(This post was originally run on HuffPost on August 15, 2017.)
In a recent article in The New York Times titled, “The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your ‘Purpose’”, Joseph Carter theorizes upon the meaning of purpose, as a civilization, as an organization and as individuals. From citing the classic work of Aristotle to referencing the laws of physics, Carter brings the reader on an almost theological journey in which one cannot help but think deeply about one’s true purpose or meaning in this world, yet at the same time feel supremely insignificant in this infinite universe. However, as Carter points out, “Purpose is a universal human need. Without it, we feel bereft of meaning and happiness.” And, with every feeling of insignificance, Carter argues that there is indeed purpose because, “For starters, we are important to each other. Meaning begins and ends with how we talk about our own lives, such as our myths and stories.” As I read these words, I was reminded of the various recent Silicon Valley diversity scandals. From Uber to Google, one technology giant after another is in the spotlight for disasters such as sexual harassment and gender biased pay practices, respectively. Overall, it seems clear that Silicon Valley isn’t as progressive and innovative as it has claimed to be and, in my opinion, will never be until its diversity initiatives truly find this “purpose” that Carter references.
As Carter so eloquently states, “…we ought not simply look to God or the universe for explanations but to ourselves [emphasis added by author].” Being introspective, in the way Carter describes, is not an easy activity or one for which companies can provide training. Thus, it is important that instead, companies both model and provide the support systems to encourage reflective thinking and resulting practices. For example, many tech companies, especially those younger in maturity than, for example, Apple, and startups emphasize a fast-paced culture with mantras such as, “We are building the plane as we fly it.” While cultures such as this may encourage forward motion, there is oftentimes no commitment to or reflection on the fundamental purpose of the motion, thus resulting in avoidable crashes and injury to the business and its brand. Moreover, while this kind of business dynamic is relied upon to encourage innovation and perpetual forward motion, and has been vital to the industry’s many successes, it has at the same time been detrimental in the implementation of solid and purposeful diversity initiatives. I believe, however, that both this fast-paced environment, which is necessary for new tech to compete and survive, and this need for inward reflection can co-exist. In fact, they must, for in order for today’s diversity efforts to truly be innovative and long lasting, every employee at every company must take the time to consider and examine her/his own biases, oftentimes implicit, that have resulted in today’s homogeneous workforces.
With all of this stated, it should also be noted that sensitivity training alone, such as that around unconscious bias, is not the magic bullet to achieve this goal. It is simply a tool to address a more complicated field filled with grey areas, which requires solutions that include cross-functional collaboration, accountability and goals. These types of complex solutions require this inward reflection on purpose, for matters around diversity and inclusion touch shared emotions and experiences to which everyone can relate. These shared experiences, in turn, can rally people together, thus maximizing the growth potential for the business and its employees.
In all, purpose is more than just a notion, a theory or a philosophical pondering. It is, as Carter points out, the idea on which America was founded and continues to be, “One election cycle after another” as “…Americans rally around candidates personifying deeply rooted ideals of what our country is supposed to be.” This is purpose. We as humans need it to be happy and as companies, to be successful. Most companies have mission statements and there is research tying mission-based companies to better performance. The notion of purpose, however, is as ancient as the work of Aristotle. Deeply entrenched in our DNA, every person in every corner of the world desires and ponders upon, at one time or another, one’s purpose in life. This is what our diversity initiatives need now, more than ever before, for the dark reality of the current dismal state of affairs can no longer be sidelined, accepted or left in the hands of one function. Instead, as was referenced in the beginning of this post, we must remember that “…we are important to each other. Meaning begins and ends with how we talk about our own lives, such as our myths and stories.” We must then remember our stories, each one unique and each one different, and the importance of this complexity as we weave this new diversity web together and move forward out of the darkness into this new daybreak of purpose.