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The Best Way To Innovate Is To Do It With Purpose

2015 September 23
by Greg Satell

In a column in The New York Times as well as in a popular TED talk, David Brooks has pointed out the conflict between resume virtues and eulogy virtues.  Resume virtues, he says, are the ones that are prized by the marketplace, while eulogy virtues are those which fortify inner being, that of ourselves and others.

He further argues that, while most would agree eulogy virtues are infinitely more valuable, we spend the bulk of our time pursuing resume virtues.  Our focus on productivity and getting things done—”turning inputs into outputs” as he phrases it—often stands in the way of leading a more fulfilled life.

There is wisdom in what Brooks has to say, but I believe he errs in the assumption that the two types of virtues are mutually exclusive and constantly in conflict.  In fact, the underlying theme at this year’s Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Summit was that intrinsic motivation is essential to truly exceptional achievement.  You can’t really have one without the other.

The Moral Path Of An Investment Banker

There’s probably no place better to build a resume than an investment bank.  You work on billion dollar deals, help to finance great enterprises and rub shoulders with important people.  You also get paid a lot of money, are accepted into prestigious clubs and invited to join corporate and nonprofit boards.  A job like that is a ticket to prominence.

Catherine Hoke was on just such a path when she had a religious awakening and joined a prison outreach program.  It was there that she realized that the criminals she met often had more impressive entrepreneurial skills than many of the executives she encountered in her private equity work.  It seemed to her that there was vast potential waiting to be unlocked.

That insight led her to establish the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in the Texas prison system, which offers an MBA level curriculum and encourages entrepreneurship among inmates.  Later, she founded Defy Ventures, which not only teaches business skills, but also offers $100,000 in start-up capital to winners of their business plan competition.

To date, both programs have achieved dramatic improvements in the recidivism and employment rates of former inmates.  For her part, Hoke has been recognized with numerous awards, including being named as one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business.  Not exactly a country club membership, but pretty good.

Fortune Favors The Bold

In many ways, Sophie Houser is a typical resume builder.  Bright and ambitious, she entered the Girls Who Code summer immersion program to learn the types of skills that make college admissions officers and future employers swoon.  She worked diligently and soon found that coding was something that excited her.

Yet her path diverged from the other participants when it came time for her to choose what to build for a final project.  Rather than the usual gee-whiz barrage of pixels, she and her partner, Andrea Gonzales, chose to highlight an issue that was meaningful to them—the stigma that so many young women feel surrounding their menstrual period.

The game they created, Tampon Run, in which a girl earns points for throwing tampons at would-be attackers, highlighted both the issue of the menstrual taboo and the lack of gender equality in tech.  It became an overnight sensation, led to massive coverage in media ranging from The Verge to Teen Vogue and got the pair invited to a hackathon at Stanford.

This fall, Houser entered the prestigious Brown University as a freshman, which will no doubt bolster her resume.  Yet her bravery in choosing to bring to the fore the very thing that embarrassed the most led to a far more impressive level of achievement.

His Mother Might Have Wanted You To Be A Doctor, But…

Few people have a resume that can match John Abele, the co-founder of Boston Scientific, one of the world’s premier medical device companies with a market cap of over $20 billion. In addition to serving as the company’s Chairman, he has been rated by Forbes as one of the world’s richest people, with an estimated worth of over $2 billion.

Yet here too his outsized success has at least as much to do with a pursuit of eulogy values as it does with more conventional accomplishment.  When he started his company, surgeons were treated like gods and the interests and comfort of patients were being neglected.  All too often, as he put it, the attitude was “the surgery was successful but the patient died.”

So he sought to change that by championing a movement toward less invasive surgery.  His company developed a number of innovations, such as angioplasty balloons and stents to widen clogged arteries.  Just as important, he promoted a more collaborative approach between patients, doctors and medical device manufacturers.

Today, Abele has retired from the company he founded, but continues to advocate for a more collaborative workplace in which eulogy virtues and resume virtues go hand in hand.

How To Create New Innovators

The perceived conflict between purpose and prosperity is, in many ways, a throwback to an earlier age when control of resources drove competitiveness.  Yet today, capabilities are far more determined by what you can access than what you can control.  We’ve entered a new age of platforms, in which effective collaboration trumps ruthless efficiency.

In other words, mission needs to drive strategy, not the other way around and that’s what I saw just about everywhere I looked at the BIF summit.  From a former crack baby that is creating food trucks to feed the poor, to a writer that is championing long-form journalism.  All were focused on a problem that needed to be solved.

And it wasn’t just the speakers that were focused on a mission, but those in the audience as well.  For example, I met a former tech executive whose child was diagnosed with diabetes.  Seeing how poorly served patients and their families were, he created a platform to connect patients, caregivers and medical professionals to improve care as well as peace of mind.

So the larger question isn’t whether resume values need to be in conflict with eulogy values, but why are we so quick to assume that they are?  One of the last speakers, Jaime Casap, Chief Education Evangelist at Google, argued it’s because that’s what we teach in schools.  He suggested that instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, we should ask them what problem they want to solve.

In other words, often the best way to build a resume—and avoid mediocrity—is to start thinking about your eulogy and what impact you want to make on the world.

– Greg

One Response leave one →
  1. September 23, 2015

    Hi Greg,

    That’s also the “Why” in Simon SInek’s TED talk.


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