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Sustainable You

We recognize our purpose in our thousand-watt grins

Purpose isn’t an exact address, it’s a neighborhood.

Big smile


Astro Teller runs a moonshot factory. As CEO of X, Alphabet’s futuristic technology lab, he oversees projects that strive to crack some of the world’s biggest challenges.

X, where I work as a consultant, has developed cars that drive themselves safely. It’s invented robotic buggies that roam crop fields to make agriculture more resilient and networks of balloons at the edge of space that beam high-speed Internet to remote areas.

The technology and business challenges of launching moonshots are endless, especially during the pandemic — which is why it’s notable that, during a recent company all-hands, Teller chose to focus his employees’ attention on a resource that feels scarce these days: joy.

He told the X employees gathered via video that each time he meets with two members of a particular team, they show up with delight. "There are thousand-watt grins on their faces," he said, and he encouraged all to look for joy in their work.

Thousand-watt grins: That is what it looks like to connect to purpose.

Finding that deep sense of meaning — and honoring it in your work — is a major element of sustainable leadership.

Finding that deep sense of meaning — and honoring it in your work — is a major element of sustainable leadership.

Purpose sparks your energy and creativity. It brings forward the best version of you. It inspires you to be brave and bold in how you show up in the world and the actions you take.

It also makes you, and the people around you, happier. Many studies, such as research by Yale University management professor Amy Wrzesniewski, have shown that people who craft their jobs to align with their sense of meaning are much more satisfied. They perform better, achieve more and brighten the moods of the people around them.

We all have a purpose, even if we haven’t yet landed on the words that capture it well.

It’s not something we think our way into, executive coach Richard Leider wrote in his book "The Power of Purpose." Rather, it emerges through self-reflection: by mining our life stories for major themes that reveal our gifts, our passions and our values.

Purpose acts as a tuning fork, letting you know if you’re on-pitch or off-pitch in the way you’re living.

The project Teller spoke of at the X all-hands was a scrapbook of memories compiled from the company’s first 10 years. The project lead, Angelie Agarwal, later told me that she feels most alive in her work when she’s bringing people together at scale, which is exactly what the scrapbook project allowed her to do.

The work was wickedly hard, she said, but getting clear on why it brought her meaning — and why she was so well-suited to run it — kept her fire burning throughout.

We sometimes believe that our job is our purpose. No, our job is simply a powerful way that we can express our purpose in the world.

Not long ago, I made the mistake of confusing my job with my purpose.

I’d spent two years creating my dream business: my own coaching practice. I kept my own schedule, had open-hearted conversations and helped high-achieving people with things such as navigating job transitions, cultivating more effective leadership skills and getting promoted.

Then I started feeling a familiar flutter in my stomach. It soon turned into an ache. I knew what it was telling me: This isn’t it.

I liked my work. I liked my clients. Yet something was missing.

To figure out what it was, I did an exercise: On sticky notes, I wrote the names of three clients who brought me lots of energy. If I could clone these people and build an entire portfolio of clients just like them, I would.

When I noticed what they had in common, I smacked my forehead. All three were leaders in environmental sustainability or social impact, as I had been at Apple a few years earlier.

Of course.

What made me feel alive, fired up, filled with purpose wasn’t what I was doing. It was what I was doing it for.

What made me feel alive, fired up, filled with purpose wasn’t what I was doing. It was what I was doing it for.

I feel more connected to my purpose when I’m helping heroes shine. I feel on-mission when I’m supporting people who care for our communities and fight for equality, justice and a healthier planet.

I want to light up others so they can light up the world with goodness.

I realized that I especially love supporting leaders and their teams inside of companies, fighting the good fight, so they can truly make an impact at scale.

Soon after realizing this, I started working more deliberately with environmental and social impact leaders.

My energy helped me find my purpose.

My purpose helped me find my voice.

And in finding my voice, I found my audience: I began writing this Sustainable You column about personal sustainability.

So, if you’re feeling off-purpose right now, out of tune, don’t worry. It’s there, just covered up with the busyness and stresses of everyday life.

I encourage you to slow down, find some stillness and mine your personal history for clues.

What first attracted you to this work? What parts of it still excite you today? What makes you smile? What puts you into a state of flow? What unique gifts do you bring to your work? What deeply held values are you honoring by doing it? What keeps you from quitting when things get hard?

Wrestle with those questions and you’ll probably find yourself in the neighborhood of your purpose. Because, as a wise coach of mine once told me, purpose isn’t an exact address, it’s a neighborhood.

A pretty good sign that you’re in the neighborhood of your purpose? Your face is wearing a thousand-watt grin.

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