Why it’s time to get uncomfortable about ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’
Author: Agnes Otzelberger
This article has been originally posted on The Happy Startup School
Doing good” is all the rage. But in our pursuit of that warm glow feeling, we often overlook all the clever confusions masquerading as system change. They are “near enemies” of change, propping up a system rigged to do anything but. Welcome to The Good Jungle.
Doing good is becoming the new currency of success for my generation of Western, middle class millennials who’re learning that putting purpose before pay check brings more happiness.
Scores of us are leaving profit-driven careers or, like me, avoid getting one in the first place, in order to pursue more meaning as social entrepreneurs, charity workers, in philanthropy or international aid, corporate social responsibility or voluntourism. Social media is sprawling with offers of coaching, self help books, and retreats in the great outdoors to plot our journeys into more purposeful careers.
In so many ways, this feels like an awakening. But in other ways, it is dangerous too.
The inconvenient truth is that on the whole, we have a tendency to prop up the very system that we claim to be disrupting. And worse, we help make it look good.
There are many angles and examples. Mine is spending the past decade on the doing good mothership — the international aid industry.
I thought I’d discovered my calling at age 16, when I set off to Armenia to volunteer in a remote town affected by poverty and a devastating earthquake. Feeling like I was helping people in this faraway place was extremely satisfying. By my mid twenties, I had bagged a great position in one of the world’s leading aid agencies, a good salary, and the admiration of friends and family. I was traveling all over the world, working with amazing people.
But by this point, I was also plagued by a nagging discomfort. As much as I loved my work and believed in fighting poverty, something felt off. It took uncomfortable honesty and a long search for language to put my finger on it.
Out of Place
The discomfort first started to appear in our visits to so-called beneficiaries — the people, usually in remote, rural locations in hot countries, whose lives our projects sought to improve. They’d welcome us, clapping and dancing in their Sunday best, thankful for all we’d done for them.
These points of contact with ‘the real world’ were supposed to be the highlights of my job, when all those long hours behind my laptop, endless schleps across airports and traveller’s stomach upsets would supposedly pay off and make me feel a real sense of achievement. People in the aid industry will tell you to live for these moments. But amid the warm handshakes, I felt deeply uncomfortable and out of place.
It felt bizarre to descend on these remote villages in an air conditioned 4x4, drinking pricy, bottled water in places that struggled with drought, and being paid the equivalent of my local colleagues’ weekly salary in my daily subsistence allowance — a small fortune intended to compensate me for the “hardship” of traveling away from Western comforts. Something felt off about the way I, young and frankly inexperienced, was treated like an authority in places I had no idea about, and speaking on matters I had no idea about. I was given credit for things I hadn’t done and finding myself having cocktails in the presence of ministers and ambassadors of countries deemed in need of our help.
I also felt increasingly uncomfortable about the photographs I took on these trips. Pictures of glowing, brown faces in rural landscapes, meant to showcase just how hard they work, just how poor they are, capturing their colours and smiles in the best morning light, to give our (mostly white) donors and audiences back home that lovely, warm glow feeling.
Sure, there were things that felt genuinely good about it all. My life was full of adventure, great people, and trips to exciting corners of the world. But I also discovered that part of what felt good or exciting, did so for the wrong reasons. Being someone, being important. Pontificating on a panel at the UN. Flying here, flying there. Feeling superior to those chipping away at senseless, money-hungry work.
Our True Clients
There’s a misconception perpetuated by the world of charity and aid, which is that our beneficiaries are our clients. But our client, of course, is whoever buys our services: the donor. The software billionaire wanting to buy redemption for their privilege. The bank wanting to improve its reputation. The corporate giant wanting to access new markets. The Western governments wanting to secure cheap raw materials and stop Africans from arriving on their doorsteps. The church wanting to spread its particular version of God.
And so it’s no wonder that all we do is scratch the surface of poverty and environmental destruction.
Because dealing with their root causes would demand uncomfortable changes on the part of the donors. A true unraveling of colonialism. So instead, we sell happy brown faces showing gratitude for their generosity.
A couple of years ago, I was on my way back to Niger’s capital Niamey from Dakoro, one of the poorest places I’ve visited, being overtaken by a convoy of police escorted trucks transporting a few tons of uranium to the nearest port, Cotonou, in Benin. And so I learned that Niger, the country occupying the lowest ranks on the Human Development Index, is simultaneously one of the world’s top uranium exporters, powering up half of France at a huge cost to its own impoverished, undernourished population. What France gives in return is a few alms for the poor, and soldiers for “protection” (of the uranium).
Watching truck after truck of this precious metal vanish from Niger, all those well intentioned efforts by my organisation to help desolate people become a tiny bit less desolate began to look like a sad joke. Like putting a shiny ribbon on a shitty deal for the Nigerien people. And I couldn’t shake the feeling of being complicit in it. My Nigerien colleagues knew well that this is how the West’s relationship with the whole continent works. But then, they wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them.
Another programme I know, the award-winning Banking on Change, has helped over half a million people in some of the world’s poorest countries gain access to credit and “better manage their money”. In 2013, a report published by ActionAid revealed the role of its donor, Barclays Bank, in enabling tax evasion in Africa. Every year, developing countries miss out on tax revenues to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars (you read that right) because of tax avoidance by big companies. Now imagine what Barclays could achieve if, rather than enabling Cleopatra to buy 50 chickens, it ceased to assist big companies in pillaging countries like hers without paying tax, and instead taught them to better manage their money. But then of course, Cleopatra isn’t really the client here.
It’s hard to make a fuss when the thing that feels dodgy always seems sneakily two steps ahead of you in co-opting positive language. What’s not to like about improving livelihoods, women’s empowerment, or financial inclusion?
We know from George Orwell’s 1984 how important language is for political freedom. If something cannot be thought, it cannot be said, or used to speak truth to power and challenge the status quo. Imagine my relief when I discovered the concept of the near enemy.
The idea behind the near enemy, as Oliver Burkeman explains, is that for every beneficial habit or trait, there is a “far enemy”, its obvious antithesis. Hatred, for example, is a far enemy of love.
“Near enemies, on the other hand, are much sneakier and harder to spot, because they so closely resemble the thing they’re the enemy of.”
Or, in Ethan Nichtern’s words, they are a “devious, and highly intelligent version of confusion which tries to masquerade very closely as the positive trait.” Needy, manipulative possessiveness, for example, can look very much like love.
And, Nichtern adds, “confusion is NOT DUMB.” It knows how to “steal compassion logos and use them to its own advantage.”
And that’s how my discomfort and that “off” feeling began to make sense: looking at my work as a clever confusion. A way of keeping myself, and others, busy and trapped in the delusion that we were changing the world, when in reality we were simply helping make the status quo feel more bearable (to us).
Once equipped with the near enemy lens, I could spot these clever confusions everywhere. In the global North’s aid to Niger. In Barclays’ glorious Banking on Change. In a range of social enterprises whose big purpose, at the end of the day, is rather hollow. In all those ways we express a disguised form of pity and paternalism toward people living in cultures different to our own, on soil exploited by us.
This is not to say that all these undertakings are devoid of genuinely well-intentioned people working tirelessly to provide at least some degree of relief to poverty, inequality and environmental destruction. But taking a systemic view, the bigger picture shows our work is often a distraction from, or in plain conflict with what it would really take to make a serious dent in these problems.
Our complacency about the near enemies of real change is dangerous. It makes us too cozy in a harmful system. It stifles our outrage and misdirects our power away from uncomfortable home truths. And that’s very convenient for those who have a vested interest in the status quo.
Yearning for Purpose
Many people I know dream of abandoning their settled lives to go and help those less fortunate, ideally in more exotic climes. And I know many who’ve been doing just that and feel as frustrated, cynical and stuck.
We all share a yearning for purpose, a desire to know we’re leaving this world in a better state than we found it. But looking around me, purpose has become a fashionable yet hollow slogan — a catchphrase for anything that isn’t primarily about making big bucks, and applies to anything that involves rolling up your sleeves somewhere south of the Equator.
As Courtney Martin writes, “if you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning, of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable.” But, she explains, readily solvable they are not.
Our Brains on Systems Change
The bad news is that, as it seems, the current version of homo sapiens isn’t really cut out for system change. The way our brains work, our altruistic impulses feed off emotive, simplistic triggers. When we act on those triggers, we get that lovely warm glow. The more information we absorb, however, and the more complexity we see, the less likely we are to act.
From what I’ve learned so far, however, a more conscious journey into purpose and altruism is possible. The catch is that it doesn’t attend to our superficial needs. It requires a close, hard look at ourselves and our motivations, and surrendering all sorts of things we love and crave, from our egos to a sense of control and certainty, privileges we enjoy, or self images we hold dear. So far, my own attempt at this journey has brought me face to face with my own biases, my own racisms, insecurities and vanities, and some pretty existential fears. There’s not much warm glow here. In fact, it’s a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. But beyond the hurting ego lie a glimpse of true fulfilment, and a strange kind of calm.
Welcome to The Good Jungle!
It may sound dramatic but getting to the point of writing this has taken me years and the support of many kind souls. It feels scary to declare exactly why I quit my job a couple of years ago, and what has made me reluctant to take on certain roles since.
It also feels scary to admit I’m a navel gazer with no end of questions about what it means to do good in this messy world. Questions I intend to ask. Which brings me to you.
Perhaps you’ve been thinking your work needs more purpose. Perhaps, like mine, your career has been all about doing good from the start and you’re finding yourself puzzled and conflicted. Maybe you’ve just been getting too comfortable. Or maybe you want to give money or time to a good cause and find it hard to work out what’s best.
Whatever it is, I’m glad you’re here. If you’ve read this far, you should probably follow The Good Jungle, the blog and podcast this marks the beginning of. I have a bunch of deliciously uncomfortable subjects to dive into, and a list of inspiring people to talk to — people who seem to be doing things differently, people who’ll provoke us and challenge us, and people who know are lot more than I do about how we tick when it comes to altruism. I hope The Good Jungle will inform, inspire, challenge and provide community to you, myself, and all others who find doing good complicated.