This is an excerpt from The Purpose Economy by Aaron Hurst.
My neighbor is an eye doctor. She sees patients every day. The vast majority of her patients suffer from a handful of common conditions, many a natural byproduct of old age. She helps people every day in a very tangible way. She loves it.
I, on the other hand, wouldn’t last a week as a doctor. After seeing a couple of cases of glaucoma or cataracts, I would be ready to move on. Check — got it. What’s next? It was part of why I found I wasn’t meant to be a teacher — you never graduate. I am actually pretty extreme in this area, but my case is illustrative. Where some people see each person as unique and wonderful, I see patterns and have trouble focusing on each person as an autonomous individual. Some people have trouble seeing the forest through the trees. I tend to see the forest and not the trees.
The converse is also true. One of the most common sources of turnover at Taproot, with both team and board members, is the realization that we are too far removed from the front lines, and that they are meant to work directly with people and make an impact directly in their lives. Helping a nonprofit become stronger is intellectually satisfying but not engaging for them. We lose many talented pro bono consultants for the same reason — they want to be working directly with those in need.
My friend James Shepard once roughly described this as the difference between a doctor and a hospital administrator. Many people want to directly serve those in need, while others (like me) like to build the systems that enable and support doctors. For the latter, our playground is advancing organizations. We see organizations and groups of people as the organizing units of society.
My cousin, Jason Elliott, is a policy aid to the mayor of San Francisco. His work arena represents another type of playground. His passion is for working at a policy level, analyzing how city, state, and federal programs impact hospitals and clinics and can also set those places up better for success. He is about as far removed from the front lines as you can be, but the impact of even the smallest decision at that level can affect thousands of patients.
In my early twenties, I began to realize that my playground is organizations. I am intellectually curious about policy and broader changes in systems, but they tend to move too slowly to meet my need for experimentation and feedback. Changing policies and whole systems tends to take decades, and then years longer to see if they worked. This work is so removed from the front lines that it doesn’t give me an emotional charge. I also enjoy working to help individuals sometimes, and working on the intersection of organizations and society. But at the core for me is a love for helping organizations realize their potential.
As you seek to have more purpose in your career, this is the first area where you should seek clarity. Are you a doctor, a hospital administrator, or policy-maker? This isn’t an intellectual question; it has to do with what turns you on and ultimately, what will allow you to create the most meaningful impact in the world.
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