Individuals turn to purpose-driven work to contribute to social and ecological goals they care about and align with their values, motivations, and identities. Their work is not constrained by job titles, such as sustainability officer or types of organizations, such as charities. It can take many forms across industries, organizations, and professions. Perhaps it’s founding a social enterprise supporting refugees or developing products that solve neglected health problems. It could be identifying ways to minimize an organization’s ecological impact or being a freelance writer specializing in storytelling representative of our communities.
Individuals engaged in purpose-driven work often face a dissonance between aiming to make a difference through one’s work and not seeing change from that work in their everyday experience. The challenges purpose-driven workers try to tackle can be complex and overwhelming, while the impact of their efforts is often uncertain, invisible, delayed, or even negative. For example, individuals working on positive climate action are surrounded by news highlighting how our progress to avoid a catastrophe is insufficient.
This dissonance can result in negative emotions, such as doubt, disillusionment, frustration, disappointment, guilt, and shame. These negative emotions are common and taint the daily experience of purpose-driven workers. They hinder motivation, engagement, and commitment, potentially leading to giving up. For example, among individuals who were chief diversity officers in 2018, nearly 60% left their role three years later, and the majority of those left not only the role but the entire professional track.
If you are a purpose-driven worker or lead workers who are, here are five tips for creating meaning and infrastructure to support it.
Purpose-driven work can be a lonely experience met with resistance or indifference from peers, investors, managers, family members, and friends who do not understand or appreciate it. This isolating experience amplifies the doubts if one’s work makes a difference.
However, it is more likely than not that others in your organization and field share your vision. You can find these people online or offline through peer learning and support networks, events, and social media. Creating a community with individuals pursuing similar goals is essential to continue your work toward social and ecological goals. Within such a community, individuals can support each other emotionally, learn with and from each other, collaborate to address shared challenges, and strategize to access resources. Indeed, creating a community can be a way to make a difference in its own right because it can help others, not just you.
Working for a purpose often involves tackling wicked problems that have no easy or quick solutions. It can take decades for the change you want to see, and sometimes it may not happen at all.
Accepting that positive change takes time is an important step in maintaining commitment to the work. Accepting a long-term perspective is not surrendering or giving up but a practical acknowledgment of the realities of catalyzing and maintaining positive social change in a capitalist system. It means being patient, persistent, and flexible in pursuing your purpose. Accepting that change may take time is important to set realistic expectations, minimize disappointment, and maintain well-being so that you can continue the good work.
Making a difference and sustaining it requires collective, systemic, and long-term solutions that are not in the sphere of influence of a single individual, team, or organization. This is why making a difference through your work may feel daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible.
Developing micro-missions toward your purpose can enable coping with this emotional challenge. Micro-missions do not lower your standards. They are specific goals related to the greater purpose, yet their achievement is within the control of your team, organization, or community. For example, if your purpose is to promote positive climate action, you can set a micro-mission to eliminate single-use plastic packaging for your products.
Micro-missions need to be ambitious yet achievable within a given timeline to have a motivational purpose, visualize the impact of your work, and give you a sense of control. They not only provide clarity and direction but can also bring others on board, thus making the work less lonely.
While positive change is slow to materialize, that does not mean that your work is not making a difference. By getting psychologically close to those benefiting from your work, you will be better positioned to visualize the change you are contributing to.
You can do this by spending meaningful time with those who benefit from your work and engaging in conversations and reflective sessions with them. This will create opportunities to seek informal and interpersonal feedback about how your work is benefiting others, as well as to visualize what change has occurred. You can develop case studies that provide an in-depth look at the change catalyzed by your work for a specific individual or community. If your work has an ecological purpose, you can humanize it with the face of someone close to you.
Finally, celebrate the wins, even if they seem small. Completing micro-missions, reaching milestones, overcoming challenges, receiving positive feedback, and developing new skills relevant to the purpose are often taken for granted. Yet, acknowledging them is essential to reinforce confidence and motivation. When you face setbacks, you can use these achievements as reminders that your work makes a difference. Celebrating the wins with those who have contributed can also foster solidarity, strengthen relationships, and enable access to resources.
While purpose-driven work comes with significant emotional challenges, engaging in work that makes a difference for others and the planet is needed to tackle the crises facing humanity today, from inequality to climate breakdown. It is not an easy path to take, but when navigated with compassion, acceptance, and community, it can also be a source of high-quality jobs, well-being, and positive change.