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Do you need to have a mission to be successful in your career?

Posted by Arjun Moorthy

Dec 2, 2011 2:32:00 PM

What if lasting, world-changing, fame-achieving, happiness-producing achievement in one’s career comes only to those driven by a higher purpose – i.e. those that have a mission – versus those who chase success in any form?

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Sounds plausible but two potential problems with this idea:

  1. There are seemingly thousands of stories, particularly in the tech startup scene, that show people striking it rich, not because of any mission the founder was on, but rather hard work, smarts and some luck.  So, having a cause sounds like it’s not really necessary to be successful and be happy at your work.
  2. Many people don’t believe they can be great on a national or worldwide level for any one thing and are happy to toil in relative anonymity with occasional mentions of their success. 

But neither of these is accurate or conclusive.  Let’s start with the first issue: do you really need a cause to be successful?

I recently blogged about Ron Conway, a famous angel investor, who said “An entire generation of entrepreneurs are building dipshit companies and hoping that they sell to Google for $25 million.”  Ron meant many things in this statement but one takeaway is that you can achieve decent success, as defined by $25M, without having a cause.  But if you want the kind of success that changes the world, or forget that… the kind of success that makes you happy because you feel like you’re making a difference which may last after you die… then you need a cause higher than a $25M exit.

If that doesn’t convince you, there are several studies that show how lottery winners often return to the same levels of happiness prior to their winning the lottery.  The old adage that money doesn’t buy happiness remains true, even at $25M.  (although I think we’d all like to be proven wrong at least). 

So you need to have a cause for which you dedicate your life otherwise you may be unhappy in the end, or worse, live vicariously through your kids and try to achieve through them what you never could.  Not that this ever happens (!)

On to the second issue: can you really make a difference on a huge level?

History is full of people who have made a difference at surprisingly large scales but not because they were always high achievers (see excellent article on late bloomers by Malcolm Gladwell).  Rather, when they found a mission they were passionate about they focused tirelessly and eventually made a dent in the universe.  Note that making a difference doesn't mean you have to be featured on national media.  Sometimes, just helping one indivdual in a deep, lasting way is as great an achievement as anything the greatest CEO has ever done.  

There is no guarantee that you will be able to make a difference by focusing on your dream but there is a chance… more than the chance you will get just working at a random job trying to earn a high salary.

Ok, but what if you can’t make enough money solving your cause?  As I blogged earlier, a person earning $75k/yr is often as happy, or happier, than a person making $200k/yr.  The truth is you aren’t at the mercy of your current job and if you’re really good at solving your mission odds are you’ll make far more than $75k/yr.  Even if you don't know how good you are at solving your mission but could live on $75k/yr, would you choose another job?  (honestly, I don’t think I’m even here mentally; hard to make such a change with family obligations but I hope to work up to the courage someday soon).

Convinced?  If so, next problem.  How do you find your cause?  How will you know that your chosen cause is not a passing fancy but something you will try to fix for a long time? 

HubSpot’s founder Dharmesh Shah recently said that great CEOs/founders are committed to the problem, not the solution.  This way they keep trying to solve the same problem for a long time till they feel satisfied that it's done.  

So, is there something that you feel is just completely wrong with the world that you want to change?  Something that irks you, frustrates you, keeps you up at night, makes you want to scream, makes you think there has to be a better way?   

I suspect this need for an internal drive at a raw level is why many a great company founder has been fired in their career… because that firing was often the catalyst for them going through this thought process and concluding “no way I’m going to this again; if I’m going to lose my job again someday I may as well be doing what I love.”

If the thinking exercise doesn’t identify your mission keep digging into your past history.  Search for all those urges when you wanted to solve something but suppressed the idea because it sounded crazy to others, it sounded like there was no money in it, everyone else at school was going to a “normal” career… maybe the answer lies in there somewhere.  I have no proof but I believe everyone can have a mission if they can just open up their minds to what really moves them.

I was recently reading an interview of Peter Thiel, whom I have had differences with in the past.  I do, however, empathize with his idea that conventional schooling destroys people’s ability to chase their dreams because it encourages group think.  This is why he wanted to attract bright kids with his Fellows fund before they join a conventional college.

Let me close with the story of Zynga’s CEO Mark Pincus.  Zynga’s S-1 filing for taking the company public includes some very unusual comments that shows Mark’s mission. 

Play is one of life’s big macros—it’s an activity people love to do and do often. Zynga was founded on a deeply held passion for games that family and friends play together—connecting, collaborating, gifting, bragging, nurturing, admiring and sometimes just doing silly stuff together. Reality is, we all wish we had more time to play together.”

“At Zynga, we feel a personal connection to our games through our friends and family. I love that my brother in-law, who has five kids and no free time, religiously plays our game Words with Friends.”

I don’t know if everyone at the company believes these statements but I suspect CEO Mark Pincus does and that making “play” more prevalent in the world will make the world a better place.  A stretch you’d think for a gaming company that makes money from selling virtual goods, but not for him after you read his statement.  This kind of mission makes it likely that Mark will die happy, if not rich as well.

Topics: management, career advice, start-up

Career Advice I Wish I Knew Earlier 

Hello.  I started this blog to distribute some of the best career advice I have been given over the many jobs I've had.  I've been fortunate to work for and with some great bosses like Francis DeSouzaNancy Kamei and Rick Roberge, and some unique companies, like The Boston Consulting Group, that invest heavily in making each employee a success even after leaving the firm.

The advice and training I received here stands in sharp contrast to my experiences with some not-so-great bosses and companies I've also worked for.  I'm continualy amazed at how valuable good advice has been in my career so I hope to pass on the good advice, and insights from mistakes I've made, via this blog. 

Thanks in advance for your comments, particularly when you can improve upon the ideas posted.

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