Working in Corporate America, I find myself coming up against this unnamed, nebulous dilemma within myself.  I struggle with the actions of organizations and the people within, and with the intention underlying the actions.

I know I’m not alone in this – there are articles and movements and other evidence throughout history and in our current era that revolve around this struggle.

However, it wasn’t until recently that I was finally able to name it for myself.

Mind you, it may seem obvious once I lay it out, and there may be all sorts of content out there saying exactly what I am about to write, but it was a revelation to me.  Naming an object is progress toward understanding it.  Being able to give a name to the dilemma provides me with an anchor I can use to understand the dilemma and start to define how it applies to me.

The name?  Ruling the world vs. changing the world.

Many may read this and scoff, saying, “I’m happy with my middle class life.  I don’t need to change or rule the world.”

Before you write me off, read through to the end, as I think this affects more of us than you might think.  Perhaps even yourself.

First, some context.

Those of you who know me or who have read what I write here are aware I have been involved in purpose-seeking and self-understanding for a long time.  Sometimes I can think through it quite philosophically.  Other times, it’s just made me want to scream, cry, or curl up in the fetal position.

This activity has caused me to flit here and there, seeking a (preferably) permanent fix to this search for meaning.

  • You’ve seen me start numerous businesses that fizzle out.
  • You’ve seen me rant about my job, only to move to a different job with the same problems.
  • You’ve seen me go through depressive episodes simply from despair.
  • You’ve seen me be mildly self-destructive (or at least self-neglectful).

All of this – for lack of purpose, and lack of framework to define my purpose.

Enough about me…

As I’ve hinted above, frameworks (or at least naming the thing) are very helpful in doing anything meaningful.  Recently, I came across a framework for defining purpose (hats off to Dr. Michael Gervais for this one), which breaks purpose down to just 3 components:

  1. It matters to you
  2. It’s bigger than you
  3. It’s in the future

Ruling the world vs. changing the world fits nicely into those components.

It’s bigger than you – Arguably, it’s simple enough to say that changing the world = bigger than you, and ruling the world = all about you.  But let’s flesh it out to make sure.

Ruling the world, when done humbly and with a mentality of stewardship, can be bigger than you.  More often than not, though, the mentality does come down to personal gain:  Pride, power, money, etc.  So, for our purposes, with that caveat, ruling the world generally = all about you.

Changing the world, likewise, can also be twisted.  There are plenty out there who have gone on a misguided quest to change the world out of solely selfish or ill-informed ambitions.  I’d argue, however, that in many cases, this “changing the world” activity was borne from a “ruling the world” attitude.

Let’s just work from that simple statement at the beginning, then, and agree that #2 is generally best satisfied from a “change the world” approach.

It matters to you – Notice I didn’t start with #1.  Two reasons:  1) I wanted to keep the integrity of Dr. Gervais’ statement, and 2) The above bit will fold nicely in what comes next.

Finding something that matters to you can be especially hard when you are locked in despair and depression.  Sometimes you just stumble upon it by accident – it’s not always intentional.

Even when you have a good idea of what matters to you, you may have a combination of skills, talent, and temperament where you have no interest or intention of coming up with a new idea, business, organization, movement of your own – you would rather work for someone else.  Totally fine.

Guess what?  You can still pay attention to change the world vs. rule the world.

Here’s the hitch, though.  By working for someone else, you still need to examine your employer’s motivation.  (You can take this farther by examining the motivations of everyone in your life, but don’t let it turn you into a hermit or a crab – or a hermit crab.)

I’m going to use a very close to the heart example of “it matters to you”.

You’ve figured out by now that I’m good at what I do.  My employer thinks so, too, best as I can tell.  That’s a bit satisfying in itself.  But it still feels empty, devoid of purpose (other than paying the bills).

Is it bigger than me?  Absolutely.  Huge company, publicly traded, I’m working together with half a million other people to achieve my employer’s goals.

Is it in the future?  Sure.  It’s Sunday, and, to the best of my knowledge, I have a job to do when I start work tomorrow morning.

Does it matter to me?  Aye, there’s the rub.  My employer, along with (in my experience) the vast majority of large, publicly-traded companies, has a “rule the world” mindset.  Yes, they provide valuable, important goods and services.  No, they’re not actively working to undermine society in some way.  But at the same time (again, like most of these large companies), their #1 goal is shareholder return.

Who are these shareholders?  The company’s executives and institutional investors, with a dash of individual investors.  Basically, mostly people who no longer need to earn more, but continue to push for more out of a desire to “rule the world”.

Do those shareholders matter to me?  Only to the extent that pleasing them allows me to keep earning my paycheck.

So, since I have failed the “purpose” test with my job, I keep searching.  Maybe you have the same conclusion.

Somehow it always comes back to me…

So, what do I want to do about all of this?

First off, I want to encourage anyone who reads this to examine whether they really have purpose in their life, and if they don’t, to start seeking it, keeping the rule the world vs. change the world question in mind.

The other thing I want to do is insert the “Change the World” mentality into my guiding principles.  Whatever it is I’m doing, I want it to be about where I am contributing to and helping others, rather than how I am amassing money, influence,  recognition for myself.

Join me.