Meaning and Purpose as Drivers for Learning



Many employees want to see their work connected to a larger purpose; they want to feel that they are making a valuable contribution to themselves, their company, and society. As a result, the best employees are often drawn to companies that are mission- driven and want to have a positive impact on society. Aaron Hurst has spent the past few decades researching the relationship between purpose and work.

Hurst founded the nonprofit Taproot Foundation in 2008, whose mission is to lead, mobilize, and engage professionals in pro bono service that drives social change. He then went on to cofound the company Imperative, a start- up that helps people discover and apply purpose at work.

Through his extensive research on how people perceive work, Hurst discovered that people are wired to see work from two different viewpoints. The first is through purpose orientation, meaning that some people view work as a way to gain personal fulfillment as well as a method of serving others. In the second orientation, people view work as a way to achieve status, advancement, and income. Hurst’s research shows that out of the 150 million–strong US workforce, there are roughly 42 million people (or 28 percent) who have a purpose orientation. The goal of Hurst’s company Imperative is to imagine a workforce where the majority is purpose- oriented, because with this viewpoint at the core, there are huge benefits to employees, companies, and society.

In fact, merging purposeful employees with goal- oriented organizations is a powerful mix. According to organizational psychologist Philip H. Mirvis, 22 when companies are mission- driven and employees are purpose- driven, the combination fosters “developmental engagement where a company aims to activate and develop more fully its employees (and the firm in general) to produce greater value for business and society.”

Like Hurst, world- renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck also agrees that having a purpose makes life more meaningful. Dweck says, “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”

Along with being purpose- oriented, Dweck also believes in the power of mindset as a great motivator for successful learning. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck talks about the power of believing that you can improve. Dweck asserts that people have either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset when it comes to learning. The fixed mindset tells us that we are either smart or not, that we have learned all we can or that we lack the ability to learn a complex topic (like math), while the growth mindset tells us that we have the ability to learn something new every day— even if we’re not good (at math) yet, we each have the ability to improve if we try. When scientists measured the electrical activities in the brain between people with both fixed and growth mindsets, they found that people with a growth mindset have connections that are firing like crazy versus those with a fixed mindset whose brains don’t engage to the same degree.

Dweck fully believes that when it comes to learning, we should challenge ourselves: “In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening. So rather than thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to reveal my weaknesses,’ you say, ‘Wow, here’s a chance to grow.’ If you find yourself afraid of challenges, get yourself into a growth mindset and think about all of the growth potential in following this opportunity, even if it’s out of your comfort zone.”

When it comes to nurturing lifelong learning, Dweck also believes in the power of “not yet”— a theory inspired by a high school in Chicago that rather than failing students for not passing the course, gave them a “Not Yet” grade instead. As Dweck says, the difference between being told we have failed something and “not yet” is significant: “. . .  if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘Not Yet,’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path to the future.”26

At the university level, some professors naturally use a growth mindset methodology when teaching, meaning that they give students the opportunity to improve before giving them a final grade on a project. In other words, they give them a grade of “Not Yet” and a chance to improve. Let’s look at an example.

Cameron took a history class in college on the Vietnam War and was given an assignment to write a paper analyzing three movies that had been made about the war. There were several draft deadlines for the project (several opportunities to practice) and with each draft, Cameron got feedback from the professor, time to reflect, and then an opportunity to make the assignment better. Cameron was gaining knowledge about the Vietnam War, and also developing skills in critical thinking and analysis. Through practice, feedback, and reflection, Cameron made his assignment better with each draft, learning more and more along the way. It’s worth mentioning that this steady flow of information and feedback resulted in a positive outcome reinforcing for Cameron 1) the positive experience of writing the paper, 2) instilling a “growth mindset,” and 3) reiterating the “Not Yet” grade until Cameron achieved a level of success.

Contrast that to a professor who puts the assignment on the syllabus and offers no chance for direct feedback before the assignment is due. Without practice and feedback, the grade is based on the first and final attempt only. This approach doesn’t allow for a true measure of learning ability, nor does it allow for a growth mindset to flourish.

This article is adapted from The Expertise Economy: How the Smartest Companies Use Learning to Engage, Compete, and Succeed, by Kelly Palmer and David Blake. It is reprinted with permission from Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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