Interviewed: Aaron Hurst on the Purpose Economy

Top image credit: psd / Foter / CC BY 2.0.

Aaron Hurst, the founder of the San Francisco-based Taproot Foundation -- the flash point for the pro bono movement -- is a busy man. He’s relocated to New York, launched Imperative, “a social benefit corporation with a mission to connect people to purpose on a massive scale,” published The Purpose Economy, and travels constantly for speaking gigs. I caught up with him on a recent visit to Berkeley, at my business partner Whitney Vosburgh's flat, for a quiet place to talk. For a renowned thought leader, Aaron is a friendly and unassuming man, at home amongst the Buddhas and other cultural iconography surrounding us.

Jeff Nelder: So, Aaron, it's been a big year for you with the launch of Imperative and the release of The Purpose Economy. You've invested so much energy, time and passion with Taproot, it must have been difficult to leave. What motivated you?

Yeah, it was difficult in some ways, but I was there for 12 years. I started Taproot in 2001, so I had been, toward the last couple of years, sort of preoccupied with some ideas and thoughts that weren't necessarily a good fit with Taproot. And also realizing that I looked around at a lot of nonprofits, especially where founders stay too long -- both too long for the organization, but also, at a certain point, you become defined so much by an organization that you feel like you're trapped there, and you end up staying longer than you should from anyone's point of view.

In talking to the thousands and thousands of people that did pro bono work through Taproot consistently, pro bono work was the most rewarding, engaging work they'd ever done. At first, that really fueled me, and was incredibly inspiring, but then I really started to reflect more on the fact that it pointed to a problem with work itself, and how work is not aligned with who we are as human beings and we need to redesign work so that all work feels like pro bono work.

That is what inspired me to create a new organization and tackle one of the most important questions of our age: how to align what we spend the majority of our time doing as human beings, and create a human-centered design for work built around purpose.

What is your core life purpose, then?

My purpose is helping empower communities to realize their potential. I'm a big believer in potential; I'm a big believer in using communities as a form of how we organize society and how you set those [communities] up for success. That's what gives me a strong sense of purpose. That's what Taproot and Imperative [are] about.

That makes a lot of sense, a connective tissue from one role to another.

Everything I've done, whether it was in Silicon Valley or before that -- even in college, taking teams of Michigan students to local prisons to teach -- it all had a similar theme. A lot of it also ties to being raised Buddhist and how, for me, a lot of it is about being authentic and sitting with your shit. A lot of the things I've been trying to create help wake people up into consciousness in their life. They can do good things, they can do bad things, but to do it consciously, instead of just being asleep at the wheel.

I enjoyed reading The Purpose Economy. How did you decide to frame it as an economy rather than a movement, and what's the difference?

My uncle coined the term "Information Economy," which is the economy that we’re sitting in now. As I looked at what was going on, I saw that the need for purpose, which has been with us since the dawn of time, is starting to become commercialized and it's starting to get to a tipping point, where it's becoming so mainstream that it's driving the majority of innovation in the economy, where a lot of the growth is coming from.

What I saw in doing Taproot and pro bono is that it's important to frame these things not as nonprofit-oriented or charitable, and look at it more as a business imperative, pointing to the fact that we are entering a new economy in the next 10 to 20 years, and that purpose seems to be the thread that ties all this growth together. [It] goes from talking to individuals and companies, saying, “You should do this” to saying, “You have permission to do this because, if you don't, you're actually going to become much less relevant to the next generation of employees and consumers.” It frames the whole discussion at a much higher level of importance. It doesn't make it about traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), philanthropy, etc. It has to do with it becoming core.

It becomes personalized, and very personal to both an individual and an organization.


What might stop the Purpose Economy from reaching full realization? Headless movements like Arab Spring or Occupy have been criticized for losing momentum without a discernible leader. Do you feel the Purpose Economy or movement is in need of a single, discernible leader?

I think it's in need of a single vision. Occupy was much like many of the liberal protests and marches where you have 30 different causes, and it's not clear what success is. We need a framework that people work under, and need something like The Purpose Economy that helps create a framework. Then, within that, people need to have a lot of flexibility to define it in their own terms. A lot of it is around challenging people to make changes from within themselves, within their organizations, and then from within their cities, because cities are the key to the future.

If you talk to folks at the UN or to McKinsey -- to community activists -- there's more recognition that federal and state governments are less relevant, and that cities are really the organizing political body of the future. How do we get cities to imagine themselves not as Silicon Valley and, instead, leapfrog that, and actually move your city to become the epicenter of the Purpose Economy, not the Information Economy? We're finding incredible response to that, and it's a way of rallying cities around a different vision of their future.

Shareable has a major cities initiative going on right now, but whether it's only in terms of cities or in terms of the corporations you may work with, can you talk more about the work you're doing with both individuals and organizations, and if that's at different levels?

We started in November, so I have to preface all this [with] we’re a baby, right? We're not a full adult organization, so we're doing work at the individual, organizational, and city level. So, the individual level -- what we're really doing at this stage is we've built a diagnostic tool online that's based on many years of research I've done around what actually generates purpose for people and the science behind purpose. It helps you understand what drives you and helps develop a purpose statement to serve as your North Star and help you make conscious decisions that will improve your well-being. That's the first step in that process, and we're working on subsequent releases to help people start to internalize and own that and make changes to craft their work around what generates purpose for them.

With that, we'll be starting to connect people around shared purpose. We're finding in some small experiments that when people meet with the same purpose, there is an incredible connection, it's like an eHarmony-type connection, unlike other diagnostic tools like Strengthsfinder or Myers-Briggs, [where] we’re actually annoyed by people of the same type. We are finding, with shared purpose, that it's a very strong bond that's immediately created. We’re just starting to work with organizations and what we're doing is similar to the work you guys (Brand New Purpose) do. We look at how you align someone's individual purpose statement with an organization's purpose, so that people understand how to maximize purpose in that context. And then starting to create recommendation engines where someone's a certain purpose type.

Within the organization, they can start recommending activities, projects, etc. that will enable someone to optimize the amount of purpose they expressed within that organization and start to help the organization think about "How do you optimize purpose for those employees?" But then, also starting to think about their consumers, about what purpose you generate for consumers so they can start to fulfill that. And providing the real scientifically oriented framework for how to evaluate that instead of, traditionally, it's been more spiritually based or experientially based, and this is providing much more of a concrete framework where they can look at consumers, and say, “How are you generating purpose on these different levels?” and then actually measure and manage that over time -- not just perception of purpose, but actual creation of purpose.

That’s on the organizational and on the city level, which is the part I'm most excited about right now. I'm framing this goal as “How can you be the hub of this New Economy?” We started with an experiment in Atlanta, Georgia. We asked people, “Would you like to get together for dinner with eight to 10 strangers and talk about how Atlanta can be a capital of this new economy?” In the first week, 3,000 people signed up. We've already had over 100 of these dinners and they are spawning what I'd call “pop-up social entrepreneurship,” where they're coming up with these changes they want to make in their community and they’re finding friends that are volunteering and funding and helping to make those changes. It creates a grass-roots movement around creating a vision for those cities and then realizing it.

I was at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Dallas, Texas, last week, and the New Cities Foundation was there. We held a one-day design studio with a big architecture firm, where we had mayors, executives, designers, urban planners, together -- 50 or so folks -- for a full day, answering three questions: What are the ethics and policies of a Purpose City? The urban design of a Purpose City? And the products needed to make that city thrive?

The ethics and policy folks came up with this amazing manifesto of a Purpose City, a rough draft in one day, but really powerful. The urban planning team created a visualization of a Purpose City. Then a third group, which was focused on products, laid out the technology platform to enable this which, eerily, even though I wasn't playing a role in that, that's almost identical to what we're building.

It was both inspiring and also depressing. They had a few hours, and were able to figure out what's taken me forever to try to realize. So, it's really the three levels, and we see bringing them together where, a year from now, you'll have the ability for companies to be part of the city platforms and have experiential learning opportunities for their employees. We are seeing the line between company and communities becoming more porous. Professionals are less interested in defining themselves solely through their organizational lens. So, we see the organization helping be part of that process, which then also brings the individual in, so we see the three as deeply connected.

A number of different modifiers for “economy” have popped up recently. We've heard “Collaborative,” “Sharing,” “Purpose”… do you think we need all these names? What's different about them, and what do they have in common?

I look at it like a biological phenomenon. Pretend you see these mutations happening all over the place, little mutations, and that's just a deviation in a community, right? When you start seeing these deviations happening with great frequency within a given community, you realize that a biological event is occurring. Finally, there's a fundamental change that's not about one mutation. Actually, something bigger is going on, a biological event. People are seeing mutations happening in different industries in different ways. They are seeing a sharing mutation and a do-it-yourself mutation -- observing mutations happening all over the economy and society. They are framing it in economic terms and trying to understand how to frame this not just as a social phenomenon, but recognizing the business implications. With the Purpose Economy, what I saw was that all these mutations were happening and I was saying, wait a sec -- these aren't just standalone mutations. It's not like you go into a forest and you see, oh the frogs are changing, the birds are changing…and then people are writing up: ‘changes in frogs,’ ‘changes in birds.’ And I'm stepping back and saying we should look at the fact that there are changes happening in all the animals of the forest and it's part of a bigger evolution that's happening -- and that's the Purpose Economy.

If you look at the common thread that brings all these different mutations together, purpose is that common thread, according to what scientists think purpose is. And, as we understand it that way, we realize there is a biological event going on and we can start to understand and manage it. Instead of seeing each species as a separate phenomenon, you start to see ecosystems changing. I see the Purpose Economy as the umbrella of larger biological change in which all these other really important mutations are happening.

To some, the word purpose smacks of New Age-ism. Earlier you spoke about a spiritual dimension to purpose and, if purpose is the larger event in what you're describing, how would you describe this spiritual dimension of purpose?

Most people actually don't look at it as New Age-y. I think it's tied more to Rick Warren, evangelical Christians. I've had a lot of the sort of more New Age-y, more progressive folks worry about it because it sounds like it could be a right-wing, evangelical movement. Different connotations, right? Spirituality is a really complicated thing. I am of Jewish descent, raised Buddhist in a Christian-dominated community, and very aware of all these different traditions. The thing that ties them all together is people’s desire for purpose, which is why they are drawn into these organized faiths. There's a question broadly about, “Why are we here? How does this stuff all connect? What is my meaning in life?” That's part of what draws us to these purpose questions. Different faiths answer them more or less in the same ways, but in different languages, different cultural backgrounds based on where their faiths grew out of, in terms of the time, in terms of the culture, the geography.

In secularism, which started looking at purpose more from a scientific standpoint than a social standpoint, you start seeing and being able to unpack all of that. I was speaking at Google yesterday to a bunch of their employees, as well as some visitors. One of those visitors was a Methodist priest. She said that she read the book and it really disturbed her to her core because, in purpose going mainstream and becoming part of the economy, she started wondering, “Is there a need for church anymore? Have we gotten to the point where it's so ingrained in society that the need for organized religion is diminishing?” And then, “What is the role of organized faith in a world in which purpose is mainstream and part of the economy?”

She was struggling with it. She always thought that church had a monopoly on purpose and she started realizing, with the book, that it doesn't, that, in fact, it's becoming mainstream and what does that mean? It's a really challenging and interesting question.

How do you see purpose related to a core organizational or business purpose, in light of what you're describing?

There are two different levels. There is an organizational purpose that's usually about achieving something externally -- in the environment, society -- usually around a set of values and how the organization creates value in the world. On the individual level, that's one of the biggest challenges. I saw this in the nonprofit sector a lot. Organizations would think that, because they have a high purpose orientation and that they’re a charity and a cause, that people would get enough purpose just from that. What the research shows is that, after a certain size, people start needing more purpose from the craft of what they do and from their small community of coworkers. The organization’s mission or purpose is a pretty small part of what generates purpose on a daily basis, because it's too far removed [from] the day-to-day.

Secondly -- and this is what so many of the mid-scale startups that we talked to are struggling with, whether it's Airbnb, Etsy, Groupon -- the founder and that core team is still driven by the purpose of the organization. But, if you’re HR employee number 63 in the new HR department, you feel pretty far removed from that, and there is a need to understand. It takes a different kind of management and leadership, and you can't just beat the drum of the organization’s purpose. You need to figure out what the purpose is of everyone on your team as craftspeople and as social beasts in a smaller environment in which they work.

Purpose can't be prescribed; it can only be aligned -- is that the way you're looking at it?

It needs to be awakened and then aligned. Yeah, I think that's right. Aligned and then optimized around these different pieces and not thinking an organization's purpose is enough for individuals to meet their needs.

Well, which companies are leaders or exemplars of the Purpose Economy, and why them?

There's no 100 percent Purpose Economy company, same as there's no such thing as a 100 percent Information Economy or Industrial Economy company, because they all integrate parts of all these pieces, and people are doing good, bad, and otherwise with this. Whole Foods has done an amazing job of converting a whole market.

One of things I'm really interested in is the difference between entrepreneurs and market makers. There are a lot of entrepreneurs. They create products and services that optimize for the sale. Market makers look at how you build an ecosystem and how you build an overall market. Whole Foods has done that, and it's radically changed the whole sustainable healthy food category from something that used to be the place you went to if you were hard-core -- [it] smelled bad, and the food didn't taste good.

Now, Whole Foods represents the foodies’ nirvana. They completely changed the perception of healthy and organic food. They've also built a whole ecosystem of suppliers, local farms, and products that never would have been economically viable had it not been for Whole Foods creating shelf space for them, so they've really built out a whole market.

Tesla is phenomenal. I love that Elon Musk made their IP open source because he is looking at how you build a market, not just how do you build a car, and recognizes that his success has to do with building a market.

Etsy has been really inspiring on how they've enabled individuals to become freelancers doing the craft that they love, and finding ways as consumers to connect with the people actually creating our goods, not just having faceless commercial products. Then spending a lot of time at Etsy with their internal culture, I think they really reinforce that idea that every employee is a craftsman or craftsperson.

Tony Hsieh’s Zappos is fascinating -- especially since it's in the context of Amazon, which has been much more of a pure Information Economy company -- to really look at treating their employees and their customers in a new way that's about them being human beings.

Mozilla in many ways is like a perfect case study, they’re for-profit and non-profit. They're fundamentally about a mission. The majority of their labor is volunteer and they treat the volunteers as paid staff. They’re invited to company retreats, leadership development programs…truly about a community, not about these false lines between an employee, customer, and a volunteer.

YouTube is one of the largest volunteer organizations in the world. If you're the CEO of YouTube, you can't just think about your employees as the people on your payroll. You've got a think, “How do you care and feed for all the people creating content?” It blurs all these lines between how we would like to categorize people.

You mentioned earlier how people are doing good, bad, and indifferent sometimes with this concept of purpose. Is there a potential dark side to purpose, to the Purpose Economy?

There are tons of them. Purpose, just like information, isn't a good or bad thing. Information, in general, is a good thing in the sense that, if we have information, it enables us to make better choices; we get access to more things. But, if you look at a lot of what's happening in the Information Economy, a lot of the ways in which the world has changed and information has been created is not necessarily better for human beings or for the planet. Look at how it's polarized politics. It's done a tremendous amount to build fear. There's a lot that's been done with information that's actually negative.

Purpose, similarly, is tied to self-awareness, to being more true to who you are, right? In that sense, just like information, at its core it's a good thing. People, when they're working on purpose can be easily manipulated, and we talk about that in the book -- the role of management radically changes because you're no longer just responsible for the bottom line. You have a moral responsibility to your employees when they believe in the purpose and you’re building an organization around it. That creates a lot of new dynamics in the workforce that have the potential for dark side.

The other thing, which is the most obvious, is that our quest for purpose has caused many of the greatest challenges in history. Nazis have a tremendous amount of purpose. If you look at what's going on in Iraq right now… I was listening to NPR today and they were talking about how people are so excited to be able to join militias again. And, when you're in the military and in these kinds of actions, it's like one of the most purpose-rich things you can do. When you talk to people who come back from a military experience overseas, they suddenly have this incredible void of purpose. When you're fighting in the military, you feel like you're doing something greater than yourself with people with intensity that you just don't have in everyday life. You're constantly growing and stretching and facing fears. It's almost impossible to get that same “purpose high” working back in the U.S. as an accountant or at McDonald's.

That's in the U.S. You look at someone who is in Iraq and maybe struggling financially and struggling to have anything that matters to them in their life, and it's really easy for them to go to extremist religion or military action where you, again, feel that incredible intensity of purpose. As we have a society more and more that's around purpose, often the ones that can provide the most intense and powerful surges of purpose are often some of the least healthy things. That's one of the things that we’re going to have to look at, like if you “OD on purpose” doing things that are often unhealthy, because you're having to bond with people in such a powerful way.

Do you think there are communities of shared purpose?

There are communities where there's a shared goal or shared set of values. The thing that makes me a little uncomfortable -- and this is where you start down the path of some of the negative types of purpose -- is that, if people don't maintain some independence around the purpose, you get into groupthink and creating a sense of power among a community that actually can be very destructive. Understand where that balance is -- between the idea of having aligned or connected purpose versus truly shared. When it's shared, you often lose sense of self. When you blur that line too much, you’re losing sense of purpose and you become subsumed by the mass. Especially as someone of Jewish descent, through the history of Nazis, the histories of major movements that have been very destructive, you never fully want to share purpose. You always want to maintain some independence in what generates purpose for you. It’s more of a Venn diagram.

Is there anything more in the book about purpose that you think people ought to know?

There's a lot. There's sharing, right? I talked earlier about environmental evolutionary events, and one is sharing. Sharing is a way of connecting with neighbors, getting out of isolation, and being part of something greater. It's about getting to know other people, other people's experiences, different worlds. The three things that drive purpose are relationships, doing something greater than yourself, and personal growth. Sharing really hits on all three of those, so I see it as a vital part of this economy. Sharing needs to be done like a good relationship -- as a Venn diagram, not completely overlapping. As soon as you lose yourself, it becomes unhealthy.


Jeff Nelder is co-founder of Brand New Purpose, a purpose economy company that leverages Jeff's leadership in integrated and purpose-aligned brand marketing. 


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