An Accountant in Adland: The job of purpose [S2 finale]
by Siwe Lawrence (@Siwe_Lawrence) About three weeks ago I was watching the 2013 movie, Jobs, with my husband as part of our doccie/biopic Sunday tradition. The movie starred Ashton Kutcher as the visionary and my personal favourite design thinker, Steve Jobs, and Josh Gad as his long-standing business partner, Steve Wozniak. The biopic was fascinating for me, because I hadn’t realised just how much Jobs was beyond the invention and making of things.
Most of Jobs’ quote-ables in the movie point towards the greater idea of purpose and our place in the world. At the same time, we live in a world of careers and ambitions that clothe themselves with the cloak of purpose, and so this really becomes an interesting tension.
“When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way that it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world and try not to bash into the walls too much. But that’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is that everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that are no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. To shake off this erroneous notion that life is just there, and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it. Change it, improve it. Make your mark upon it. And once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” —Steve Jobs
Jobs wasn’t the most-pleasant guy to hang around with; was pretty socially awkward, actually. Yet he was always thinking outside of him, having the lit-est out-of-body experience with himself constantly because, to see the world and your place in it differently, you have to distance yourself from it quite considerably.
I grew up very Catholic so I could argue that my lens on purpose has always been from a spiritual point of view. As human beings, we’re primed to find a place in this world for our larger-than-life spirits. This means doing the rigour of why we’re here. Many answers often cling to what we do every day: our jobs. Those then become our careers, which are a collection of all the opportunities given to us to progress and make money.
That’s fundamentally different from purpose, which Lexico defines as “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”.
I believe that there’s a real danger in thinking that a career is synonymous with purpose. People often make that mistake and that’s why they become slaves to titles, as opposed to what they’re supposed to be doing outside of themselves. In strategy we call it the intent; in accounting it comes as the ability to account for things; the kids call it “for the culture, bro”; and Simon Sinek calls it the why.
Purpose allows us to shape opportunities
The why becomes especially exciting because, if we can establish our personal whys, our paths can be led by a north star. When it comes to our careers, purpose allows us to shape the opportunities that we pick. A recent article by Forbes also expands purpose to that which allows us to choose what battles to fight, which doesn’t allow ourselves to be limited, and which diminishes fear and increases the courage to towards the clarity and intention needed for the tasks that we have to do on the daily.
When I think about the people whom I’m usually drawn to as personal mentors, in life and my career, I think what I am drawn to, more than anything, is the clarity with which they live their lives with. The details of where they are going next is not necessarily known but the intention of what they aim to do is clear and consistent.
When Jobs designed the iPod, he said, “It’s a tool for the heart. And when you can touch someone’s heart. That’s limitless. If I do say so myself, it’s insanely cool. It’s a music player. It’s a thousand songs in your pocket. I’d like to introduce you to the iPod.”
For him, his aim was to always show up consistently for humans through evolving whatever they need as users of things. Jobs also said, “You’ve got to have an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right…” and that really sits with me. Whether I look back to when I was in accounting or at the briefs/pieces of work that I’m particularly drawn to in adland, or even at the motivations in my personal life, I notice that things keep netting out to the same why.
With that said, I only recently was able to articulate what I believe my purpose is: I want to solve problems and do work that makes humans see each other better — work that ‘heroes’ accountability and actually changes laws, work that addresses toxicities, disparity in societies and systemic ills such as racism, and work that addresses so many more day-to-day pain points in the human experience.
When I do work with that as a lead, that’s where I feel the most success and accomplishment. I’m not leading with the titles I want but I start recognising the titles as the tool I need to execute a consistent purpose. Purpose is also cross-disciplinary and it allows you to find yourself anywhere and in any industry. For example, I’m in advertising now but I could find myself at the United Nations, or a culture company, or even Apple for that matter, without having done a political science or design-thinking degree. Solving problems at a societal level as a leading thought is pervasive and expansive, and is the thing that can get me to take up space, as opposed to always thinking about a “career”.
Purpose leads you back home
I often think back to the cultural nuance of parents, or anyone from a home in black culture, saying: “Uma umhlaba usuk’shayile, buyela ekhaya [When the world becomes too hard for you, come back home].)” Obviously, when I think about my mom saying that to me in the early years of my career, she would literally mean that I should come back to my home, or my hometown of Empangeni, for a breather. But, in the context of careering towards your purpose, it can definitely mean coming back to self, which could be argued is your inner home. Figuring out your purpose isn’t easy and the purpose-lightbulb also only went on for me recently. But, as human beings, we’re innately patterned and, therefore, we will always be chasing the same purpose in a different form, whether we’ve awakened to that “ahaa” yet or not.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. The only thing you can’t do is ignore them.” —Steve Jobs
Here’s to the purposeful ones. The thinkers, the doers, the self-aware. The ones craving something bigger, in a career-driven world. They know that purpose is not fond of rules and that it has no respect for the status quo. That you can mask it, try live your life without it, fight with your career about it. The only thing you can’t do is ignore it.
So, as you finish reading this column finale and as you navigate your life, lead with a purpose that will inform what shape your career takes and infuse the magic touch that can only be yours. Purpose has led me into spaces I could have never imagined, and continues to do so. And that’s insanely cool.
Yours in insight, culture, advertising (for now) and purpose
Siwelile Lawrence (née Thusi) (@Siwe_Lawrence) is a qualified South African chartered-accountant-turned-senior-strategist at M&C Saatchi Abel; she’s also a working photographer and writer. Since mid-2015, she’s been in strategic planning, working on some of South Africa’s big brands in different categories and industries in the ATL and digital spaces. Siwe contributes the regular column, “An Accountant in Adland“ — exploring the fluidity of the disciplines and other themes like film and music that influence our lives — to MarkLives.com.