The best companies, according to consultant Nikos Mourkogiannis, invest in something greater than strictly bottom-line concerns. Red® is an example. It’s not a charity but a company that sells red iPods, phones, credit cards, and clothing apparel. Their purpose is to invest some of its profits to buy and distribute antiretroviral drugs for women and men dying of AIDS in Africa. This kind of compelling purpose can serve as a “moral DNA” enhancing corporate mission, elevating worker performance and building customer loyalty according to Mourkogiannis, the author of Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies.
He’s right – infusing purpose into vocation often rewards workers with “emotional paychecks” that trump the typical hassles at work. Yet if purpose is the “starting point,” what is it pointing to? The famed poet, critic and editor T.S. Eliot tackled that question over a half-century ago when he suggested our penchant for purpose points toward an old story.
In 1951, the University of Chicago faculty invited T.S. Eliot to address this question: What is the purpose of education? In his remarks, Eliot suggested this inquiry points to a larger issue: “[T]he moment we ask about the purpose of anything, we may be involving ourselves in asking the purpose of everything. If we define the purpose of education, we are committed to the question ‘What is Man for?’ Every definition of the purpose of education, therefore, implies some concealed, or rather, implicit philosophy or theology.”1
Remember that Eliot was not speaking at a religious institution. “Now we cannot expect to agree to one answer to this question; for with this question, our differences will turn out in the end to be religious differences; and it does not matter whether you are a ‘religious person’ or not, or whether you expressly repudiate everything that you call ‘a religion’; there will be some sort of religious attitude – even if you call it a nonreligious attitude – implied in your answer.”2
That took guts. Most people assume religion has little or nothing to do with our Monday-Friday work. But Eliot understood the faculty’s pursuit of purpose assumes that education ought to aim for something beyond merely acquiring knowledge. Eliot knew the idea of ought is embedded in all of us. And one ancient faith tradition best accounts for our pursuit of purpose; whether it’s in education or any other work.
The Judeo-Christian tradition was once understood as a “four-chapter” story that describes how our work ought to be (creation), how it usually is (the fall), how our work can be made better (redemption) and what it will be one day (the final restoration). If Martians landed on planet earth – assuming they could read English or Hebrew – and opened a Bible to Genesis 1, they’d notice God is most often described as a worker.3 They’d also discover that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.4 Since God’s a worker, we naturally work. Since God loves to work, we want to enjoy our work.
Here’s the kicker: God didn’t work to pay the bills, keep a roof over his head, or save for college (not that there’s anything wrong with those things). He didn’t have to work. God enjoys working for reasons beyond making widgets and stuffing a 401k. And that’s why human beings struggle if their work feels like nothing more than making nuts and bolts and paying bills. We’re made in the image of God. We’re made for more – and the more is purpose. What Eliot said was true for education is true for every vocation; we only find purpose in a faith that explains why we work and how our work ought to be.
The last 60 years haven’t changed the equation. It’s just that now, in an age of unparalleled prosperity, “we have too much to live with and too little to live for.”5 Even with bills paid, a roof overhead, and money saved for college, over 80% of workers still report feeling that their work is “meaningless.”6
"Economists, politicians, union leaders, employers, activists, the media – everyone needs to create a new vision of how we earn our livelihoods. We need work that is good for body, soul, mind, spirit: work that sustains family and community; work that connects us with and helps us protect the natural world."7
Great companies like Red® are examples of the new vision for work that we long for. I suggest our longings for purposeful work link us back to a very old faith tradition.
1 T. S. Eliot, “The Aims of Education,” To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965), p.75
2 Ibid., p.109
3 It’s true – read Genesis 1 through chapter 2, verse 3.
4 Genesis 1:26-30
5 Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, (Nashville: Word, 1998), p.4
6 Andrew Kimball, “Breaking the Job Lock.” Utne Reader. 35: 24-28, 1999