If there is one concern among many people in corporate positions around the world that is hardly talked about, it is making work life worthwhile. Since we spend the largest part of our waking life working, it is quite a topic. Whether at the top or at the bottom of the hierarchy, everyone experiences moments of nagging questions and self-doubt. Some only measure themselves in terms of economic value—the money they helped earn for their companies and/or for themselves. Others might primarily gauge the immaterial contributions they have made, to the organization and the people they lived with.

One way to resolve this issue would be to join an organization that has a noble purpose beyond making money. It could be a charity or a foundation, a non-governmental organization or an association for voluntary work. But few of the world’s brightest business minds take such a radical step. Many will only feel fulfilled if they, somehow, also help to generate a lot of money for the company and themselves—if only to pay for the college education of their children and their own retirement.

Therefore, a second solution would be to join a company that marries purpose and profits, or to instate such a higher purpose in their current company.

Centuries of Eastern and Western philosophy, and modern science tell us that few things in life are more rewarding than doing something that serves some sort of purpose beyond the limited spheres of our own personality. When we could devote ourselves to the worthy goal of our organization. Something we believe in, that makes the world a little better. If that could be combined with achieving great economic results—that would make our business lives and perhaps our personal lives a whole lot worthier. In fact, it would be an offer hardly anyone could refuse. But why then is that not the standard way of doing things? Why is this not how the world of business runs?

One reason, I believe, is that most companies never ask how they could make the world better. And so they simply don’t make the world better. But the more fundamental reason is that conventional wisdom says that the combination does not work. In our own minds, most find it extremely difficult to reconcile the two. The world conspires against a synthesis of purpose and profits. If you seriously try it, you are seen as mad. Colleagues, superiors, investors and others call you an idealist, impractical, and a bad business person. It is so self-evident to think the purpose of business is to make money that hardly anyone can believe otherwise. We sometimes forget that after more than a century, the credo of the Tatas, “to service the communities we operate in", is truly a profit-as-secondary goal at the heart of their business that is still there—for now.

I believe there is a great paradox in business, which I called the “performance paradox". A company whose primary goal is something beyond making money, will make more money in the long run. It will live longer, transform itself more successfully along the way, adapt better to change, make better choices, and create more value for the world.

Many great entrepreneurs I have met agree with this, at least on paper. And there is academic evidence to support it too. The great obstacles to achieving it sit inside our own minds. It is in our tendency to think that purpose and profits form a dichotomy that cannot be bridged. Making matters worse, to make purpose work in business, we must really let go of making money as our first concern in business. That takes rare courage and discipline. It tests our resolve and the depth of our belief. We must truly detach ourselves from that goal. We must be able to effortlessly forego profits in the service of the higher goal, without having the feeling we are being taken advantage of or being a bad business person. But this so fundamentally goes against what we think is the essence of business (making money), that very few people can do it.

My sense is, however, that there is a gradual shift happening in this direction across the world. At a time when many of humanity’s greatest problems can no longer be solved by governments alone, purpose-led business is perhaps simply the only way we will solve the great social, economic, educational, food, environmental and energy problems—to name a few. If I am right, then we may experience a profound awakening in business over the coming decades. If I am wrong, then well I am wrong. And then we may be in for a very rough ride in this century. Much depends on our ability to focus on purpose in business and truly let go of profits as our primary concern.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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