Not everyone believes that people are called to existence for a specific purpose. But I happen to.
And I have spent a lot of time thinking about this lately. One of the most common questions asked of graduate students is “What’s next? What will you do with your degree?” It’s a slightly more sensible question than the dreaded “What do you want to be when you grow up?” pitched at 12-year-olds.
Some of us have a clear, concrete answer to this. I came to business school to launch a social startup— and I have, and it’s going well. So what’s next? I’m going full-time with it, period.
But what about everyone else? As it turns out, not as clear.
It doesn’t really help that in the b-school setting, we’re constantly talking about reservation prices and willingness to sell. These are just terms that generally refer to what someone is willing to do for how much money. In other words, how cheaply can you be bought?
I had a professor last year who said this: “People will do anything as long as you pay them enough.” Full stop, no caveats.
It was concerning on multiple levels. First of all, isn’t this concept the basis for exploitation? It’s one thing to consider a person’s greed, but another to consider their desperation. A greedy person might cut a few corners to make an extra 2%; meanwhile a desperate person might be take a job at below minimum wage, unsanitary conditions, and at daily risk of her life. Isn’t this how capitalism works? Yes, but the difference is agency: the greedy person chooses with a freedom that the desperate person doesn’t have.
Furthermore, this claim that people simply need to be paid enough to do anything puts a dollar price tag on our scruples, our convictions, and our dignity.
So is there anything that money can’t buy from a person? Perhaps my professor would say no. And I couldn’t disagree more.
Workers who lack purpose
Not everyone will do literally anything for money.
But there are people who, throughout their careers, move from job to job with no clear reason why. They might even be successful corporate executives who climb to the top. They’ll say they did it because they wanted to provide for their families (who doesn’t?), or even because they love a good challenge, and that might be true.
Yet the real reason a lot of people climb ladders and work long hours is to gain wealth and status. Rewards in these settings look like first-class tickets, rare vintage wines, “respect” from your peers, and a position of influence.
These things are alluring. There’s a reason why they are the reward at the end of this road— it’s by design. Think about it: if most people were willing to do these jobs for the pure joy of it, why would these expensive rewards need to exist?
The people you can’t buy
Then there are passionate people who feel called to something, and they know what it is. They’re drawn to using creativity to serve others. They’re more concerned with giving than taking. These are the people who actually touch the world in extraordinary ways.
Let me make something clear. Passionate people are not ascetics who don’t appreciate a stable income, decent credit score, retirement savings and good healthcare. These are good things that we wish more people had access to.
Passionate people simply are not enticed by the extras, because they have something better to live for. They derive joy in creating art that illuminates our humanity. They find that serving other communities brings about their own healing. They would rather make their peers feel hopeful or introspective than jealous or less-than.
And what they love is not what money can buy.
Passionate people don’t trade their calling for the world. You can’t pay them enough to leave the mysterious, magical place where they know they are meant to be. It can take some time to find that exact place, and that place can shift too. But no amount of fancy can pluck them from that journey.
What if I don’t know my calling?
I hear this a lot: “You’re lucky to know exactly what you care about.” Perhaps that’s true; I can be pretty laser-focused.
Now, I don’t believe everyone is called to launch their own social venture. In fact, I don’t particularly encourage this activity. Furthermore, I don’t believe that there are no passionate people at the top (or middle) of the corporate ladder. Quite the contrary.
But I do believe that everyone can, with exploration and discernment, discover not only where they belong but also why they belong there. Inspiration is needed everywhere, perhaps more so in corporate environments where most of our population is employed. We need more people who are driven by passionate purpose rather than pecuniary rewards.
Find something you care about more than the things on your want-to-buy list. Then go care about it.