2020 will go down as a year that brought out the best and the worst in each one of us. The year has thrown one challenge after another at us – from the COVID-19 pandemic to the widespread racial unrest and protests to the heated political divisiveness of the latest presidential election. We all experienced a wake-up call on several fronts, which is prompting many to reflect on what is important in life. Now in 2021, we’re continuing to struggle to balance our work with our lives.

This is the time where we need to rediscover the deep-seated values that guide us. Having a purpose mindset philosophy is an important driver. As Leo Rosten (1908-1997), the humorist, screenwriter and political scientist once said, “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.” 


As a global community, we have become reasonably adept at describing the need for change “out there” in the world, such as promoting social justice and combating climate change. But we are not so good at talking about the change that needs to happen within us. What shifts in our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions are necessary to bring out the best in ourselves and to do good? I wrote my book, Purpose Mindset, to provide a framework for exploring those shifts that can take place within our inner selves.

Today, more than ever, we need to stand for something. For decades, we have been driven by the importance of growth mindset. In the seminal work done by Professor Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck focuses on unleashing one’s passion, growing as an individual, taking on more challenges, learning new things, and reaching higher levels of achievements and ability. Growth mindset is very important for self-growth; however, what is missing is going beyond self and extending the benefits for the greater good.

In Purpose Mindset: How Microsoft Inspires Employees and Alumni to Change the World, I explore how Microsoft provided a space for employees to build that muscle of discovering purpose through its employee engagement program, to develop and unleash our purpose. In 1983, at the urging of his mother Mary Gates, Bill Gates had Microsoft launch an employee payroll deduction effort to support the United Way of King County. The effort raised $17,000 that first year. When Bill Neukom joined the team in 1985 as the Chief Legal Officer, he wanted to take that further. He saw a company full of young people working long hours, wanting to change the world through technology. Yet he knew these young, talented employees who came from all over the country would eventually build deep connections in the Seattle community, and felt it was important to have a program within the company to facilitate those connections. This year, the employee giving campaign that started way back then is set to cross the $2 billion mark.  It’s grown that much because, as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told me, “Giving at Microsoft is like getting up in the morning and having coffee. It’s habit forming.” In other words, it is ingrained in the DNA of the company.


Philanthropy is not about just gifting money, but about having experiences that alter your worldview. As one example, Microsoft’s employee giving engagement program provides that opportunity for deeper engagement and helps employees ignite their purpose mindset.  I hope that other companies can glean lessons from Microsoft’s efforts and be inspired to create their own institutional structures that enable a culture of purpose and empathy.

Purpose Mindset lays out five principles to cultivate a purposeful mindset: discovering and building on your strengths; working from abundance by being innovative about accessing resources; widening and extending impact to the broader community; building movements, not organizations; and embracing empathy and compassion. 

The British journalist and author George Monbiot’s foretold a new political-economic narrative that builds on community rather than on individualism. And that is playing out now as we grapple with the pandemic. In Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics in the Age of Crisis, he shows how research in the fields of psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology converge to reveal human beings’ outstanding capacity for altruism, ingrained in our DNA through natural selection. His idea of inclusive communities based on “bridging networks” (which bring together people from different backgrounds) is central to how humanity interacts and works together.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement created just such an opportunity for people to form new bridging networks to help their communities build on altruism and cooperation. 

Purpose is that renewable source of energy that continues to drive humanity forward. I believe that it’s now more important than ever before for us to work to discover our purpose, especially in these challenging times, and use it as a switch to light up ourselves.  As young poet Amanda Gorman so eloquently said at the inauguration of President Biden, “For there is always light if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to be it.” Purpose is that light — switch it on.


About the Author:

Akhtar Badshah, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized development and philanthropy expert and teaches at the University of Washington. He led Microsoft’s philanthropy program from 2004-2014 and recently wrote, Purpose Mindset: How Microsoft Inspires Employees & Alumni to Change the World. Dr. Badshah currently serves as the Chair of the Board of Global Washington and also serves on the boards of the Microsoft Alumni Network and The Indus Entrepreneurs Seattle chapter.