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How to Find Purpose in Work



Katharina Probst discusses about autonomy, mastery, and purpose which motivate people, diving deeper into purpose.


Katharina Probst is currently a senior engineer manager at Google, where she is responsible for creating a seamless experience for service owners who run their services on Google Kubernetes Engine. Her work ranges from architectural primitives to lifecycle management and operational tooling. Previously at Netflix, she was responsible for the availability and reliability of the streaming service.

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Probst: Let me start with a question that I ask a lot of people. What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow? Or more to the point, what would you do if somebody gave you enough money that you never needed to work again? Many people's first instinct is to say, "That'd be great, I will buy a house for my family, make sure everybody's nicely set up, and then I will spend the rest of my life on the beach."

How many of you would answer the question like that? Quite a few of you. Recently, I had an interview with somebody who won a very large prize. In the interview, I asked him, "How has your day-to-day life changed since you won that prize?" The person answer is, "That's such a dumb question, really nothing changed. The money went into the bank and I'm saving it. I just went to work the next day." I often wonder, what is the difference between the kinds of people like those of you who just raised your hands and the people that would answer this question with, "I'm just going to go to work the next day." That's what I want to explore here today and give you some things to think about.

My name is Katharina Probst, I work at Google. I lead engineering teams there, and you can find me on LinkedIn. You may wonder how I would answer this question that I just posed to myself, and I will give you a little bit about that at the very end of the talk.


Let's talk a little bit about what motivates people. Why do people work? Why do people show up every day and do what they need to do? Why do they do it? The most obvious answer is, they do it because they get paid. Getting paid is an important part of why we show up for work. We all need to feed our families and pay for our homes and buy clothes and all that stuff.

The question is, is it all about money? Conversely, sometimes you get those people that say, "I don't care about money at all." Are they telling the truth or is that all there is? Let's talk a little bit about that. Dan Ariely, if you have not heard of him, is a professor of behavioral economics, and he writes brilliant books. I recommend them very highly. He wrote this book called "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions." You should all read this book, it's great.

In this book, Dan Ariely says, "There are many examples to show that people will work more for a cause than for cash." In this book, it's about many things and this is one of the topics. He does a bunch of experiments around this, and I just want to talk about one of them. This is what I call the Lego study, it's in this paper that I cite here at the bottom. It is called "Man's Search for Meaning" by Dan Ariely and his colleagues. The way this Lego study worked is, they recruited a bunch of people, so they had a number of people that did the study, and what the people in the study had to do is, they had to put together little Lego figurines. They gave them instructions and they gave them the pieces to put them together. They said, "Out these Lego figures together, and when you finish one, we'll pay you." they paid a little bit, "And then you decide if you'll want to do another one." People kept building these Lego figures until they got tired of it and they had enough, and then they got paid for however many they did and they went home.

There were two groups of people. Some of the subjects came in and they built their little Legos, and then they lined them all up in front of them. Then in the other group, there was the person who assembled the Lego figures, and then there was the study administrator. The administrator, every time there was a figure that was finished, would take it apart. You come in, you build a Lego figure, and then somebody takes it apart immediately. You still get paid the exact amount as the other people.

The work is the same, the pay is the same, the room is the same, everything is the same. The only thing that changes is whether or not they basically take apart your work right after you finish it. If you know basic economic theory, you would know that what economic theory would predict is that, the people in the two groups would behave exactly the same, because rationally, it's exactly the same. It's the same work, the same pay, same everything. That's not what happened.

The exact figures are in the paper, but what turned out is that the people who had all their Lego figures lined up, they assembled something like 3 more, so 10 versus 7, something like that. The researchers called this the meaningful group. It turned out that these people did more work for the same pay. They call this meaningful, and when I think about this, I'm "It's nice, but it's not that meaningful." Even for something that is not changing the world, people will do more work when they find meaning in it.

In the book "Drive," Daniel Pink writes a lot about what motivates people, and he also cites a whole bunch of studies. It's a very interesting book. A lot of what he talks about there resonates with me a lot. He talks about these three things: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. We're going to spend most of this talk talking about purpose, but remember those three: mastery, autonomy, and purpose, because they will come back as we go through the talk.

Mastery is the idea that people really like getting better at things, and finding things where they feel like they can do their best and contribute to whatever work that they do. Autonomy means that people feel like that within their job, they have the autonomy and the freedom to make their own choices to do their best work.


Let's dive a little bit more into purpose. The idea of purpose and why we're talking about this here is doing your work but figuring out how to connect it to something bigger. It's not just you sitting in a room writing programs or whatever it is that you do - I go to a lot of meetings - but it's more about how does what I do fit in with the bigger picture.

I talked to a lot of candidates, a lot of people who are interested in joining my team. I talked to a lot of people on my team, and I asked them this question, "What motivates you?" Some people say "money." By the way, not the smartest thing to say in a job interview. Some people say, "I am really all about getting promoted, I want that title, I want the recognition, and I just want to get promoted." Then there are various other things that I hear sometimes. I had one person on my team a while ago, who said, "I will really only program in one language, and if you make me program in another language, I will probably quit my job." That's extreme.

The question that I have about all of these things is, are these really what people care about long-term? Are they fulfilling long-term? Let's look into that a little bit. Oftentimes, when people talk about purpose in their work, when they don't think about sort of the self-centered aspects of, "I want to get promoted," and they think about, somebody does a job that influences the world, oftentimes, what they think about are sort of the more obvious ones, what I would call the more obvious ones. Doctors and nurses help sick people feel better, that's an obvious positive impact on the world.

You can very easily make that connection between your work and that purpose, that bigger story. teachers help children become self-sufficient, well-educated adults, that's a pretty obvious one. I have a friend who is a medical researcher and he researches diseases and new cures or new medications for diseases. Wow, that's some pretty obvious purpose right there. Actually, there are a number of jobs for which is less obvious, and many of us, me including, fall in that category. There are people who work in cafeterias, the people here who help us set up the breaks and coffee and everything.

There're tour guides that show people around in their cities, there're musicians, , and then there are people like us who are programmers or managers who work in the tech industry. How do you connect to that bigger purpose when you're in one of those jobs? Is it possible? There's this concept called job crafting. I'm citing a study down here, "What is job crafting and why does it matter?" There are actually several studies that looked into this.

What job crafting means is then you have a specific job, and within the boundaries of your job, you find a way to make it more meaningful and more satisfying to you. This is becoming a pretty well-studied phenomenon. What's really interesting is that you find people that do a lot of job crafting and all kinds of professions. The more obvious examples that I listed are for sure not the only people that do drop crafting and find a lot of meaning in their jobs.

In that study here - and there are links out to others – there are lots of great examples of people that work, for instance, in a hospital, cleaning hospital rooms and they find their job extremely meaningful, because they say, "What I do helps families when they're at the worst time of their lives, they have a loved one in the hospital, and I make it easier for them, for the patients, and for their families." It’s about finding ways to connect to that bigger picture. There are lots of great examples of people finding ways within their job, find that place that helps them make more meaning. For instance, another example that was cited was a hospital worker who rearranged the artwork in the patient's room, because they thought it would be good for the recovery of the patient. This, again, was somebody whose job was to clean the room, but they went above and beyond to make it better.

Once you have heard this concept and you really start thinking about it, you see it everywhere. I would challenge you to look around and see it. I will give you some examples that I've encountered recently, but before I do that, I should mention that job crafting can be positive, it can also be negative. If somebody goes off into a corner and only does the work that they're interested in, that's not going to help anybody. It might help them in the short term, but it's not going to help anybody. What we're talking about here is positive job crafting.

Let me give you some examples. Not long ago, I went to one of the cafeterias where I work. There is this one person who works there, his name is Andrew, and he is amazing at what he does. He works in the cafeteria, he helps in the kitchen, and he hands out food. What is so amazing about Andrew? There are thousands of people that he encounters, he has seen me maybe 10 times, he knows my name, he knows what I like to eat. I came in and he's like, "Katharine, the bread that you like, we don't have it right now, but it's coming out in two minutes, so wait, sit down and come back when it's ready." This is amazing. I got the rest of my food, I sat down and two minutes later, he came over from wherever he was working and brought me a piece of fresh bread, that's amazing. You can see in his face how much he connects with what he does, and how much of an impact it has on the people around him, on me in this case.

Another example - I used to work at Netflix, and I talked to this one person who worked on infrastructure, so backend systems. This person told me, "I am so passionate about what I do because I build the systems that help us tell these important stories around the world." Netflix, if you're not familiar, is a streaming video service, and what Netflix does is, it tells these stories in video and all over the world. This person was so in tune with that bigger picture of what the company was doing even though they were not involved in making the videos, they were not an actor or anything like that, but just connected their work to this bigger thing.

I'll give you couple of more examples. How many of you are managers or directors something like that? Ok, some of you. When you're a manager, you spend a lot of time with people, and most of us who are in management positions really like people, so that's a good thing. Then once in a while you find those managers that are just really good at what they do, and they have such a positive impact on their company. This one person I worked with recently went out of their way to find a position at the same company, at Google, for somebody on their team. She came to me and she said, "Look, I have this person on my team, he's amazing. He's not in the right place in my team, I'm helping him find something that would be a good fit for him. It's important to me that he stays at the company, at Google, because I think he can have lots of positive impact on the company." It ended up working out, and this person actually joined my team. It just showed me, again, this person going above and beyond and connecting to the bigger picture.

A final example, completely random example that I will give you is, recently we had our kitchen remodeled, not a process I enjoy very much. We wanted to get a new kitchen and we went to the store where you buy all the supplies like the sink and the counter-top and everything. There are like 300 parts that you have to buy and 12 handles and 12 doors and everything. We bought all this stuff and then we had a contractor, so the person that would actually install the kitchen. He came to me and said, "There are some stuff missing, you didn't order some big parts."

I went back to the store, and I said, "My contractor said we didn't buy blah, blah, blah" and the person in the store did a bunch of work. He spent a good 15 minutes, and he's, "No, you got everything you need." He was really looking out for me as the customer even though it would have been so much easier for him to just say, "Ok, sign here, you pay me more money, and you're gone." Again, once you see this concept of job crafting, you see it everywhere. You find those people that go above and beyond and find meaning and connect to something bigger, and it's clearly meaningful to them.

What Can Leaders Do?

I want to spend a few minutes with all of that in mind, talking about what leaders can do. Then I will talk about what all of us can do and something for us to think about. I think that leaders actually have a very important role to play to set the right conditions so that people find it easier to connect to this bigger picture.

Simon Sinek in this book called "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action," says, "Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist, and the ability to communicate it." What does this mean? When you get great leaders, what they do is they can actually envision a world and paint a picture of the world that doesn't yet exist - a shining castle on the hill and they can describe in great detail what the world will look like when we have built this castle, and what we will do. This is really important, and it's an important skill for leaders. I know you talked about soft skills before, I don't know what exactly the topic because I don't speak Portuguese. It's one of those very important soft skills that leaders have to be able to paint that picture and, essentially, tell people what we're working on together and get them rallied around it.

One of the things that helps with that is stories, even if you're not a leader, stories are very powerful. I've been trying to tell you some stories here in this presentation, and there's plenty of research now that backs up, that stories are really what connects people to a topic. Painting a picture, getting people rallied around the idea, and telling stories around it, and then saying it once is not enough.

My VP recently said something that really resonated with me. He said, "If you really want to change a lot of people's minds and get them rallied around a new idea that doesn't exist yet, it's really not enough to say it once. You have to say it over and over in different forums, in different forms, with different stories, and then slowly people will understand and get rallied around this idea." I think that is really true, and so what I do often is I remind myself and my team, and the people I work with, about why we're here, why are we doing this? Why are we doing the work that we're doing? What kind of future will we enable? Why is it important to the company? Why do I think it's going to have a positive impact on the industry? And do that over and over again. Telling stories and painting a picture of the future is one thing that leaders can do.

The other thing leaders can do are finding the right place for people as much as possible. There's another quote from a book that I put here, "If you have to drive people that hard to do their job, then you've either got the wrong people, or you've got the right people doing the wrong job." I don't know how many of you have ever been in a place where they felt like, they were just pushing somebody else constantly and that person was not making progress and just not in the right place. I have encountered that quite a few times. That doesn't necessarily mean that I or that other person are not good at what we do, maybe we're just in the wrong place.

Creating the conditions so that people find the right stuff for themselves to work on where they can actually shine and contribute is really important. It goes back all the way to this concept of mastery that I mentioned earlier. People often want to be in a place where they feel like, "I am actually understanding what's going on here. I'm putting the work in, I'm getting better at this, and I feel good about it." It's on all of us to some extent, but especially on leaders to wherever possible find the right place for the right people.

Reid Hoffman, who's one of the founders of LinkedIn, that you may have heard of, wrote this book called "The Alliance." In this book, he talks about this concept of Tours of Duty, which is really a military term, but what he means by it is, you get people into a project or an assignment. It's, we all understand it's a limited time, right, so it's maybe two years or something. During that time, this person will get a project done or will make significant progress on something, or maybe they will live abroad for two years and do something for the company and open a new office or something like this. The idea is really the company benefits and the employee benefits.

Tours of Duty is another one of those concepts that I read and then first I was, "I don't really understand it. I kind of do, but it didn't quite resonate at first," but now I think about this a lot. I think about this from my own career also. When I think about my own career, I divide it up into these tours of duty. I just took on a new project recently and I know it's going to be hard. It's pushing me out of my comfort zone, I'm learning something new, lots of new things, and I know that in two or three years, I will be in a different place. I will have learned a bunch of things and the company will benefit because I will contribute to this project that we are trying to get off the ground. I think of these as steps in my career, and that really helps me connect to what I'm doing and why I'm doing it.

What Can We All Do?

That's what leaders can do, what can we all do? I talked a little bit about this idea of mastery already. Mastery is, in my mind, something that most people desire and want. Most people want to get better, most people want to learn and improve, and feel like they are at the top of their game, they're contributing a lot. Not everyone, once in a while I encounter somebody who does not have this desire, but almost always people want this. Of course, mastery requires a lot of hard work. As we talked about, when you're in a place where you have more mastery, then it's easier to feel like you're contributing a lot to the bigger picture and connecting to them. Actually, putting the work in to become a master at something is something that I think we can all do, and we can all continue to learn.

My personal opinion - and this is backed up by the studies on job crafting - is a sense of purpose in my mind is a learned skill. What I mean by that is, it doesn't always come for free. Every once in a while, I find somebody who's like, I know exactly why I'm here, I know exactly why it's important, and I would never want to do anything else. For most of us, finding this purpose in your work actually requires efforts and ongoing efforts. It requires us to think about why we're doing what we're doing on an ongoing basis, do we still feel like it's important, do we still feel like we're contributing to that bigger picture, actually reminding ourselves of what the bigger picture is, and why it is important. Then also, it requires a lot of effort to think about the impact we have on others.

I think that's an important aspect to all of this that we haven't talked about very much. I think that in order to find a sense of purpose, you also have to be in a place where the team around you, as much as possible, has the same purpose so that we're all driving towards that same goal. Sometimes you encounter people who are just negative, and they're, "I don't know why I'm doing this, it's not important." These people have such negative impact on the entire team, because it's so hard to find that sense of purpose when people around you are, "No, it's not important." When you feel like that, think about the impact you have on other people around you, and their well-being as well. Then finally, just keep working on it. I tell myself this all the time, it's not always easy, it's a learned skill, it's something that I continuously try to learn.

Then finally, I want to leave you with something to think about. Sometimes, I talked to people and they say, as I said at the beginning, "I want to get promoted." Ok, you want to get promoted, and they're, "You need to give me a project so I can get promoted, and then I'll be happy." Which, by the way, never lasts, because then they just want to get promoted again.

In my personal experience, the people that are so focused on getting promoted, don't get promoted. Why? They're so focused on it, and they are not thinking about the team and the bigger picture. I've seen people who are so afraid to let somebody else help them because they think it'll hurt their promotion case. They're so obsessed with taking credit for every single little thing that they do, and it never works out. They end up contributing less, because the team doesn't want to work with them and they're just kind of a pain, and it just does not work out.

Whereas if you have people who are, "I'm here for a reason, I'm part of a team, and I want to make my team successful so that we're all successful," those are the kinds of people that I see getting promoted. It's actually backwards from the intuitive way of thinking about it. I would argue that finding the sense of purpose and connecting to the bigger picture and feeling part of a team and making the team successful is actually good for your career.


To conclude, there is quite a bit of evidence that we now have, that purpose is an essential piece to being motivated at work. Finding that sense of purpose helps us be motivated about what we do. Finding purpose can really come in many ways. We talked a lot about job crafting, and this concept of finding a way to craft your job to what you find meaningful. We talked a little bit about what leaders can do, and the important role that they play to set up the conditions so people can find that sense of purpose. Finally, finding purpose for most of us takes ongoing work, and I think that's ok. I don't think that's a problem. I think it takes ongoing work, but I think it can help people's careers.

How many of you changed your minds now? What would you do if you win the lottery tomorrow? I don't expect you to have changed your mind in the last 35 minutes, but I hope I've given you a few things to think about for your life and for your career. I promised at the very beginning to answer this question for myself. I recently changed jobs, and I took one week off between the two jobs, and I'm sick, "Ok, that's enough." I am not very good at not working. For me, that doesn't mean that I'm always just coming in and having so much fun, but it does mean that I constantly work at all the things I just talked about.

I would go to work if I won the lottery. I would probably take a week off, but that's what I will do, and I can tell you a little bit about why. I work at Google, I work in cloud infrastructure so very deep down. I think that cloud is one of these things that is transforming a lot of industries right now. I love being part of that, being part of that bigger picture and part of that evolution.

Questions and Answers

Participant 1: I have a problem, a lot of people come to me and ask, "What should I do while I'm a manager? What should I do to improve my career, for example? I was saying to them that shouldn't be me to decide what they have to do. We are trying to get something that they can do to improve their career. Is this ok? Because there are a lot of people that's asking me, "What should I do?" Sometimes, I believe that I am defining their careers for them.

Probst: I get that a lot too as a manager. I think I always first asked them a lot of questions. For instance, I had one person on my team, he was actually quite unhappy, and he said, "I feel like I'm not getting better, I'm not making progress." I'm sure you've heard this. I'm, "Ok, you know you have this task in front of you, why do I and why do your colleagues need to remind you to make progress? Are you not excited about it? Do you not understand why it's important?"

Just ask questions like "Do you see the connection between what you're doing and why it's important?" and sometimes people don't. To me, that's the case, and that's what I told him, "I think you're not in the right place." I do agree with you, a lot of times people want advice about how to get better. I think one of the things that helps me answer that question is just seeing people as they progress from being very junior to very senior and, "You're on this journey, and here are the kinds of skills that people who are more senior have that you can develop." I do give a lot of developmental feedback.

Participant 2: I would like to ask you how much do you think the company overview should interfere on this very particular point of view? Because I know that some companies like Google, they have some introductions on how they expect to influence the world and the companies that are arbitrating around it, but there are some companies that don't have this so truly defined and are not communicating in a way that their employees feel comfortable with. I'd like to know, what's the proper balance in your point of view between the company view and this individual evolution?

Probst: In my view, it's really important that the company and the different groups in the organization can communicate clearly, can say clearly, "Here's why we exist and here's why what we do we think is important." I think that's very important and doing it in a way that people can actually connect to. I've seen people who work at companies and they're, "I like what I do, I like the technical stuff that they I do, but I don't really care about what my company does." I think that's not a long-term match, because sometimes there's something out of whack and there's a mismatch between what these people care about and what the company does and that can create problems. I do think it's important, and I look to my leaders to clearly communicate what the priorities are and why we're doing what we're doing all the time.

Participant 3: What do you do if someone of your team is being negative?

Probst: I can tell you what I did in the past that was bad. In the past, first I ignored it – bad - and then I tried to talk to them about why. I had this one person who was just like constantly negative and such a drain on the team. What I did now that it happened again, is I was just very clear, we had some conversations about, can you become more positive? Can you actually care about what you do? If not, then go find something else. It doesn't mean we fire them maybe they just need a different team, maybe they just need to change their work a little bit, but it cannot happen. It's so bad for the team.

Participant 4: First of all, congratulations for your presentation. I believe that you opened our eyes for most of people here. I have one doubt here, how to find purpose even though the vision of the enterprise is not very clear?

Probst: If it's not very clear or if you disagree with it?

Participant 4: It's not well defined.

Probst: That goes back to your question. I think it's very important for leaders, especially our senior leaders to clearly define this. I ask my managers a lot, I ask them for this, and everybody should ask their management to clearly define that. We just recently had a change in leadership in very senior leadership. Oftentimes what happens when a new person comes in, they need a little bit of time before they figure things out, and everybody was, "So, what's the story? Tell us the story." Eventually, he did and he did a great job. I think we all need to tell our leaders we need this, it helps us. If they don't do it, then I'm not so sure what to do.

Participant 5: You ended with the last slide which said, "What would you do if you won the lottery today?" It made me think about what I would do. It is not always the case. As they say, you would do something, but reality intervenes. You might want to be a teacher in a school, for example, but teaching doesn't pay as much as your software engineering job, what do you do in that case?

Probst: That's why this is a thought experiment of what you would do if you didn't need to work? I think you bring up an excellent point, which is that everything I talked about here today - if you win the lottery then, of course, you have a whole other set of choices. What I wanted to bring home is, statistically speaking, none of us will win the lottery tomorrow - then the question becomes, how can we still have that same feeling as if we had that freedom?

To be perfectly honest, it's actually not always super helpful to be in a position where you don't need to work at all, and have no constraints. There are some researches that shows that people who grow up so wealthy that they never need to work. They don't hold on jobs, they don't stay in jobs. I think having some constraints is actually not necessarily a bad thing, but the main thing I want you to think about is, "Do I find meaning?" and "Would I do it even if I didn't have to?" Yes, you're right, maybe that's not possible and I've certainly recognized that some people are in positions where there aren't a lot of jobs and you're just, "I'm stuck even though I can't do anything about it," hopefully not everybody.

Participant 6: During your whole presentation, you talked about unmotivated people and you also mentioned that you just switched from one job to another. What makes motivated people think about, "What if I move from this job to another?" What makes motivated people quit their current jobs?

Probst: I left my previous job voluntarily. It's a great question because, my manager at the time when I said, "I'm quitting" was like, "Why? Explain it to me, there must be something." I'm like, "No, I am quite happy, but I am still going to quit and do something else." I think it's a very personal thing. To me, it came down to some extent, actually, this sense of purpose of being able to work in cloud and being part of that revolution for lots of other companies. I was very involved with my team and with the work that we were doing at Netflix, and very excited about it, but I also just really wanted to be part of that sea change in the industry. That sense of purpose really was one of the main things.

Moderator: How do you motivate yourself if your motivation depends on the work of other people?

Probst: You mean, if you have people around you, and you need them to be motivated?

Moderator: If your work depends on a lot of different people, like a series, and sometimes it stops, because someone else is not doing the work, and then you get unmotivated because the work stoped.

Probst: It happens to all of us, I'm sorry. I can tell you that I've seen people have two reactions, one is, "Ok, I'm going to sit here and be mad and complain about this other team that they're not doing their job, and now everybody's unhappy." Then there are other people who say, "Ok, so this isn't good, and I need you to do something so I can do something. Maybe, we can find a way so you can do only part of it, and then I can do my part, or I can help you so we can together get it out faster."

In some companies that works better than others, but I think it’s about having that mindset that we're basically part of the same team. Even though, we sometimes don't get along and sometimes I'm frustrated because you don't do your thing, we're still together trying to get this to work, so how can we break it down so we can move faster? To me, that's what it is about.


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Recorded at:

Oct 23, 2019