Making Your Work Matter for the World

What do you believe the world could become through your work?

I posed this question to all of the 156 accelerators, studios, and corporate innovation teams who joined me at the GAN and GSSN Summit last week, and it became the basis for our three-day Summit.

And while that question was posed to everyone attending Summit, it’s an incredibly important question for every one of us reading this blog today. Here’s why – how we answer it deeply affects what we do in our work, how we do our work, and the energy we will ultimately have because of our work.

What happens if we don’t have an answer to this question?

Most people don’t have an answer to this question or just haven’t spent time crafting an intentional vision of what the world could become because of the work they do each day. Personally, I didn’t have a good answer until a few years ago. 

There are a couple of reasons we might not have a vision for what the world could become through our work. The first is that maybe we’re in a myopic, self-centered headspace.  If we don’t have something outside of ourselves to focus on, we’re just going to focus on one particular thing—ourselves and our own motivations. That, in turn, leads us to think small. We typically only make incremental changes, and we’re focused on our own needs and survival versus anything bigger.  

Maybe it’s because we view our jobs only as a means to an end. 

Or, perhaps the business you work for, products you create, or service you provide could actually be harmful to the world. Or, maybe that company you work for is contributing to inequalities, fueling addiction, or creating destructive amounts of waste. You may not be in a situation where you have any sort of freedom to ask this question.

Having a vision for what the world could become through your work changes everything.

If you go from thinking that the only reason you show up for work is to climb the ladder, make more money, or feel validated, your work may have little impact on anyone around you. But, if you believe that your work actually changes the world, you become empowered to operate under the belief that your work is radically important. 

There’s a GSSN studio called XGenesis based here in Denver, CO. Simply put, they are a great studio, bringing in talented founders to build on promising business ideas.

All of those are really good goals.

But, if you ask Tom Higley, the CEO, his answer to the question, “What do you believe the world could become through your work?”, he would say that XGenesis is solving some of the world’s most complex environmental and socio-economic challenges we’ll face in our lifetimes.

You can feel the change. He could have just said he’s running a great startup studio. But, the shift towards a vision-focused description of Tom’s problem-solving work changes everything. You can imagine, too, that Tom shows up differently than most. Instead of feeling competitive when another studio comes his way, Tom celebrates the fact that other studios are also solving the world’s most complex issues. They are both working towards the same goal. His team is also fully engaged. Their goal is something that they not only get excited about, but their friends and families also understand. And, it allows them to think bigger. They’re not just focused on finding the next great business. They’re focused on finding the next great problem to go and solve.   

There are so many ways this can play out. 

Maybe your passion is to create beautiful spaces for human connection. This vision could be achieved by opening a coffee shop, becoming an architect, getting a contractor license, building affordable housing, working for the park service, or even fostering a specific skill like plumbing or electrical work. 

The vision of what the world could be through our work, and how our specific role matters, transforms our view of how our work contributes to thriving people, economies, and cultures —and ourselves.

Once you’ve landed on a vision for what the world could become through your work, take a specific look at the role you can play.

Many of my friends, colleagues, and mentees are trying to figure out what they do in the world. Defining the vision for the world that most resonates with you is a great place to start. Like Tom, you can start with your vision for the world and go from there. Or, you can start by evaluating the work you are currently doing, and making adjustments to your specific role to achieve the vision you want to pursue. 

And then, you either need to do one of the following:

You could start from scratch building on that vision.
For instance, Tom decided that he’s going to solve the world’s gnarliest environmental and social problems. And he chose the startup studio model to achieve that vision.

Or, perhaps your vision is a world where people don’t struggle financially once they reach retirement. So, you design a user-friendly app to help people better manage their finances and save for the future.

Maybe you want to help large and small companies run with integrity and remain profitable so that their products and services will continue to be offered to the world, and you happen to like numbers. So the way you achieve this vision is by becoming an accountant and spending long hours performing audits.

Or, you can build out a vision from your current job.
Maybe you are in a business that’s hard to leave, or you don’t want a different job. In that case, you can live out your vision where you are today. A few ways this could look—

Let’s say the electrician in the example above didn’t begin their career with a clear vision. But, with a little work, he/she could transform their view of work from one where they are working for a paycheck (a means to an end), into a meaningful vision of creating places for families and friends to gather and build relationships and share ideas. His or her work is essential to provide the groundwork for beautiful spaces and meaningful human connection.

By adopting a vision-centered mindset, a tired bus driver discovers that his/her work plays an integral role in building local economies and culture by transporting people to and from their workplaces, appointments, and places of commerce.

A stay-at-home parent realizes that he or she is investing in the future of the world by teaching their children the attributes and skills that they, in turn, will share with others.

Perhaps you are passionate about making your current workplace more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. So, you start brainstorming with your HR team about how to expand your hiring streams. 

The list could go on. 

So, my challenge to every one of you reading this is twofold:

  1. What do you believe the world could become through your work?
  2. What can you specifically do to achieve this vision?

I can’t wait to hear about your vision.