In the summer of 1975, a 24-years-old John Doerr was between terms at Harvard Business School. His future felt unsettled. But he knew his “why” or true purpose at the time was to be an entrepreneur like his mentor and role model—his dad. With a $50 dollar loan, he set out West for California. He had no job and no place to live. So, he started calling venture capital firms in Silicon Valley hoping to land an internship—but was rejected at every single one.
Fortunately, one firm recommended he check out a new computer chip maker in Santa Clara. The start-up was called Intel, and after one cold-call and a day of meetings, Doerr got an internship there for the summer. It wasn’t what he expected to be doing, but it did give him the opportunity to learn how a computer business was run. Ultimately, this put him on the trajectory to become the Chairman of Kleiner Perkins, one of the most prominent venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.
A lot of recent high school and college grads, and even people contemplating a career change, can relate to Doerr’s feeling of unsettlement. During major life transitions, the future always seems uncertain. There are a lot of decisions to be made and rejections to overcome. But there is a lesson to be learned from Doerr’s story: he made the best out of his circumstances. For him, this was easy because he had a clear sense of purpose in life.
Like company a “why”, a personal purpose helps connect your day-to-day goals with a higher calling. It helps you prioritize your time and work and keeps you motivated. A personal why or purpose is a useful launching pad for both professional and personal OKRs.
Focus and commitment over the long haul
The story of Jini Kim is another example of how knowing your personal why or purpose can keep you focused and committed during challenging and uncertain times.
When Kim was nine-years-old her younger brother, Kimong, had his first grand mal seizure during a trip to Disneyland. Her Korean-immigrant parents had limited resources and spoke little English. So, it was left up to her to sign up for Medicaid and get her brother the care he needed. Since then, Kim’s mission has been to improve healthcare in America.
She says her career has been defined by three disasters: Google Health, Healthcare.gov, and the execution of a major contract with Medicaid at her startup Nuna.
While at Google, Kim worked on a product called Google Health. Google Health was supposed to be a personal health record, but it never got traction and was ultimately discontinued in 2012. Although it was a failure, Kim’s experience working on Google Health exposed her to the hardships of working with healthcare providers and insurers.
Kim left Google in 2010 to start a health analytics startup called Nuna. The name of the company is Korean for older sister. Two-years into working on Nuna, Kim received a phone call from President Barack Obama. He requested her to join a team that was working on fixing the disastrously rolled out Healthcare.gov. Her country needed her, so she couldn’t refuse. After six exhausting months of 18-hour-long days, the website was improved and Kim had her first experience working with the Center of Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). This lead Kim to her third disaster.
CMS had an existing contractor building the first-ever data warehouse for all Medicaid users. After 2 years of work, the contractor failed, and CMS put the work out for bid. Nuna stepped up and submitted a bid. It was an audacious task. The database would contain information from 75 million people in 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia.
Nuna won the bid. But they had to scale fast. They had to improve their business protocols, revamp their data platform infrastructure, and grow from 15 to 75 employees all within a year. Kim described it as an even harder experience than working on Healthcare.gov.
Kim’s personal why, to make healthcare work for more people, kept her moving forward throughout these three disasters.
How to find your purpose
Not everyone knows their purpose as clearly as Doerr and Kim did, especially early on. For many people, a personal why is still not clear. If you are struggling to identify your personal purpose, here are some tips to help you find it:
Tip 1: Understand your fears
It’s natural to feel anxiety when thinking about big dreams or your life purpose. Everyone has a fear of failing, rejection, and of making the wrong decisions. But you can’t let your fears keep you from living your life and progressing. Instead, try to understand your fears and use them as fuel to move forward.
Tip 2: Accept that your purpose can evolve
Don’t be afraid that you’ll get trapped into a single why for the rest of your life. Whys aren’t static, they evolve as our lives unfold. Remember, Doerr’s why started off as being an entrepreneur, like his dad. Now it’s to help leaders achieve their most audacious goals. Get comfortable with the concepts change, evolution, and growth—or at least learn to expect them.
Tip 3: Examine your life experiences
One strategy for finding your life’s purpose is to observe your past with a bird’s eye perspective. Kim’s passion for improving healthcare stems from her childhood experiences. Look back at moments in your life that had the biggest impact on you and see if there is a common theme.
Tip 4: Look to your heroes
Another strategy is to think about your heroes. Doerr’s why when he was in college was to be like his dad. Is there someone in your life that has made a similar impact? Are there any historical or public figures you admire? It’s okay to look to them for inspiration.
Tip 5: Set an OKR to find your purpose
Finally, it’s useful to add some structure as you look for your purpose. Set a deadline. If you’re objective is to find your purpose in 90 days, helpful key results can include journaling every day, trying something new that makes you uncomfortable once a week, or maybe identifying 10 things that are definitely not your purpose. Think about tasks that will be helpful for you to do to find your purpose and commit to doing them.
Where can I get more information?
What do you do when you find your why? Or what if your why doesn’t match with what you’re doing right now? The key is to connect the purpose and the passion behind your goals with your priorities at the moment and live your purpose. Ask yourself: What can you do right now (in your classes, in your current job, as a side hustle) that fits with your why of having a meaningful life?
For most people, it’s going to take spending time to find your passion and purpose. And you may get it wrong the first few times, that’s okay. You don’t have to start a business or write a book. But the important thing is to get started on whatever it is you want to do.
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