Find Your Purpose

An Interview with Aaron Hurst, Author of The Purpose Economy

April 30, 2014

Entrepreneur and CEO, Imperative


Editor’s Note: NBBJ, along with the New Cities Foundation and Imperative, will host an event, “The Purpose City,” in Dallas this June; it will occur between the New Cities Summit, whose theme this year is “Re-Imagining Cities,” and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which seeks to strengthen metropolitan areas nationwide. We asked Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy, to share his thoughts on how individuals, organizations and even cities can take advantage of a world organized more and more around meaning and purpose.


1. What is the Purpose Economy?

People are on a quest for more purpose in their lives — for personal growth and building community — and this sense of purpose is driving a new economy. We share everything, from bikes and cars, to office space and extra rooms in our homes. We buy local and handmade products when we can. We are increasingly freelancing our expertise rather than working for any single employer.


2. What factors are driving this desire for purpose?

Several things:

  1. Human-scale technology: We are discovering purpose online on a personal level, for example, through the online marketplace Etsy, or through interaction with social media.
  2. Maslow’s Millennial effect: In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Millennials are making the move towards self-actualization and transcendence. They have made purpose a greater priority than ever before in their lives, from their consumption to their work, from their communities to their relationships.
  3. Environmental, economic, political turmoil: The growing uncertainty in our society is moving people to find stability within themselves and to develop empathy for those affected.
  4. New social science: Positive psychology has changed the conversation around success and purpose and is changing the way leaders think about well-being in the workplace.


The Purpose Economy Hurst cover3. How does one — individual or company — go about restructuring one’s work approach to be more about purpose?

As an individual, the first step is recognizing our own need for purpose by cultivating self-awareness to understand what needs to change, then making those changes to incorporate meaning in our lives. We find purpose when we do things we love, attempt new challenges and express our voice to the world. At work, we can redesign jobs to better align with our values, strengths and passions, in a process called job crafting.

Managers and leaders need to see the creation of purpose for members of their team as something they help facilitate. Again, it begins with helping people build self-awareness. This is the most important variable. How do we help people get to know themselves? At a macro-level, we need to continue to transition away from a “command and control” leadership model and towards achieving shared goals. Employers can also actively support employees by moving away from traditional job descriptions and crafting jobs around purpose.


4. How widespread is the Purpose Economy? Is it possible for every enterprise to become a Purpose Company, or only some? Are there any unexciting or unpleasant jobs that people won’t feel a passion for, but which are essential for society to function?

Having a purpose or value proposition doesn’t necessarily make a Purpose Economy organization. Monsanto, one of the most destructive companies on the planet, has a purpose. A Purpose Company creates purpose for its employees and customers — through serving real needs, enabling personal growth and building community.

There is no organization that you would say is 100 percent a Purpose Economy organization. It’s a matter of degree. Companies that are thriving in this new economy deliver purpose to customers, consumers or participants, provide purpose to employees, and/or build purpose throughout the supply chain. While it is true that small businesses and startups can adapt more quickly, leaders at traditional companies, like Deloitte and Pepsi, recognize that, though they can’t change overnight, they can develop long-term visions to make purpose a priority.

A common myth is that only some work generates purpose, which couldn’t be further from the truth. You can find purpose in any job. It is all a matter of how you approach it. Research shows that even workers in jobs with little autonomy or prestige, i.e., administrative assistants or maintenance staff, find ways to incorporate moments of purpose in their day-to-day.


5. In what ways do you see purpose affecting designers and the design industry? How well have designers and the design industry been at being purpose-oriented in the past?

The design industry and designers are integral in the Purpose Economy. Through innovation and collaboration in their work, the industry and designers serve needs in the community. Understanding the desire for purpose will allow the industry and designers to address future opportunities.

The shift in the use of technology, which is connecting us in more meaningful ways, disrupts almost every industry and creates economic opportunity for those who are able to either build new organizations or retrofit existing businesses to accommodate these changes. Opportunities for designers exist in several sectors, including retail. Jack Dorsey’s Square, an inexpensive mobile payment device, is evidence of designers’ focus on purpose, which turns any smartphone into a credit card processor. Other areas affected by design include real estate, through the rise and design of co-working spaces, and finance, through the design of crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.


6. If you were to consider this at an urban scale, what would be the characteristics of a Purpose City?

The city of Santa Monica recently joined Seattle and the state of Vermont in prioritizing well-being as a core metric for the city’s success. It sounds simple, but it radically changes how decisions are made, how the government is held accountable and how resources are invested and shared. For example, now more than 500 cities across 49 countries have bike-sharing programs, with a combined fleet of over 500,000 bicycles.

People are also seeking more connection to their food, as evidenced by the astonishing rise in farmers markets across the United States. Every Sunday in my Brooklyn neighborhood, the aisles of the farmers market are packed with those looking for the best pickles in New York City, local goat cheese, or a bounty of beautiful produce grown by small-scale farmers within a hundred miles.

My company, Imperative, is currently piloting the first “Cities of Purpose” project in Atlanta. The grassroots project gathers people around dinner tables to discover and activate the purpose and potential of the city. Imperative is building the infrastructure to take the lessons of Atlanta to scale, with six other cities hoping to replicate it throughout 2014. In collaboration with the Cities of Purpose team, Imperative is also piloting a dinner party platform that connects people based on their purpose profile to share and generate strategies to enliven purpose in their careers.


Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and authority on social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative, a career development platform that connects professionals to purpose in their work. He is also the founder and advisor to the Taproot Foundation, where he was the lead architect in developing the $15 billion pro bono service market. He is a member of the Nonprofit Times’ “Power & Influence Top 50,” a blogger for the Huffington Post and Stanford Social Innovation Review, and a Linkedin influencer. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Banner image courtesy of Flickr.

Book cover courtesy of Aaron Hurst.

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