I have asked this question in most of the classes I’ve taught for the past 15 years. The most common answers have been jobs and profit. Jane Jacobs, however in her research around values, explored how business arose and saw it differently.
In tribal days there were always some people who had wanderlust. As they traveled about they would carry items that were common to one tribe to other tribes where they were novelties. Most tribes had the basics. They were able to make the best of the nature’s bounty in their particular area. Each tribe had a style that was evident in their artifacts; pottery, weaving, tools etc.. Being human, people were interested in the different ways others made the same things.
To ease their way, these intrepid travelers would carry small cashes of things to trade with their next hosts. Over time these traders discovered that they could bring some of these unusual objects back to their own people and achieve status for doing so, and so trading was born. This was how business came into being. From Jane’s perspective the purpose of business was to enhance human life.
If your company functioned that what would have to change? What would improve? Over time this has become corrupted into providing luxuries. In a sense what is not necessary for existence is a luxury, but now so much of what we produce adds no value what so ever. The myriads of ‘things’ that regularly appear in the Sunday supplement magazine are great examples of this.
Enhancing human life is not a bad vision. Does your work add value and meaning to your life? If you could see that what you did everyday improved human life, would that make a difference? I think this is one of the reasons why health care and education are so attractive for some people. They can see a direct impact of their work making life better for others.
What if the purpose of business was to create a better world? I think this is one of the more important gifts of sustainability and why companies that pursue sustainability have a very engaged workforce. Making the world a better place is something most of us aspire to, but often we have to use our spare time to achieve it.
If business became committed to creating a better world, then pollution would become a thing of the past, the destruction of nature would stop and people would find themselves valued and appreciated. Sound like a pipe dream?
People are meaning making machines. We cannot live without meaning, but the meaning we make is, indeed, of our own creation. We have choice, we have free will, we have minds and hearts to tell us when we achieve something of value, something that is important and that makes our lives meaningful.
We are called to be authentic, to be self-aware, to commit to what ever feeds our soul and to have the courage to ‘just say no’ when we feel ourselves dying from our choices. What is the purpose of your business? Here’s where Nature’s Prime directive; “All actions create the conditions that support Life” can make a difference and suddenly business is actually contributing to the integrity of the whole!