The Purpose Economy | Book Review


Aaron Hurst’s path finding work introduces many new terms and one should read the conclusion and glossary (pp. 246-251) first. He shares deep reflections, identifies and captures leadership patterns, and persuasively proposes we are already entering an energizing new socioeconomic age.

Alignment comes to mind, alignment of oneself with organization and with purpose in a deep and profound way. Four leadership threads we have encountered weave well in Hurst’s treatise. Energize2Lead (E2L) – or the temperamental needs, oughts and likes – may be considered for an entire organization. Pervasive application of a Leader’s Compass, as with Tony Hseih & Zappos is urged. Motivation, and its increasing relevance (hat tip to Dan Pink) today, leading to engagement, is a foundational fiber. Priorities, in an expansive demographic sense, require reevaluation beyond individual purpose, now including social and societal purpose as key embedded priorities within their organizations.

Hurst reaches past Dan Pink’s Drive and builds upon Jennifer Deal’s Retiring the Generation GAP, ultimately offering a playbook (Section Four) for moving markets, an appealing call to pioneers passionate about large-scale societal transformation.

In 2012 (p. 2) Hurst penned Five Levers for Social Change in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, answering his question: Is there a science to social impact? They are research, policy, public perceptions, disruptive technology, and bright spots (p. 2), and additionally require large groups of people working together across sectors, backgrounds, and experiences (p. 3) for successful implementation.

Hurst’s observations concluded a new economy, a Purpose Economy, where one centers on the need for individuals to find purpose in their work and lives, is emerging (p. 5). Working with Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, Hurst treated this book as a beta version soliciting numerous ideas and concepts about the Purpose Economy (p. 7). This review focuses on Sections one through three via a leadership prism followed by recommended application, examples and opportunities.

Demographic Trends

Watching public desire, Hurst informs we are changing what we buy, how we buy it, from whom we buy it, why we buy it, and how much of it we buy (p. 19). He cites Whole Foods Market’s John Mackey and Virgin’s Richard Branson, as Purpose Economy pioneers, challenging others to follow their lead – to do good (p. 21).

Hurst distinguishes three types of purpose: personal purpose, social purpose, and societal purpose (pp. 23-29). Personal purpose is doing what you really want to do. Social purpose is based on relationships (think instinctive yellow E2L or Michael Steger’s Colorado State University – Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life). Societal purpose may be volunteering & philanthropy, social work or decisions about how we consume or approach to daily work (p.28).

Marc Porat, The Information Economy: Definition and Measurement, coined the now ubiquitous term. Thinking beyond the Information Economy, Paul Hartung and Brian Taber describe “Rather than fitting self to jobs and readying self to develop a career, workers now must focus increasingly on constructing self in work rather than advancing self in an organization (p. 36).”

Many of the hot new companies today, like local retail market maker Zaarly, look like Information Economy companies, but they are at their core part of this new economy (p. 38). In fact, Hurst claims the Purpose Economy already accounts for a larger portion of the overall economy than may be readily apparent, noting that the information industry (p. 39) only reports publishing, software, motion pictures, recording, broadcasting, telecommunications, and information and data processing services. As examples, Hurst includes education ($1.3 trillion of U.S. GDP) and the health care industry (18% of U.S. GDP), both of which endeavor turning knowledge into action (think The Knowing-Doing Gap). Like Tocqueville, Hurst notes the nonprofit sector doesn’t exist in most countries outside the United States, with similar functions usually performed by government agencies (p. 42).

Hurst offers a revealing story about Google becoming just another big company (pp. 49-51), concluding millennials have blurred the line between professional development and personal self-expression (p. 52). He notices many pioneers, including Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, Max Levchin, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, and Chris Anderson, of the Purpose Economy are from Generation X, and were significantly influenced by the dot-com boom (p. 55). In addition, reports nine million Boomers are in purpose-rich second careers, with another 31 million seeking them out (p. 61) in education, health care, government and nonprofit organizations. Further, 82% of women in the United States now work, a 250 percent increase since the 1950s (p. 62).

As a result, Flexible-purpose corporations, B Corporations, or low-profit limited companies (or L3C), which combine profit making with a social mission (p. 73), are emerging as innovative, next-generation organizational structures.

Motivation & Instinctive Needs

According to Dr. Seligman (see Flourish), well-being breaks down into five areas: Positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, or PERMA (p. 88). Similarly, Anita Roddick posits (p. 89) “I always think that’s one of the great myths – that you separate [yourself] in business.” Accordingly, Hurst challenges the “learn, earn, and then return” model (p. 92) as inadequate for today instead promoting (p. 93) a blend of all three into every year of your career, exemplified by Jennifer Benz, CEO of Benz Communications.

Hurst recalls Richard Nelson Bolle’s (What Color is Your Parachute?) discovery that what you enjoy doing most is what you are best at doing, and adds, “What color is your purpose?” Or, as Laszlo Bock, Google SVP of HR finds, most of what we put on our resumés is largely not the stuff that matters. Harvard’s Howard Gardner found intelligence only mattered in the service of purpose, or the key is having a highly articulated purpose (p. 108), which leads to the significance of a Personal Leadership Philosophy (PLP).

Hurst lists three core drives of purpose at work: who we serve, how we serve them, and why we serve them (p. 109). Richard Shweder goes deeper, stating the foundation for our purpose is our moral view of the world via six clusters of moral concern: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

Is this significant? Recall that Gallup reports 71 percent of our workforce is disengaged, and 25 percent of this group is what they call CAVE-dwellers, an acronym for Consistently Against Virtually Everything (p. 172). Nathaniel Koloc, co-founder of the nonprofit recruiting company ReWork, finds candidates are looking for three things: Legacy, Mastery & Freedom (p. 173).

Hurst includes an enlightening start-up discussion (pp. 174-175) when growing companies turn from David into Goliath, and Jessica Rodell, University of Georgia found “when jobs are less meaningful, employees are more likely to increase volunteering to gain that desired sense of meaning.”


Jennifer McCrea, co-founder of Born Free Africa, sees the world as full of ample resources, and views fundraising as relationships rather than transactions (p. 125). This is very similar to our (Emerick) Family Contract, and McCrea asks everyone at the table to reflect on what surprised, inspired, and moved them during the day. Consider Reid Hoffman’s stance in The Start-Up of You, whereby we are increasingly thinking of our careers more entrepreneurially, and see ourselves as start-ups, selling our time, talent, and networks (p. 126).

Hurst includes a terrific section on Job Crafting “They had redesigned their jobs to suit them rather than be a victim of its constraints (p. 132),” which is precisely what our preferred E2L profile dimensions call for. In latter crafting stages, or cognitive crafting, we may change our thoughts about our work (p. 134), exemplified by Bo Fishback, the CEO of Zaarly, an online marketplace that connects consumers to local food, homemade goods, wellness programs and other services offered by their neighbors (p. 183):  

“It’s hard to differentiate between employees and customers.”

On page 193, Fabio Rosati gets it: “A conductor is not someone who tells people what to do, but rather someone who orchestrates work (p. 193).” Recall Stanley McChrystal realizing a leader is a gardener in Team of Teams), and that we may likewise require dismissing prior concepts of workplace efficiency and effectiveness.

Examples (PLP) and Opportunities

Organizations that are thriving in the new economy integrate at least one of these three methods into their enterprise: 1) delivering purpose to customers, consumers or participants, 2) providing purpose to employees and/or 3) building purpose through the supply chain (p. 148). Hurst notes how at Josie Maran’s namesake cosmetics company (p. 150) she built, led, and continues to lead the company with a sense of purpose in its DNA, or Leadership Philosophy.

Hurst identifies five industry trends that illustrate how value is created in the Purpose Economy. In retail we see the circumvention of traditional retail channels, creating an appealing, person-to-person marketplace (pp. 158-159). Think of the Square credit card reader. Regarding real estate, millennials, who often carry mountains of school debt, have little interest in deriving satisfaction from the size of their front lawn (p. 161). Starbucks has understood this need for decades, and aimed to be the third place in our lives – the place between work and home (p. 161). Hurst wonders, if social lending continues to grow at current rates, whether future consumer and small business lending will more resemble Facebook than Citibank (p. 165). In education, 25 percent of homeschooled children are now at least one grade ahead of their traditionally schooled peers (p. 167). Finally, Hurst lets us know his family uses One Medical Group, with scheduling fully online, the doctors giving out their email addresses, and physicians not rushing one out the door.

Final Thoughts

Hurst’s final section discusses markets, suitable for the far-reaching entrepreneur and leader with inspiring stories (e.g. Elon Musk). In summary, this is a fresh resource necessary for figuring out, working with, and leading Millennials – and equally crucial – understanding What’s Next.

Note: Aaron Hurst generously provided a copy of his book for review.

JE | April 2016