On being “mission-driven”

The Ancient Greeks resolutely did not believe that the purpose of life was to be happy; they proposed that it was to achieve Eudaimonia, a word that has been best translated as ‘fulfillment’.

There was a period of time when the innocent word “happiness” was getting a lot of hate, as when we try to articulate the purpose of our lives, it is to the word happiness we commonly resort to — it was common for people to say “I just want to be happy” when talking about their long-term goal telling me when we talk about our long-term goal. Soon we realize as a collective that the pursuit of “happiness” can be toxic, as this experience can be easily confused with validation provided by external sanction.

Most people in my generation know that the relentless pursuit of happiness of money and fame won’t lead to happiness, but it’s not like the obvious alternatives are just waving at us. Without a clear path on how to get there, many of us end up choosing something that is more prestigious or well-paid. I frequently hear:

“I know I won’t be doing what I’m doing for long, but I don’t know what I really want to do yet, so I am going to meet the best people and learn skills and then do what is fulfilling to me.”

I’ve definitely seen incredible success stories of spinning off from a more traditional career path to build something meaningful. But the majority of the people get lost in this process and never question this path again. There’s nothing wrong with being able to take care of oneself in a society without feeling the need to change something; it’s actually significantly better than maximizing without clear intentionality and considerations of long-term consequences. But there are still many important questions left to be answered, and problems to be solved. How do we discover what our roles are in solving those problems?

Companies have long caught on to our generation’s need to become more mission-driven, creating powerful narratives to attract young graduates to “change the world”. Google’s career page says “build for everyone”. Facebook’s mission is to connect everyone. Google and Facebook did change the world in some way, but whether having this much information readily accessible and these many connections actually contribute to a society’s well-being is actually up for debate. Both platforms did something significant from a technical standpoint, and media has been able to capitalize on rapid innovations and further amplify their impact. My friend Julian shared with me a talk given by Andrew Kortina, the founder of Venmo and Fin. He said:

This is the idea that technology is a force more powerful than any individual participating in building or inventing technology. Technological progress will continue independent of the individuals involved, and things which are efficient and productive will eventually be invented by someone, whether or not it’s you.

Take Venmo, for example. If we had not built Venmo, would there be some other way to easily exchange money with your friends using your mobile phone? Almost certainly.

If you subscribe to technological determinism, and you like building things, it can be a little deflating. Why go through all the effort if someone else would just do this stuff anyway?

None of the companies trying to convince you to work for them will mention technological determinism. They will confirm what your parents and teachers told you, that your work and contribution will be totally unique and significant.

What I’m suggesting here is to take an organization’s mission with a grain of salt, and become independent thinkers when you are fighting for a certain cause. It’s great to align your mission with an organization’s; belonging to a tribe and a community is one of human’s basic needs. But it’s just as important for us to constantly question these missions with a lens different from the metrics being used internally. These questions could look like:

  • How is this organization immediate ability to create real human well being for every dollar the organization earns?

  • Is the organization a net positive actor in the society? Examples of negative acts are pollution, disease, discrimination, and misinformation etc.

  • Is the organization realizing human’s possibility? What’s the organization’s net effect on well-being (social, financial, intellectual, physical, and so on)? How are the “well-being” distributed equally?

They are difficult questions that do not have clear answers. Ubers and Airbnb are making our lives a lot more convenient, but it has a significant impact on democracy, jobs, cohesion, and trust that we haven’t considered fully as they rapidly scale.

I’m not arguing here whether certain companies are doing more good or evil because it’s not that simple. I’m simply suggesting that we can all become more aware that we do have the choice and the voice, and where real fulfillment comes from is to let our inner voice speak. The inner voice in us functions more like an irrational child, asking questions that are so ridiculous that the adult us can easily dismiss, but maybe we should, in fact, pay more attention to those voices.

One of the most fascinating thinkers of our time Umair Haque once wrote:

If I were to ask you, “what are the economics of this country?”, you’d probably point to GDP, income, and productivity. If I were to ask you, “what are the economics of this company?”, you’d point me to unit revenues and costs per employee and so on. But if I were to ask you, “wait a minute. How is this country or company or town or city, this organization, really doing? are people’s lives really growing, developing, flourishing?”, then you’d probably frown, and draw a blank. The two aren’t the same, are they? Today we’re seeing that whole economies can “grow” — but somehow, human possibility, life as a quest for self-realization, doesn’t. The old paradigm — where organizations exist only for an economic purpose, maximizing income — is deeply, badly broken.

Haque’s interrogation is a great example of questioning a system that seems natural but has major downfalls that have been overlooked and under-discussed, because the system benefits the very few powerful players on the top. Now if we are lucky to be in a position to impact the decisions of those players, we definitely should. This kind of Socratic-styled interrogation applies to companies, communities, the government, and individuals.

The fulfillment in our time rarely lies in simple answers that can be provided by an organization, a title, an award, or anything at all. What we can do though is to get closer to answering the above questions, and doing so patiently, discreetly and thoughtfully.

This sounds difficult. Eh? We grow up with experiences and products that provide us with immediate gratification, and anything that takes longer than it should is unattractive. It took me a while to recognize the true power of demand-driven innovation, and there are a lot of merits to it. For example, the demand for plus-size clothing has now generated a wave of innovative startups to fulfill that gap, and without our crazy demand for increased aesthetics and performance, Apple can’t launch products that quickly. This inevitably leads to many companies and talents wanting to jump on the same boat, while there are less attractive areas to work on that actually will increase the societal and economic well-being in the long run. The agriculture and food industry is an example.

In fact, any attempts to solve those questions will take a long time and might end up failing, but that’s the point — what distinguishes happiness from fulfillment is the pain, the pain of being wrong, different, lonely, misunderstood.

As our generation becomes disillusioned from the pursuit of happiness, it’s time not to fall into the illusion of “mission-driven” but instead solving more important and urgent problems that might not be so obvious. By striving to answer some of these most difficult questions, we’ll know that we are trying to do something far more important than a smile: we’re striving to do justice to our full human potential and to work in some small but key steps towards the improvement of our species.