Blog / The Democratization of Purpose: A New Question of Access

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One of my first assignments as a 2015-2016 University Innovation Fellow involved an opportunity to bring a career interest inventory developed by ASU and originally designed for middle and high school students to a Goodwill workforce development site in an urban area of Phoenix. My objective? To see whether such a tool engages an adult demographic and would be worth the investment to adapt. The workforce development center had computers available for participants to search for online job postings and type up their resumes. People milled about the center taking flyers off walls, asking for information about the adjacent Child Care Administration, receiving computer assistance from staff, and inquiring about which employers would be on site that day. Though everyone seemed busy, I asked a few people in passing if they would be willing to take a career interest assessment to see which career paths they might be most interested in pursuing. I got variations of the word, “No”. Interestingly, I was told by a staff member, “Oh, you’ll want to bring that to the Maricopa County Workforce Connection center. That’s where all the professionals go.”

I was perplexed. Why would a career interest assessment only be appropriate for a “professional” level job-seeker?

I reflected on my pitch and wondered whether it was the word “career” or the word “interest” that most alienated my audience. More importantly, why would either word be incongruous with anyone looking for a job? My own job-seeking experiences have almost always involved a brief dip into an existential life crisis characterized by the questions, “What is the next step for me?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” and “Who do I want to be and what do I want to be a part of?” Every career move feels like a step in some direction, and the question is whether it’s a trajectory I believe in. Does everyone ask those questions, or are my questions an indication of my own privilege?

Is the question of purpose yet another privilege to an already overly-privileged class? Some suggest otherwise.

In Aaron Hurst’s book, The Purpose Economy, he posits that our society is rapidly emerging from the Information Economy of yesterday, into The Purpose Economy of today. Consistent with Maslow’s theory of The Hierarchy of Needs, human societies are life-hacking their way through our increasingly sophisticated set of evolutionary needs. Once we figured out how to produce food and goods in mass-quantities in the Agrarian Economy, we learned to do it easier with the use of machines in the Industrial Economy. When our machines produced so much data that we needed to manage the sheer volume of output, the winners became those who could process enormous amount of data into meaningful packages in the Information Economy. Hurst suggests that the new winners are now those whose life and work is their life’s work. Our heroes will be those who passionately and energetically shape our society through work that they also find satisfying and fulfilling.

So, who gets to have purpose in their life and work? Is it only those who can afford to donate large sums of money to a charity, or take a sabbatical to volunteer, or serve on a Board for a cause they believe in? Unfortunately, my experience at the workforce development center suggests that our culture still seems to reinforce the notion that purpose and passion is reserved for the “professionals.” We still seem to believe, at least on some level of our culture, that you have to earn loads of money before you have anything worthwhile to contribute to the world.

Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, famously said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Said differently, purpose is a human right. What else exceptpurpose and a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves will drive individuals stuck in cycles of financial vulnerability and instability to be resilient, to keep going despite frequent crisis, and keep pushing through their barriers up to the next rung of their potential?

At ASU, we know that Purpose need not be yet another advantage of the advantaged. Indeed, ASU is at the forefront of this democratization of Purpose as it commits to increasing Excellence, Access, and Impact in higher education through the New American University design. Anywhere you go on ASU’s campuses, you witness growth and advancement through new innovation, new ideas, and new research. There is a distinct sense of vitality and hope here that you don’t find anywhere else. But by expanding this vitality and hope for our future to the communities in which ASU resides, we are increasing access not only to knowledge, but we are also increasing access to purpose.

Blog / The Democratization of Purpose