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Working for Free: The Double-Edged Sword of Purposeful Work

“There’s a study on zookeepers I think you’d like,” Gabe said.

“Oh yeah?” I answered. I was in a hotel room in Indianapolis where I’d led a series of purpose workshops earlier that day. My cell phone was balanced in the crook of my neck so I could talk to Gabriel Grant—the researcher we had hired to help us mine the existing academic research on purpose—because I was typing an email to a potential partner at the same time.

“The researchers found that, generally speaking, zookeepers feel  ‘called’ to the profession,” Gabe continued. “They describe themselves as animal-people, say it’s their destiny to care for and preserve vulnerable species, and so on. So they studied zookeepers to see how ‘calling’ affects people’s lives.”

“Interesting,” I said as I typed. “What did they find?”

“That purposeful work is double-edged sword. On the positive side, zookeepers see their profession as important to society, which allows them to find meaning in even the most unpleasant daily tasks like scrubbing down hallways.

“On the other hand, that same sense of meaning and moral duty has them making personal sacrifices to get the work done that negatively affect other aspects of their lives. They’re paid very little, they’re vulnerable to being exploited by managers who recognize that because they are mission-driven they won’t quit in the face of poor benefits, poor working conditions, and so on. Oh, and they work crazy hours.”

“Can you send me this research Gabe?” I exclaimed emphatically. “I’ve seen these same things play out in the social sector. We really need to start talking about them.”

Gabe paused. “Um, Linda? I need to mention something here: It’s 11:30pm and we’re on the phone…talking about work.”

I stopped typing. “Touché Gabe. Touché.”

Work on Purpose

Let’s be honest. There’s a lot of talk these days about “purpose.” (Aaron Hurst’s new book, Purpose Economy, even goes so far as to make the argument thatpurpose” will replace “information” as a core economic driver). In the midst of it all, you might start to get the impression that if you could just find your purpose, your life would be perfect. Brilliance would flow from you like a river; you would be relaxed, yet engaged; and, somehow, when you imagine yourself living this kind of life, you even look a little bit thinner.

I’m the director of Work on Purpose, a program of Echoing Green that helps emerging professionals build meaningful careers so that they can help solve the world’s biggest problems. In this role, I’ve seen that getting paid to do the work that matters most to us—as most zookeepers are—has its blessings, but it has its curses too.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of Echoing Green’s Social Investment Council members, Margaret Wang. When I first met Margaret, she was working in corporate strategy and business development at an investment bank. Margaret watched her peers work through the night, sometimes even sleeping under their desks, but Margaret herself refused to allow her paid work to be her entire life. She simply cared about too many other things. Instead, Margaret spent her evenings and weekends mentoring and volunteering for various social good organizations and initiatives. Her volunteer work gave Margaret a sense of purpose that felt so good it became addicting. So last year, she decided to try out being mission-driven 100% of the time. In her words:

“I looked on Idealist and saw a position to help launch The B Team, an organization focused on responsible capitalism conceived by Sir Richard Branson. I read it and I was like ‘Yes. This is everything I want.’ The B Team basically helps corporations do business better, going from corporate social responsibility to systemic, innovative social and environmental impact in which change is woven into the fabric of how corporations do work. So I left my job in finance to join this energetic, idealist team. We have all these bomb people with us and we’re all saying ‘We’re going to change the world.’

“I had a view of my old office building from The B Team’s office—a reminder that you can be in the same area but have a completely different life, work for a different mission, have a different context.

“But what was interesting actually, and I’ve heard this from a lot of social entrepreneurs, was that work life-balance was much harder to obtain. When I got an email at 11pm from The B Team outreach guy saying ‘Can you look this up for me?’ I had to decide whether to answer it. I didn’t want to be working at 11pm, but I cared about the mission so much.”

To be sure, Margaret loved her world-changing work at The B-Team. And most of the time when we talk about people working on purpose, the story stops there. But it’s rarely the end. Margaret’s life from the windows of those two office buildings came with different rewards, but it also came with a new set of challenges.

What About That Double-Edged Sword?

So, how do we get the personal benefits of doing purposeful work—and study after study has shown that there are plenty of them, from psychological wellness to productivity to creativity—while protecting ourselves from its threats of over-work, under-pay, and a depletion of energy for our lives outside of work?

For those of you who are teetering on the edge of that double-edged sword, here’s a good place to start:

STOP: Every once in a while we’ve got to stop our mad dash through our lives—even when our lives are about making the world a better place—and check in on ourselves (as Gabe made me do that night in Indianapolis). We all have people in our lives that we check in on—our kids, parents, grandparents, friends—but when’s the last time you made a date to check in on you?

GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO RETHINK THINGS: If you find that you are falling victim to your purpose more often than you are being fed by it, remember that  purpose is fluid—it shifts and changes and our interplay with it can shift and change too. Some people believe that if you aren’t doing your purpose-work full-time, it somehow “doesn’t count,” but if we really want to solve the world’s biggest problems, we need people committed to making a social impact in every role and sector of society. We need high-impact volunteers, nonprofit board members, donors, social entrepreneurs, social intrepreneurs, and more. And the way in which you live your purpose out today doesn’t have to be the way in which you live it out tomorrow.

Now Margaret is in business school studying how she can merge her love of business and social impact. And in a year, she’ll have to ask herself the same questions that she asked herself while working in finance, and again while working at the non-profit startup, determining how she wants to structure the next phase of her life. Because that’s what working on your purpose really looks like.

As for me? I’m still loving being paid for my purpose, but since my conversation with Gabe, I have a new rule for myself when I am on the road for Echoing Green. After 9pm: less working, and more Parks and Rec reruns.

This article was originally published as part of the Working for Free series on The High Calling.

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