and confident through a laborious role while simultaneously improving her community. Couple this with the architects at MASS who use their creative abilities to enable essential and impactful projects for underprivileged communities and you have fulfilling, meaningful pursuits for all involved—the look of a purpose economy.
At this moment in time we have the opportunity to create meaningful, enjoyable, and rewarding work. And we can do this in isolation, as seen in the DWYL article, or with a holistic approach, where the entire system, participants and impact is part of the process, as seen in MASS’s work.
As designers with skills equipped to intervene in communities, it’s our responsibility to be open, to listen, and to enable others to find contentedness, empowerment, and purpose—whether it be a mason building beautiful spaces or a street sweeper who becomes a community leader. I look forward to reading the Purpose Economy in hopes of discovering tools and methods for designers to continue to build inclusive communities from the ground up.
Are you currently doing purposeful, passionate work? Do you think this is achievable for everyone? What is your vision? I would love to hear your thoughts below.