By Andrew McConnell, co-founder and CEO of Rented.
In the United States, the foundation of the country was built around the premise that one of our inalienable rights is the “pursuit of happiness” (along with life and liberty, of course). The question this raises is whether happiness should be what we are pursuing in the first place.
We can pursue happiness, and in achieving it, we can be happy, at least for a time. As an emotional state, this is fleeting. The reality is that in chasing after happiness, even when we succeed in getting what we want, we soon revert to our natural baseline of happiness. In psychology, this tendency is known as the “hedonic treadmill.” Like a hamster, we can keep chasing after that elusive happiness, but so too like that hamster, we never actually move from where we started.
Purpose, on the other hand, is not a fluctuating state. We have purpose or we don’t. It is something that sticks with us that can and will outlast the ups and downs of our day-to-day life. Rather than being a temporary feeling we continuously chase and then have to re-up once the high begins to fade, purpose has fixed permanence for us. It serves as a North Star we can use as a guide and work toward on an ongoing basis.
This distinction between the ephemeral nature of happiness and the fixedness of purpose is akin to the distinction Simon Sinek makes between “finite games” and “infinite games” in his appropriately titled The Infinite Game. In the former, there is an end state where someone wins or loses. For these sorts of games think chess, football, basketball and the like. In the latter, there is no fixed end.
Whether we like it or not, whether we even realize it or not, the great game of business we are all in is exactly this latter sort. There is no fixed end, unless you have to completely shut your doors. There is no single winner for all time, as the dynamics of Schumpeterian creative destruction remind us on a nearly daily basis. And yet the metrics we chase, whether they are measures of profitability, numbers of customers or percentage of market share, are just as short-lived as the state of our happiness. If your end-all and be-all is to hit a single number, or a mix of numbers, what comes after you reach them? What comes when you fail to reach them on a fixed timeline?
If your company instead is in the pursuit of a purpose, if it is knowingly and consciously playing the infinite game it is indeed a participant in regardless of whether you acknowledge this fact or not, then there is no such confusion. This is not to say you shouldn’t track measurable targets in the pursuit of your purpose; a business would be difficult to run without them. Nor is it to say that you should not be happy when you achieve them; you should. It is instead to argue that the metrics themselves must be the byproduct, not the end result, of the pursuit of something bigger, something more meaningful, something that is permanent: your purpose.
All of which is fine to say, but how do you go about identifying your purpose, whether in your life or in your business? The first step is to ask the question. So many people mindlessly go through the motions each day with the passiveness of a sleepwalker. This is because they do not know their purpose, nor are they likely to have ever even tried to find it. As Socrates rightly pointed out so long ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And so, too, is the unexamined business not worth building. Your purpose is your foundation. Consciously ask the tough questions now to make sure it is a solid one. Revisit the question regularly to ensure it remains solid and receives reinforcement when needed.
Asking the question and then answering it are both necessary, but they are not sufficient to put your company on the path of having a purpose. Once you know it yourself, you then must make sure others know it, believe it and pursue it just as avidly as you do. This of course includes your team. Whether a five-person startup or a hundred-thousand-person conglomerate, alignment on purpose is the difference between having mercenaries and having missionaries as you pursue your purpose. The former may be fine for a finite period, but it is the latter who are necessary to take the business where it is actually capable of going in the infinite game you are playing.
Perhaps surprisingly, even this is not enough. The list of people who should know, understand and be able to clearly articulate your purpose should include your clients, as well. If your clients are not clear on what your purpose is, it is difficult to believe your purpose is anything more than marketing drivel posted on your company website. After all, Enron’s motto was “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence,” all the way up until it collapsed and became a byword for corporate greed and financial malfeasance.
As with any infinite game, none of this is something you can or should address overnight. It takes time. However, that is all the more reason to get started now! And guess what — when you and your team are all aligned, clear-eyed and consistent on your purpose, you will find that the process of pursuing it, independent of the finite-game results on any given day, week or month, is that much more rewarding and fulfilling. Chances are, you will also find yourself being happy on an even more regular basis.