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BookWatch: Obsessing about success makes us unhappy. Surprisingly, so does a focus on passion. There is a healthier way to approach our lives.

For the past 50 years, our schools, colleges, and workplaces have hammered home a singular message: the goal of life is to be as successful as possible. This is born from the belief that life is a hyper-competitive, zero-sum game with few winners and many losers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the performance mindset is associated with higher rates of mental illness and poorer performance. When we view life as a never-ending race, it’s not a question of if you will burn out but when.

But while Gen Z are no longer willing to sacrifice their well-being at the altar of achievement and instead are adopting a passion mindset, they’re still taking the wrong approach.

The passion mindset prioritizes happiness as the ultimate goal of life. Paradoxically, the more we seek happiness, the more unhappy we become. This is because the more value we place on being happy, the higher our expectations for becoming happy.

If people expect to “love” their jobs, they become more attuned to everything they don’t love about it. This awareness creates a vicious downward spiral: the more we want to love our job, the more aware we are when we don’t, and the more unhappy we become.

And so research suggests that this mindset leads to the same toxic destination that the Performance Generation is so desperate to escape: high rates of depression and anxiety and reduced academic, career, and life satisfaction and performance.

A purpose mindset

Thankfully there is a better way. Based on findings from our lab along with our hands-on work with hundreds of students and young professionals, we’ve found a third mindset: the purpose mindset.

People with a purpose mindset seek out work that is both personally meaningful and contributes to the world beyond oneself. This intention to contribute to others is what sets the purpose mindset apart from “just me” performance and passion mindsets.

Our research on high-achieving students showed that those with a purpose mindset were less distressed by academic pressures and no less high-performing. And workers who find purpose in their work are 10 times more likely to be thriving in their lives than their peers. 

Moreover, it doesn’t take much purpose to benefit from it. A study of over 550 physicians found that the more time they spent on purposeful work activities, the happier they were in their roles and the less likely they were to suffer from burnout. They also were less likely to leave their jobs.

However, physicians needed to be doing purposeful work just 20% of the time to realize these benefits. In fact, physicians who spent more than 20% of their time doing purposeful activities were no less likely to experience burnout than doctors who spent only 20% of their time purposefully.

St. Martin’s Press

Purpose is within reach

Amy Wrzesniewski, a management professor at Yale University, has studied whether people in a variety of roles view their work as a job (they only work for money), a career (they work hard for career advancement and prestige), and a calling (they work hard to fulfill a purpose). Her work found that in any given role workers will be distributed evenly between the three: one-thirdwill view their work as a job, one-third as a career, and a one-third as a calling.

What’s stunning is that this distribution was consistent among all occupations studied: custodians were just as likely to view their work as a calling as surgeons were to view their work as a job.

Finding purpose in our work isn’t dependent on what we do, but how we think about our work. A job feels purposeful when we can use our unique strengths, develop new skills to make a meaningful contribution in a way that aligns with our core values.

Savvy organizational leaders can help their employees adopt a purpose mindset by asking them purposeful questions. They have the courage to ask the big questions like:

What’s the purpose of our organization?

What do you see as your professional purpose?

How can we make this work feel more purposeful?

Workers can ask of their organization:

What is our competitive advantage? (Strengths)

How do we need to grow and evolve? (Skills)

What do we stand for and what are we willing to sacrifice for? (Core values)

What’s the legacy we want to leave behind? (Contribution)

They ask of themselves:

How do I want to be remembered? (Strengths)

How do I want to grow and evolve? (Skills)

What do I stand for and what am I willing to sacrifice for? (Core values)

What difference do I want to make in this organization or as a leader (Contribution)

If we really want to thrive, we must intentionally foster a purpose mindset while mitigating the sirens song of a performance and passion mindset. That starts by not having the right answers, but having the courage to ask the right questions.

Belle Liang and Timothy Klein are co-authors of “How to Navigate Life: The New Science of Finding Your Way in School, Career, & Beyond.”

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