Like your job? So what? A better question is: Do you make a difference?

We all want to believe our work is important. That it has meaning. That it makes the world a better place.

That’s why Simon Sinek insists that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” They want to know your work has purpose, and they want to connect with that purpose.

That’s why Dan Pink, through years of research, has found that today’s employees want only three things from their work … and one of them is purpose. It’s the idea that our work connects us to a cause that’s larger than ourselves, and that drives deep motivation and engagement.

Money is nice. Advancement is great. But you want to know what we’re really jonesing for? It’s purpose. It’s the idea that what we do is actually worth a damn. That it makes a difference.

How powerful is purpose? It’s among the best predictors of how productive we’ll be — better, in fact, than our passion for our jobs.

In their latest book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip and Dan Heath cite recent research by Berkeley professor Morten Hansen, who was curious about whether purpose or passion would have a greater impact on job performance.

The results of Hansen’s research were astounding.

  • Employees who exhibit low purpose and low passion — those who don’t like their jobs and believe they have little impact — fell in the 10th percentile in terms of performance. “That’s lousy but not too surprising,” the Heaths write.
  • Those who love their jobs and believe their work has meaning — high passion and high purpose, in other words — fell in the 80th percentile in terms of performance. Again, not terribly surprising.

But what if you had only one or the other — only passion or purpose? What would the difference be?

According to Hansen, it would be huge.

  • Employees who love their jobs but don’t believe their work has meaning — high passion but low purpose, in other words — performed at the 20th percentile.
  • Those who aren’t crazy about their jobs but believe they make a difference — low passion and high purpose — perform at the 64th percentile.

Here’s how the results look in matrix form:

“The outcome is clear,” the Heaths write. “Purpose trumps passion. … The best advice is not “Pursue your passion!” It’s “Pursue your purpose!”

So how do you find your purpose? The Heaths have an awesome solution:

“Sometimes it’s useful to keep asking ‘Why?’ Why do you do what you do? It might take several ‘Whys’ to reach the meaning. For instance, consider a hospital janitor:

  • “Why do you clean hospital rooms? ‘Because that’s what my boss tells me to do.’
  • “Why? ‘Because it keeps the rooms from getting dirty.’
  • “Why does that matter? ‘Because it makes the rooms more sanitary and more pleasant.’
  • “Why does that matter? ‘Because it keeps the patient healthy and happy.’”

Boom. There it is.

It’s an amazing exercise that boils your job down to its essence: Why does what you do matter?

When you’ve answered that question, you’ve found your purpose. When you’ve found your purpose, you’ve found the key to productivity, motivation, engagement, and a life spent in service to more than just self or money.

And that’s everything.


William D. Sheridan