Finding your purpose
July 27, 2016
In this extract from his new book, Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling, Hoffman reflects on over 30 years’ experience in the construction industry and in business education, challenging us to think more holistically about our working lives and how these connect to our wider sense of purpose.
“As a business professor, students often ask me where they should take their careers in order to have the most impact. They are expecting a straightforward answer: that they should work in finance in a large resource-extraction company, say, or in the advocacy department of a multinational non-profit organization. Instead, I am quick to tell them, “Wrong question: try again.” The key question is one that only they can answer for themselves: “What were you meant to do with your life?”…
This book opens with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, writing on his time at Walden Pond: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his [sic] dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” (H.D. Thoreau (1854). Walden. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields.) The word “unexpected” is central to his message and reflects a belief that the pursuit of a calling is about opening up to the unknown. It will not be what we design, but instead the sum of what we experience. It will not be aimed toward a fixed end of stability and certainty, but a continuous pursuit of growth and awareness. A life well lived must be a creative endeavor, whatever form that creativity takes — whether it’s finance, activism, painting, carpentry, teaching, raising a family, or writing a book. Chances are that, if we are genuinely open to the possibilities of a calling, we will find that satisfaction will come from some place far different from where we expected to find it…
Yet this is not only a book about finding your personal vocation.
My goal in these essays — the personal calling that I am attempting to answer with this book — is to direct that work toward bringing about an environmentally sustainable world. Indeed, I believe that if many more of us do not do this, then we are doomed. The environmental challenges we face today are unprecedented and unlike any other challenge we have faced as a species since we emerged on this Earth. That we now unwittingly alter the global ecosystem imposes upon us a responsibility that we are ill equipped to handle. But to ignore that responsibility is to burden future generations with a hostile world for no other reason than that we were too selfish to care. We need to alter our social, political, and economic systems in ways that we have not yet imagined. The goal is not to tear down our current institutions like capitalism, as some suggest, but rather to amend them and bring them into line with geophysical realities. To do this, we need to instill in people a deep desire to use their abilities and influence to make the world a better place.
To my mind, there is nowhere that we need to instill these desires more than in business and education. The necessary changes that I am pointing to require new attention to notions of responsibility and purpose, which are not talked about enough in today’s world, and are particularly absent from the training of those who go into business. We need to acknowledge the awesome power that businesses have in our world, and the awesome responsibility that business managers have in running them. They can bring the world to sustainability, or bring it to ruin…
All [chapters] are written for those searching for a calling, and all call for a change in our thinking that is based on being authentic about who we are and what we are meant to do with our life’s work. While technological and economic activity may be the direct cause of environmentally destructive behavior, environmental stewardship is not primarily about technological or economic activity. Instead, it is about our beliefs and values, the cultural norms and societal institutions that guide that activity. Many business students, joined by increasing numbers of experienced professionals, now hope to devote their education and careers to what is often called “green business.” I thank them all for that. But I also believe that people need help and guidance to find a personal vision of how and where they can make the most difference. I am inspired and hopeful as I see so many people taking up the charge, finding a call to purpose by bringing environmental stewardship into their life’s work. I see courageous people who strive to develop a sense of sacredness that allows them to be more authentic in resolving the conflicted value systems that create our environmental problems. The nature of their work has changed, from a career in which they earn a liv-ing to a vocation in which they express a set of deeply personal values in pursuit of goals far greater than themselves.
I hope you will take up this charge as well.”