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How to cultivate sense of purpose in our daily life

In the previous article, we have discussed about two ways to grow grit: fostering interest and doing deliberate practice. In case you have not read about it, you can check it here. In this article we are going to discuss another way to grow grit.

Interest is one source of passion. Purpose, defined as the intention to contribute to the well-being of other is another.


Aren’t we, as human beings……., selfish?

Let's understand this further.


1. Philosopher

In the past Aristotle was among the first to recognize that there were at least two ways to pursue happiness. He called it eudaimonic, in harmony with one’s good inner spirit (noble and pure) and hedonic, aimed at positive, in-the-moment, inherently self-centered experience (primitive and vulgar).

These two approaches to happiness have very deep evolutionary roots. On one hand, human beings seek pleasure because things that bring us pleasure (food, comfort, etc.) are things that help us to survive. On the other hand, human beings have high tendency to connect with our peers because people who cooperate are more likely to survive that loners. With primary goal to survive, the desire to connect is as basic a human need as our appetite to pleasure.

2. Psychological Experiments

Angela Duckworth Lee and her team did a research to find the connection between grit and purpose. They asked 16 thousand American adults to complete the Grit Scale and questions related to purpose and pleasure. They came up with two major findings. One, in terms of pleasure seeking, people with high grit score are just like anyone else, pleasure is moderately important no matter how gritty you are. In sharp contrast, you can see that grittier people are dramatically more motivated than others to seek a meaningful, other centered life.

Another experiment was done by Adam Grant, a social psychologist from University of Pennsylvania. His research demonstrates that leaders and employees who keep both personal and pro social interest in mind do better in the long run than those who are 100 % selfishly motivated. He did some experiments to call center agents and firefighters and found identical results:

  • Firefighters who expressed pro social motives and intrinsic interest in their work averaged more than 50% more overtime per week than others

  • Fund raisers who expressed stronger social motives and found the work engaging made more calls and consequentially raised more money than those who didn’t.

3. My personal experience

After reading this book, I pushed myself to cultivate sense of purpose in my life. I find the impact remarkable for me personally. I find that being interested in something we are working on is NOT ENOUGH because often time we are obliged by circumstances to do something that does not fit our interest. For me personally, having sense of purpose really helps me to handle difficult situations at work.

From my observation this is consistent across all levels in organization. Let say you love to code and want to build a startup. Still you can not only code but also manage legal entity, recruit people, and fund raise. Even a friend of mine who is working as a startup founder told me that he is way more insecure now compared to years ago when he was still working every time his supervisor (investor, I mean) calls him.


Apparently, Marc Zuckerberg also talked the importance of purpose in Harvard Class of 2017's Graduation. Find the video here and the transcript here.


There are three suggestions I get from the book and try to practice it on my daily life:

1. See the bigger picture

An illustration for this will be asking questions to three bricklayers about what they are doing.

The first says, “I am laying a bricks”

The second says, “I am building a church”

The third says, ”I am building the house of God”

The first bricklayer has a job, the second has a career, and the third has a calling. Guess who will have the strongest grit?

While most of us would like to be like the third bricklayer, instead we identify ourselves with the first or second.

So, take a second and reflect.

How does my piece of work contribute to the bigger goal?

2. Do job crafting

Whatever your occupation, you can maneuver within your job description – adding, delegating, and customizing what you do to match your interest and values. The term for this activity is job crafting. For example, a friend of mine works as an engineer and enjoys teaching. While he spends majority of his time to code, he proactively reaches out to HR to involve him in as many training sessions as possible.

Some of us may not have that flexibility in our job and that's also still ok. If it is not possible to do it in your daily job, we can always find other activities outside our work to fulfill our needs. A friend of mine is a consultant who occasionally goes to art museum whenever she needs to recharge. Another friend mentors undergrad students because he does not have anyone to mentor yet in his office.

Take one second and think

How can I align my work/ life with my interests and values?

3. Find a role model

It might be a bit intimidating and hopeless to think about purpose. When we are surrounded by people who are self centered, it’s easy for us lose faith in humanity. One handy tips is to find a role model whom we think demonstrate a purpose driven life. It would be great if that person is able to interact with us in regular basis. Even if it’s not, that’s fine. Thanks to the internet.

Aside from my parents, one person who inspires me a lot personally and professionally is Sebastian Thrun, who left his job in Google and took 97% pay cut to democratize education by building Udacity, comprehensive online learning platform that teaches mostly tech related skills.


This is what he wrote in his LinkedIn summary few months back. I put it as my desktop background to keep reminding me about why I’m doing what I’m doing

One final question:

Can you think of someone whose life inspires you to be a better person? Who and why?

Cultivating sense of purpose is not an easy journey. It takes lifetime discovery, humility to admit that we are wrong, and desire to figure out how we can make the world a better place. So in case you have not found yours, that's perfectly fine :)


Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth Lee

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