How minimalism can help you find your purpose and focus at work.

Imagine a world in which everyone works with good and creative purpose, free from distraction, and full of the energy that comes from rest and good strategy. Sounds good, right?

Imagine a world in which everyone works with good and creative purpose, free from distraction, and full of the energy that comes from rest and good strategy. Sounds good, right?

I have long been interested in minimalism at home, but I recently began to wonder if it could also be a valuable philosophy of work. Can minimalism support professional lives that are saner, more meaningful, and better aligned with the common good? (Spoiler: YES.)

If you're thinking, "What is minimalism, anyway?", here's the 101: First, minimalism isn't an exercise in depriving oneself, or a joyless set of rules. Nor is it an ascetic practice or a purifying ritual. It is less about going without and more about making room - for what you really need, for the contributions you hope to make, for the wins that count. The idea is to remove excess purposefully, in order to create space for what truly matters. Think pruning, not purging.

The term “minimalism” originated in the art world to describe a movement that used less (fewer colors, components, brush strokes, etc.) to convey more. By creating space within each piece, minimalist artists held, they could invite the viewer into an experience with ample room for interpretation. Using sculpture as an example, The Art Story explains, “The focus on surface and the artist's absence meant that the meaning of the object was not seen as inherent to the object itself, but came from the viewer's interaction with the object.”

In other words, art cluttered with pre-conceived meaning is less potent because it leaves little to no space for the viewer’s interaction with it. Instead of telling the viewer what is important, minimalist art invites the viewer to reflect and interpret. According to minimalists, this engagement deepens the work and is truer to the higher purpose of art. Creating space that, in its very emptiness, supports the integrity of a higher purpose is the link between artistic minimalism and a minimalist philosophy of work. 

But what does all of this have to do with your work? And how do you do it? Because minimalism is a purposeful mode of living, and not a simple set of rules, I can't offer you a pithy post, such as "10 Minimalist Rules to Improve Your Career." However, I can offer these reflections on minimalism's potential, its challenges, and how to invite it into your professional world...

Begin with a purposeful definition of success.

Money, fame, power, or the combination. From business portfolios, to career trends, to your high school reunion, many people use these measures to determine their worth (or yours, not that it matters what they think). Look around; you will see it.

Such traditional measures of success have not become irrelevant. However, they do need to be put (and kept) in their place. They can be important means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves.  They have no intrinsic value. Instead, they are be used, shared, allocated, and perhaps conserved, but never hoarded.

Purpose, on the other hand, aims at something higher, nobler, more interesting, and ultimately more challenging than collecting resources. A purpose should be creative, by which I mean not only that it is intentional and unique, but also that it is generative. In other words, it ushers something new and good into the world. One's success or failure at achieving generative purpose lies in the doing, the impact, and the difference made, not in extrinsic rewards. 

In his book on the future of business, Betterness, Umair Haque describes generative ambition and suggests these self-directed questions for defining success:

"What kind of higher-order returns do you want the world to have tomorrow that it doesn't have today? Which kinds of precise benefits do you want to return?"
"Who will gain the wealth you create? To whose Common Wealth are you adding?"
"What are we here to do, on a daily basis, and what is our day-to-day raison d'être?"
And, finally…”How do we do it?"

Haque prescribes this intentionality for organizations, but it also works for individual professionals who seek to emphasize what is truly important. I recommend that you sit with his questions for however long it takes to have answers. Then, you will have a starting point for minimalism at work. You will know what you are creating space for, as well as what you can let go.

So...what are you trying to create? How will you measure your achievements? What matters most in your professional life? How does that relate to what matters in your personal life? What kind of legacy are you hoping to leave? How do you want to be remembered? Why does your work matter?!? 

And, perhaps most importantly, how are your answers evolving? Careers have long arcs, and this process of discernment should be ongoing. The personal context of your life, the needs you identify, your interests, your skills, your experience, and your goals will and should change over time. The trick is to both commit and stay open to an evolving definition of success.

It won't always be easy. (But it is worth the effort.)

I won’t lie; minimalism takes commitment, and at times it will be hard.

Unfortunately, generative purpose is not mainstream. Plenty of folks won't understand what you are doing, and they still rely on standard financial measures of success, which are easily compared across services, industries, economies, and other differences.You will be operating on a different model, in which financials continue to be relevant, but only as secondary measures of capacity, not as measures of success. 

Further, generative goods aren't commensurable, or at least not in a straightforward way. For example, you can't measure equality, good health, or community against a strong net margin and draw meaningful conclusions. These "goods" simply don't compare. You will need new measures to assess your success at whatever generative purpose you have chosen, to connect with others’ work, to be accountable to the common good, and to communicate your economic value.

Third, most of us work in contexts that require collaboration, teamwork, and shared outcomes. As you begin to embrace the clarity and sense of purpose that minimalism can deliver, you will likely discover that not everyone is on board. They may distrust it, or simply be too set in their ways to make an effort to understand. Worse yet, they may criticize your work ethic because they misunderstand your priorities.

These are difficulties that deserve your attention, particularly if you are junior in your organization or field. Regardless of your seniority, be prepared to exit gracefully if it won't be possible for you to achieve success (as YOU define it )in your organization or career. Save money ahead of time so you are ready to make big changes if you must. The value of an "F* you" fund cannot be overstated. This is not something that I take lightly, and neither should you. 

The long-term payoff is saner, more impactful work.

The average full-time work year is 2080 hours. How do you want to spend them? 

Minimalism alleviates some of modern work’s most annoying hallmarks — email overwhelm, bureaucratic busywork, around-the-clock availability, and death by meeting. Because you will spend time up-front to identify your important work, you will have a test for everything that crosses your plate. You will begin to say NO more often, you will prune your inbox proactively, you will look critically at every meeting request, and you will filter opportunities according to their deeper value. You will have more time to rest, more headspace for focus, and more interesting work. It’s a beautiful thing.

Most importantly, by prioritizing what is most important, you will gain the skills and build the network you need for your higher purpose to take root. In this aspect, practicing minimalism at work conveys a societal benefit. By creating space in your work life and focusing on your most important activities, you will begin to fulfill a deeper, generative ambition. And that is good for everyone.

Remember, you aren’t aiming for perfection or purification. There isn’t an on/off switch, and you should not expect transformation tomorrow. Instead, you are developing a clear and ethical rationale for your career choices, based on your unique, generative definition of success. It’s a long game, and it will take time to create meaningful space for what is most important in your professional life. This alleviates pressure to “get it right” and invites you to participate in a beneficial learning curve.

Purposeful and agile strategies will follow — for you, for your families, for your organizations, and, ultimately, for the common good.