Growing up in India, Ranjay Gulati spent his formative years working in his mother’s fashion design business. After yet another long and grueling day, he asked his mother why everyone worked so hard.
His mother put her fork down and told her 16-year-old son: “My wish for you is that you never have to work a day in your life.”
No, her revelation wasn’t a secret trust fund, but a pearl of wisdom that would help shape Gulati’s life’s work as a professor at Harvard Business School.
“I want you to find purpose in what you do,” his mother continued. “If you can make that connection, you will never feel like you’re working a day in your life.”
Gulati shared this anecdote during a TEDx talk at Babson College in March and again with me during a recent interview. His research on how companies energize employees is even more vital during this era of the so-called Great Resignation. His latest book, Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High-Performance Companies, came out, with impeccable timing, in February.
Who among us hasn’t thought about whether we’re in the right job after a life-altering pandemic that forced a reevaluation of priorities?
I certainly have.
I know what some of you are thinking. How can this be? By many accounts, I have one of the best jobs in Boston: I’m a columnist at the Globe. I get to write whatever I want and wherever I want. With a laptop and a good idea, I have a chance to change lives for the better.
But, like so many people, COVID-19 has left me unmoored, especially when it comes to my relationship with work. I hit rock bottom in September 2020, burned out in my personal life and at work. My kids’ hybrid school schedule alone should have done me in.
The stress of it all took a toll on my physical and mental health. There was no vaccine back then, and people at the Globe were working from home if they could. For me, being in a bustling newsroom is the ultimate perk of the job. There’s nothing quite like imbibing the buzz of a deadline and kibbitzing with colleagues.
COVID-19 robbed me of that joy. All that was left was the grind.
I watched Gulati’s TEDx talk and read his book with keen interest. My job never felt like work — until the pandemic hit. While the media has focused on the unusually high number of workers switching jobs or retiring, most — some 64 percent — do not plan to or are very unlikely to look for a new job in the coming months, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
I count myself in that category. It’s why Gulati prefers to call this period the Great Rethink, instead of the Great Resignation. This is a time when employees are searching for the meaning of work.
According to Gulati, the most successful companies not only tap into their “deep purpose” but also help employees find purpose within the organization. In his book, Gulati ticks off examples of companies that have done that work. I was a laugh-out-loud skeptic at first. C’mon, does Microsoft really have a deep purpose? How inspiring can making a better Excel spreadsheet be?
But here’s how Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella describes the software company’s purpose: “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”
That’s more meaningful than I thought. But perhaps more important than the words, Gulati points out, is the process companies went through to articulate purpose. “Purpose,” he explains, “is a statement of intent. It’s a reference point around, ‘Why does our business exist?’”
Reading Gulati’s book you can’t help but go through this exercise yourself. He urges people to “know thyself” and take time to ponder: “What is your ultimate reason for being?” That answer may have nothing to do with your day job, and that’s OK. Gulati acknowledges that not everyone will find purpose at work, though he believes these days people are less willing to put up with a less-than-fulfilling job.
Gulati will tell you one of his biggest regrets is not finding his own true purpose earlier in his career. As an academic, he initially prioritized research over teaching, infused by the “publish or perish” mantra that dominates the field. Over time, he began to understand the profound impact his classes had on his students. Now he regards teaching as important as research.
“We allow this kind of culture of productivity and busyness to crowd out any kind of intentionality in our lives,” Gulati says. “We make choices and trade-offs in the heat of the moment, and then later on, we are like, ‘Why did I do that?’”
Gulati says finding purpose is about setting priorities in life. “Purpose is a forcing mechanism,” he explains. “It’s a question that to answer requires deep introspection.”
Since my first interview with Gulati in September, I have been thinking about my own “deep purpose.” Naming it was shockingly easy and even invigorating: “To inform and connect in order to create a better Boston for all.”
I wish I could tell you I’ve figured it all out. But I remain on a journey to get back to what I call workplace nirvana, a state in which work does not feel like work. And there are times I wonder if the pandemic has forever altered my perspective. How can it not after all we’ve been through?
There are other steps I can take — what Gulati calls “job crafting.” I could reshape my role and delegate tasks that make my job less meaningful or raise my hand for new projects. He also suggests coaching my bosses and giving them feedback. In other words, put the onus on them. (Brilliant!)
Why does any of this matter? Because so many of us just want to unlock our full potential. The pandemic has taught us that life is too short, and we don’t want to waste a single day.
Gulati likes to quote Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who encourages his players to thrive as individuals first, both on and off the football field, knowing team performance will follow.
“Carroll likes to say when people feel a connection between their own sense of purpose and the organization’s purpose,” observes Gulati, “magic happens.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.