Purposeful work Decision-making Knowing where to start Social value


The notion of finding ‘fulfilling’ work has erupted over recent years. Among an increasingly connected and transparent world and with more people sharing how they’ve had an impact in their community, it’s no wonder more of us are sitting down to reflect on how work can head into a more purposeful, balanced direction. Digital Consultant Matt Nicholson shares his journey of forging a purposeful career and explains why it’s essential to keep the momentum going once you’ve started.

20 February 2023 • 8 min read

Photo by Pixabay from Elijah O’Donnell

“Have you thought about seeing a life coach?”. This is the line that has most significantly altered my professional trajectory in recent times. I reacted to it, in the same way, I might if someone had asked me if I’d “thought about going on a diet?”, or “considered using mouthwash?”. That my life was so obviously flawed that I ought to think about sorting it out. And for my fragile ego, which had so much polishing — having recently become a dad, renovated a house and was running a busy digital studio — I took umbrage at the notion that anything in my life might need fixing. I thought I had it all figured out.

But it turns out, life coaching isn’t really about fixing your life. Well, it is and it isn’t. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, it just helps you see what you really want. It’s about maximising your potential and being happy ultimately. And if you feel life’s already good, like I did, then it might help you go from good to great.

The question was posed to me by my sister in law, who at the time was training to be a transformational therapist. While training, she had met a life coach student, Grae, who she thought I would get along with and could be a good fit. I’d get to maximise my potential, and Grae would get a guinea pig for his training. Win-win.

Grae changed my life.

Through some skilful questions and visioning exercises over a number of weeks, my focus completely shifted. I realised that I was chasing recognition in a way that was completely flimsy and having no real impact on the world. I realised that I was working to provide a steady home for my daughter, and that ultimately I was shaping her future, and my actions now would change the world she was to face when she was older. It was like a fog lifted and I could see the futility in the one-dimensional marketing pieces I’d been working on. They weren’t benefiting people or the planet, just keeping people feeling inadequate— only to be remedied by buying yet another thing. I was part of the materialism machine. I had justified it because it was making money, and money put food on the table, and so in that way, I was supporting my daughter and my life had some purpose in that sense.

But I couldn’t unsee it, and the more work I did that wasn’t really helping anyone, the more I felt uncomfortable, the less I could justify the money just to put food on the table, and the more I wanted to shift things in a better direction. A more purposeful direction. A more balanced direction — for my work and my principles to be aligned for once.

For me, this has been the critical driving force — wanting to change. Once that fog had lifted and I no longer felt comfortable with the type of work I was doing, I’d made the biggest shift I needed.

There’s a phenomenon called the Baader-Meinhof’ effect. Wikipedia says:

Frequency illusion, also known as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon, is a cognitive bias in which, after noticing something for the first time, there is a tendency to notice it more often, leading someone to believe that it has a high frequency (a form of selection bias). It occurs when increased awareness of something creates the illusion that it is appearing more often.

Once I’d made the cognitive realisation that purpose and work had to go together, I started seeing opportunities for it everywhere. Baader-Meinhof style. I started seeing books about it, I started caring more about economics and how the capitalist system works, about behavioural economics and how people can be encouraged subliminally to make decisions for their own betterment. I started to care more about the environmental and social impacts of the products I was buying and the brands I supported. And I made some lifestyle changes as a result.

I started to integrate it into work too. I was itching to win pitches that had a social or environmental cause, that I wouldn’t have necessarily jumped at before because they might not have had the ‘kudos’ I was after. But now I was after a different type of kudos. And it felt great to finally have something meaningful that I could stand by. Not to want to do something because it was cool. But because it was good.

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably already had the wake-up call, and you’ve been on your own journey of purpose-seeking. Perhaps you’re trying to shift your work balance and generate an income from purposeful projects with more meaning. Maybe you’re in a role you can’t afford to jeopardise, but you’d like your company to be making a more meaningful impact on the world.

Well, I can share some of the things that have worked for me. Some of these might be harder to do depending on your employment — whether self-employed, contracting, running a business or employed by a larger company. My background is consulting in the creative industry, so these are based on that experience, but you could apply some of the ideas to other types of work too.

  1. Look out for opportunities
    When you can’t unsee the need to change, and you’re driven to do something more meaningful, you start seeing more opportunities for it. Either ways to adapt a new job or task so that it’s more beneficial, or noticing when a good organisation is recruiting, or looking for input, even participating in a webinar or physical event and making some new connections in that space. You’ve got to be in it to win it, so being where the conversations are and part of those conversations, or even just absorbing from the sidelines you will start to see your network and work opportunities change.
  2. Change the brief
    Paris-based Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane has a number of projects under his belt where he has taken the initial client request and amended it to have much more depth and meaning. What started out as a city apartment development project, turned into a community-driven social housing project. A glitzy hotel build, he changed into an urban farming project. Once he’s around the table with the decision-makers, he is able to make a case for a better brief, and develop that vision instead. On a smaller scale, I’ve had clients who may have had a blind spot when it comes to their suppliers, their energy usage, or sustainability, and I’ve helped to bring that into focus and build it into their service models. Being able to bring an attitude of ‘how could this be slightly better’ to work tasks to shift briefs and deliverables to be slightly more positive will help to ingrain that in your process.
  3. Filter your ideas
    This might be most pertinent to creative industries where you are looking for solutions to problems, but you might also be managing a supply chain or choosing suppliers for a business. So if you set your standards high and rule out suppliers or approaches that you don’t agree with, you make the set of choices much more purposeful by default. Perhaps you’re tasked with finding a supplier – you can rule out any they don’t meet certain environmental criteria, or try to find one locally, or one that is socially equitable.
  4. Ask the difficult questions
    Being in a meeting where someone is making flippant decisions with wide-reaching social or environmental consequences can be uncomfortable if you’re sensitive to those issues, and sometimes it can feel inappropriate, or downright scary, to raise a concern about it in a meeting. But you may find you’re not the only one. If you can make a stand — you might find others agree and were just worried about putting their head above the parapet.
  5. Work for good brands
    This is kind of the shortcut. All brands have to operate in the world, so they all need the same roles filled as any other businesses of the same size. So why not work for a business that’s already ticking the boxes? Whatever your skillset is, you can offer that to a more purposeful company. You can approach them directly and share the projects and initiatives you’ve been part of to show you’re genuinely committed to a mission. If you don’t have anything purposeful on your CV, then perhaps you could rewrite it or reframe it to focus on any achievements that feel more in line, or if there’s still not much to write about then, read on…
  6. Create a passion project
    If you’re getting started, then you can end up in a chicken-and-egg situation, where you want to do purposeful things, but you can’t start without some prior experience. Here’s where being part of something can really help. You could join a movement and lend your efforts voluntarily (e.g something like Purpose Disruptors, which is a community of advertising and marketing professionals using their powers for good). Or maybe you know a couple of other people who feel similarly to you and you can create some content around your shared perspective. A website, video channel, blog, even a shop or service you can offer…whatever outlet works for you so that you start to build up a repository of content that shows people the change you want to see in the world. This would be a great supplement to a CV or just to drop into conversation to show you’re genuinely passionate about it.
  7. Take on pro-bono work
    This can be tough if you’re up against it financially, or if you’re really busy with full-time commitments. But if you do have the capacity, then this could help to balance full-time work (which might be not-so-purposeful), with something more meaningful. Eventually, with enough projects, you’ll have a critical mass of case studies that could help land you a role or win you a pitch with a more purposeful company, or to start your own and charge for those services. One way to subsidise the pro-bono work is to change your pricing structure to enable some of the fees from each project to go towards a separate pot that supports your pro-bono or purpose-led initiatives. It’s also a good selling point on your services to show that every client is contributing to more purposeful projects too.
  8. Commit to change
    Gaining accreditation, or proposing to your employer that they commit to a higher standard, such a B-Corp certification is a great set of rails to ensure the business operates humanely and ethically. It’s a big process though, so not to be undertaken lightly, but if you’re able to traverse the B-Impact assessment form and gain the accreditation, then you’ll be rubbing shoulders with other purposeful brands in the B-Corp directory and you will have a legal framework to ensure you are making a more positive impact on the world. If b-corp certification is too much, then you could commit to a more purposeful direction by appointing a steering committee to hold you to account, or amend your company manifesto, business plan or articles of association to reflect the changes you want to make. Getting something down in writing that you can point to and remind yourself of the standard you want to meet.
  9. Talk about it
    I found once people I worked with knew what I was about, they acted differently too. I set up a web page that stated what I want to do. It gave me a mission and somewhere to point people to. They knew I would be more motivated to work on projects because I was passionate about making a difference. Make it known to your friends, family & colleagues that you care about this stuff so that they associate you with it. They might hear of an opportunity and put it your way.
  10. Start & stay hungry
    Whatever’s the first step — maybe it’s reading this article, maybe you’re well on your way, in which case, well done! But if not then just make a start. Tell people about what you’re looking to do, how you’d like things to change, comment on someone’s post about sustainability to show that you care about it. Sometimes the hardest thing is starting, so even if it’s a tiny step, do something that moves you in that new direction. Once you’ve started, the important thing is to keep going. Sometimes the ideas above will fail — your attempt to shift the brief fails, or your B-Corp assessment stalls, your ethical questions get dismissed by the client, or you can’t afford to do pro-bono work. Just don’t give up, keep reminding yourself and keep striving for those new opportunities to stay on that new path.

I’ve done a combination of all of the above — in my agency, I would call out clients, or introduce new ideas where the brief could have more meaning and positive impact. I would avoid sharing concepts, suppliers or ideas that would have a negative impact, and tried to only bring ideas to the table that would be sustainable, or innovative & purposeful.

In evenings I worked on side projects that reflected the type of work I wanted to create, and still try to find patches of time to collaborate on a purposeful magazine that I’m trying to get off the ground (slow going since both myself and my collaborator, Ben are working around childcare and full-time jobs).

It hasn’t always panned out, but I’ve kept at it, and I’ve been able to take those side projects and approach individuals and businesses that are already on a mission and make positive connections that have led to paid work, new experiences and a sense of gratification. I wholeheartedly wish the same to you, wherever you are on that journey.

Decision-making Knowing where to start Purposeful work Social value

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