Innovating on Purpose with Aaron Hurst
For this next little piece we want to focus on this idea of finding out purpose in what we do, right? Embedding it into the fabric of our work, and then by extension, helping those around us find their sense of purpose by modeling that, okay? Ladies and gentlemen, join us in the studio and out there beyond, please welcome our dear friend, Aaron Hurst. He's the author of this, The Purpose Economy. He is a serial entrepreneur, the founder of the Taproot Foundation, and a company called Imperative. Aaron Hurst, would you please join us? (audience applauding)
My friend, good to see you, sir.
Hey, man. Thank you so much for being here.
I was being really present. I'm really admiring your beard. When I moved here from Brooklyn, I was like, "I've got "to figure out how to grow a beard." And I just haven't been able to get the kind of density that you've got.
You've got it.
It's coming, but it's not quite, you've really got something special there.
You may be in that top 80...
%. It's possible.
Dude, I'm really psyched you're here.
Yeah, this is great.
So, I think and talk about purpose a lot, but you've clearly dedicated your life to this.
I've done a book with the name Purpose on the cover.
What more proof do you need?
Amen. But if we rewind...
So, our lovely friends here and at a distance, they're not sure, other than your super cool glasses, where you are or if now they're Googling who you are.
Yeah. They're being present. They're not doing that.
Good point. So rewind us, maybe more than 20 years, how did you get fixated and interested in this notion of purpose? How did it become part of who you are?
Yeah, I think the core beginning of it was really even before then, early childhood. I'm of Jewish descent, but I was raised Buddhist. And it was through the combination of those two traditions coming together, sort of the sense of the Jewish community of always questioning everything, sort of why, why, why. I inspire people to be a little annoying at times. It's like why, why, just constantly asking that. And the Buddhist tradition which is more like there is no why.
Like wherever you are, there you are, right? So always put me in the position of trying to figure out how do you reconcile these two traditions? And my families all in the social entrepreneurial business if you will, social impact business. My grandfather worked for President Kennedy, building the Aspen Institute. So my first major venture was the Taproot Foundation, which was a very simple idea which is how do we get marketing, tech, HR, finance, other people to donate their time to help nonprofits with those needs, because nonprofits can't afford marketing and technology, and HR and finance, right? And yet they need those just like a big company would, right? It took a while to figure out how to do it, but eventually became the largest nonprofit consulting firm in the world. Working with volunteers, donating their time.
We then eventually started building a whole marketplace and when I left, it was a $15 billion a year marketplace for pro bono service, and these people were having such an incredible experience doing pro bono work, as you can imagine. And they said over and over again, "This is the most "meaningful work I've done in my career."
So here's an example, let's say you're a lawyer, at a big corporate firm, and you're not entirely fulfilled in what you're doing, you want to give your... So how does it work?
Yes, so the idea is you would sign up, and we would train you and then we would put you on a team with other professionals, going in for, typically a five month project, where you're doing five hours a week, so it's pretty in-depth. And then we help companies build programs like that, but you're using your professional skills to solve a real problem of a nonprofit, not just sort of showing up what I used to call Field Trips to See Poor People. You're actually doing something to make a difference.
And it was just so fulfilling because you had these relationships that you built, you're making a real impact, and you're growing. You're stretching yourself because you're applying your skills in an environment you weren't used to.
So the promise was these people they keep their day jobs, as landscape architects or engineers or whatever. And then you marry them, you match them up with a project, and then they go and they engage in that community and they find it immensely fulfilling and Taproot lives on and thrives today.
But wait there's more.
But wait there's more.
Yes. (laughing) Yes, so we found that this was this incredible experience. We called it Disneyland for work, right? Because people are having the happiest work they've had. But I ultimately quit Taproot to start Imperative for that reason, which is because, with the exception of a few creepy people, and you and I probably know a few, no one lives at Disneyland, right? Everyone goes back home, and the same thing was true of pro bono work. They'd go back to their jobs unfilled.
And as a father of young kids, I realized the real opportunity here was to take what I had learned at Taproot and apply it to people's day jobs, and to figure out how do we make work itself fulfilling, not just create this supplement on the side. That's not enough. We need to figure out how to fix work itself.
How's that going?
Everyone's fulfilled now. Have you noticed?
You've solved it?
Yeah, it's completely done. (laughing) It's been going great, and what we've really figured out is that this whole field around purpose at work, had largely been about poetry, it had largely been around executive coaching. What we realized was there's actually the ability to create data science around it, and then we can apply the same kind of positive psychology that had been emerging overall in the workplace, and actually figure out how could you decode purpose into ones and zeroes. So that we could actually scale purpose and turn it into something that could scale around the world.
Alright, alright, alright, we've got to back up and we have to actually define purpose because you say it's not adopting a cause, it's not a divine revelation, it's not: I'm going to donate a bunch of money to feed Save the Children or something. You say it's a verb.
What does that mean? Purpose is a verb?
It took a lot of people to look at it as a destination. I've got to get to purpose, or I've got a destination I need to get to, and it's the journey and how you show up every day that generates purpose for you. I think that's the thing that most people lose sight of is that purpose is about every little decision you make along the way, and doing that in alignment with your values, in alignment with your talents, in alignments about your vision of how the world should be different.
Purpose can change, it can evolve. Your purpose can evolve and change over time, yes?
I feel less about evolving and more about you become more and more self aware of it. So early on, you actually as kids tend to have a good sense of your purpose because you don't have a lot of noise in your head yet.
But then through school, early jobs, we tend to get all this noise in our head that distracts us from who we are versus what our parents want us to be, what we read in a magazine, what we saw George Clooney do in a movie, and we sort of get confused about who we are. So what ends of happening is you show up fully, presently at work, you start to peel back all the BS, and start to become clearer and clearer about who you are. But that's never changed. It's just you're getting through all the muck.
Oh, I see.
All the noise.
I see. So the journey to purpose is really about heightened clarity, it's about almost enlightenment.
Yes, and when people have a revelation, right, which we love to talk about. Hollywood loves revelations. It's generally just a moment when we realize a large part of our assumptions about life and work are someone else's, and not ours, and we're like, "Oh, that's not my story. "That's someone else's story." And it feels like a revelation, but in reality all we're really doing is rejecting someone else's story, and realizing we have a different story.
I personally found this very frustrating and difficult as a child. As a child, I had parents who said, "You can do anything you want. "Go be a starving artist. "Go be a street musician. "Go work in high-tech. "Whatever you want." And I had friends who their parents gave them very clear directions, "Well we have the expectation you'll take over "the family practice, and that's what you'll be doing." Only later did I realize that as frustrating as that freedom was, it was actually very liberating, and very opening, and very exploratory in finding out what you want to do. So maybe the lesson is don't dictate the purpose for your kids?
I think it's more just have your kids show up every day. I don't think it's about being anything. Obama had that great quote to his intern saying, "Don't figure out what you want to be. "Figure out what you want to do." It's another way of saying not the noun, the verb. If I went into your family practice, the question is how are you deciding to show up every day in that work? Because the second you make it about a specific job, a specific career, a certain direction, that puts the onus outside of you. It says it's the job's fault, right? I have a bad job. I have a bad function, et cetera. Instead of saying what am I doing, how am I owning how I'm showing up? And sure there are certain jobs and careers you can thrive more, but if you don't first accept that the decision begins inside you, you're lost from the beginning, no matter how great a career you might have.