A Google evangelist’s guide to finding the purpose in your career

Be understanding.
Be understanding.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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During my first week at the Wharton business school, alumnus David Pottruck—then the CEO of Charles Schwab—came to offer advice to new students. He told us that we were likely to face a fortunate problem after graduation: We’d receive so many fantastic job offers that it would be difficult to choose among them.

Pottruck recommended that students avoid opting for the job with the fattest paycheck or the most glamorous perks. Instead, he said, we should pick the job that would give us the greatest sense of meaning and purpose.

Of course, for many people, figuring out a purpose is easier said than done. But when we take a step back to consider our lives, certain themes and patterns often emerge that can help us identify what’s important to us. For me, it’s empowering people around the world with knowledge by providing them with equal, easy access to publicly available information.

When I was in college, I took a seven-hour train ride from Tiruchchirappalli to Chennai, a teeming city of 4 million people. It was the only place I knew in all of southern India where I could access a copy of U.S. News and World Report’s guide to best graduate schools.

All told, it took me 24 hours to track down that list of schools—much of it in a hot train car without air conditioning, followed by a few hours poring over a copy of the guidebook in the hushed U.S. Information Services Library. At 9 p.m., I checked into a youth hostel to spend the night in a room with 20 bunk beds—the only place I could afford. The next day, on my way back to the college campus, I was exhausted from my journey. But I was also thrilled by the possibilities of the information I now held in my hands.

At the time, information was a scarce resource. My grandparents, working a rice farm in their rural Indian village, Chittilancheri, had limited access to information about the outside world. Thanks to my father’s work as a salesman for a tea company, my family had a bit more exposure to new people and ways of thinking. In each small town we lived in, hungry to learn, my siblings and I soaked up knowledge through new friends, new books, and reading local newspapers.

Access to information helped shape the course of my career even before I went to Chennai in search of information about graduate schools. In high school, I read in one of the local papers that by the time I graduated, there would be a huge demand for engineers in the electronics and computer science industries. The article put those industries on my radar, and I gravitated toward them in my studies. Despite my parents’ extremely modest education, my three siblings and I now have ten higher-education degrees between us, including two degrees from Ivy League business schools. It’s access to information that allowed us to make such a leap.

So it’s no surprise that I feel right at home at Google. One of the things I love most about the company is that I’m able to help people get their hands on information that broadens their view of the world. Google Maps Street View allows people to “walk down” many streets on the planet. You can visit shops in Hong Kong and restaurants in Paris, or step through the doors of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. In Google Ocean, you can follow deep-sea divers as they navigate waters around the globe.

I’m reminded of the internet’s impact when I go back to Chittilancheri with my family to visit relatives. Sometimes we visit the school where my mother studied. It hasn’t changed much in terms of its physical infrastructure. But what has changed is that the students in that school, as with students in tens of thousands others like it around the world, now have access to the internet—whether in their homes, their friends’ or relatives’ homes, and through their parents’ smart phones. Those kids can access the same information as any student at Stanford or Harvard.

Most of my colleagues at Google have been drawn to the company by a desire to tackle large problems and create positive change for millions of people. One of my good friends is Chade-Meng Tan, a pioneering engineer at Google who created Google University’s School of Personal Growth. Meng’s personal mission statement is one of the clearest, shortest and most ambitious mission statements I’ve ever heard: “To create conditions for world peace in my lifetime.”

As one of the original employees at Google (number 107), Meng has attained huge financial success. After eight years at Google, he found that he had many options before him. He could continue to build Google technologies, or he could do something else entirely with his wealth.

Meng chose to stay at Google for eight more years. He kept his job title as Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, but moved from engineering to people operations. His new job description explained that his role was to “enlighten minds, open hearts, and create world peace.” On his new career path, he set out to listen more carefully to those around him, focus on his meditation practice, and study the works of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. One thing the Dalai Lama wrote stuck with him: “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we find peace within ourselves.”

Meng knew that the way to achieve inner peace was through contemplative practices. So, working with experts in mindfulness, he developed a class to teach mindfulness-based emotional intelligence to employees at Google. And because Google is a highly scientific, research-oriented environment, which draws like-minded people, Meng worked with Stanford University and other researchers to scientifically prove the effectiveness of his class.

They found that mindfulness is a foundational skill for self-awareness, self-management, and emotional skills. In turn, emotional intelligence can predict leadership effectiveness and well-being. How we direct our attention determines the mental habits we form, the emotions we develop, and the results we experience.

His program, Search Inside Yourself, has since become the most popular training program at Google, with a huge waiting list. Hundreds and hundreds of technology people line up not to learn about the next artificial intelligence programming techniques or machine language methodologies, but to begin the journey to inner peace. Meng went on to publish the New York Times bestseller Search Inside Yourself, which is being translated into dozens of languages. All of this evolved from Meng’s ability to stay true to his central mission.

Perhaps you’re thinking this sounds rather lofty. But your core purpose doesn’t have to involve world peace.

One way to determine your purpose is to think back and remember those moments when you have completely lost your sense of self and time, becoming utterly absorbed in the task at hand. Maybe this happened while you were poring over data to analyze the cause of the slowdown in shipments, or organizing a fundraiser, or building a model remote-control glider and watching it soar. These moments provide clues about what we find meaningful and where our talents lie.

Then you might go a step further and ask yourself how you can use your interests to serve the world in a positive way. The answer might be to help people get mortgages, or coax seeds into sprouts, or dedicate yourself to a new baby. It might take a little while to figure that out–and your purpose may change over time. But once you’ve done this hard work, a new world of possibilities will open up.