Discovering Purpose by Accident

Excerpt from The Search for Meaning at Work: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Purpose to Engage and Fulfill Your Workforce by Steve Van Valin, SVP of Culture Transformation

Sometimes, we have serendipitous events in our lives that provide purpose and meaning.

One morning, Anne Mahlum, who worked for a political watchdog group in Philadelphia, was on her usual run through the streets of Philadelphia. As always, her route took her past a men’s homeless shelter. That morning, she had the idea that perhaps running could help the men in the shelter. 

“Everything about it made sense to me,” she later told the Washington Post. “Running is so powerful. It was absolute therapy for me when my parents went through a divorce.”

She enlisted the help of the shelter director, found nine men who were interested in running, and got a local shoe retailer to donate running shoes for the men. 

Mahlum had found her purpose. She decided to create a nonprofit group called Back on My Feet, creating programs for the homeless that start with running and include job placement and other initiatives to, in the words of the Washington Post, “bring order and purpose” to their lives.

Within six years, Back on My feet had chapters in 12 cities and a budget of $6 million, funded through private donations. Always physically active, Mahlum found meaning through her purpose: To help others by getting them involved in physical activities. Eventually Mahlum would be inspired by that same purpose and the meaning it gave her to launch a successful chain of fitness centers.

Understanding that purpose drives meaning is essential for leaders seeking to inspire their workers to be more engaged. If, in our role as leaders, we articulate purpose in smart ways to make it more conscious for other people — by defining purpose in terms of making a contribution of value to someone or something that is important to them — then it will increase the chances of them gaining an emotional return through meaning.

I call this process of articulating the inspiring purpose that helps workers gain meaning from their work amplifying meaning.