How To Discover Your Life Purpose: A Tech Start-up CEO Shares His Recipe For Success by MeiMei Fox

How To Discover Your Life Purpose: A Tech Start-up CEO Shares His Recipe For Success by MeiMei Fox

A few years ago, Everett Harper, the CEO of Truss, a software infrastructure consulting firm that solves complex engineering problems in the public interest, read about University of Virginia business school professor Dr. Saras Sarasvathy’s research into what makes a great entrepreneur. In short, successful entrepreneurs are “effectualists”—people who make rather than find opportunities, while recognizing the constraints of reality. “An effectualist is a cook who scours the fridge for leftovers and still creates a meal of nourishing beauty,” said Harper. “As a chef and entrepreneur, that resonated with me.”

Harper then began to understand that his life purpose is “to create space that invites people to do their best work. That’s how I parent, that’s how I lead, that’s how I learn.” His leadership position at Truss allows him to do just that.

Harper founded Truss in 2011 at Women 2.0’s Founder Lab accelerator, and then Mark Ferlatte and Jen Leech joined as his co-founders in 2012. The company initially produced a calendar app called Leave Now, but it really took off after they joined the elite engineering team that saved Because of their work, 18 million people (and counting) have health insurance.

From there, Truss branched out into two main fields of work: helping large corporations and government agencies transform their legacy IT into modern development and engineering operations; and helping fast-growing, mid-size startups build scalable and repeatable engineering teams via automation, development and process redesign.

But, clarifies Harper, that’s what the company does. “What I do is persuade, negotiate, listen, and make a lot of judgment calls because there is no formula for success. Deciding which to focus on is a daily challenge. I exercise my tolerance for ambiguity. That’s a necessary temperament when a company is trying to do new things like us.”

Harper shifted careers several times before landing on Truss. He started as a biomedical engineer as an undergrad at Duke University, then joined the management consultants Bain & Co., worked in community development finance for Self-Help, went to Stanford University for his M.B.A. and M.Ed., and later worked for Linden Lab, maker of the virtual world Second Life.

At each career change point, Harper dutifully read and completed all the exercises for “how to find your true calling” – whether it was What Color is Your Parachute or Zen and the Art of Making a Living – but none of the material sat well with him. “All the questions seemed destined for mechanical answers driven by cognition, which is odd when you’re supposed to be discovering something as emotional as your passion,” Harper explained.

In order to discover his life purpose, Harper ended up developing his own unique set of practices. “Some are for peeling the scales from my eyes, others test my beliefs, others reveal beauty. I think it’s important to have a mix of them, because your purpose should have mettle as well as joy,” Harper said.

Meditate. Harper has been meditating on a daily basis since 1993, and feels that the practice pays off in unimaginable ways. He advises you to start small, just ten minutes a day, and to try different types of mediation until you find something that resonates and teaches you how to bring stillness and let go of all the noise. He said, “You will not only create space for purpose, but you’ll develop the soft acceptance and the mental focus required to pursue your purpose.”
Travel. Go to a place where you have to speak another language or navigate a very different culture. “The point is to scramble your brain, reveal your assumptions about the world, and test your resilience.” Harper feels this is especially important for young people who have grown up in privilege.
Draw your own conclusions. Follow the advice of others, but ultimately pay attention to what you learn from your own experiences. Be willing to challenge yourself.
Don’t trust your gut… Unless it has been trained. “I’m sure this will anger people, but your ‘gut’ is rife with predictable errors in judgment,” Harper explained. “Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman made a career exposing these fallacies.” What is more reliable is a gut that’s been trained through practice. You can trust your gut after thousands of tennis serves or lines of code or sales pitches. Practice your craft, pay attention, make dumb decisions, make brilliant ones—and then you can trust your gut.
Do something difficult. Take the risk of failing publicly. “ One hard challenge will separate your interests from what drives you ,” Harper stated. People with a clear purpose often tell stories of sacrifice, giving up social status, relationships, money and comfort, because they wanted to pursue that “one thing.” Start now by testing yourself under fire, and observe what you learn.
Write yourself a letter. If you are hesitant about whether a new career truly aligns with your purpose or not, then write yourself a letter dated six months in the future. In it, describe what you are doing day to day, how you feel, your accomplishments, challenges and coworkers. Seal it up and give it to a friend who will return it to you on the appointed date. If your experience isn’t measuring up to your letter, consider leaving. “The point is, you won’t really know unless you try,” Harper explained.
Go home early. Enjoy yourself fully, have a drink, hang with your friends, but leave early. When you come home, do nothing that’s about consuming information. Turn off the phone, TV and radio. Don’t even open a book. Instead, suggested Harper, “Be a producer. Pick up an old instrument, write a story, doodle or draw, bring out your knitting. In that space of creation, that’s where you’ll find your purpose calling to you.”

Finally, Harper shared that being a racial minority has been an advantage for him in discovering his life purpose, for a number of reasons. First, he is vividly aware of how privileged he is to even have a discussion of purpose, when the purpose of so many is simply to stay alive for another day.

Second, he has witnessed many talented, brilliant, determined and focused people systematically, and in some cases fatally, prevented from achieving their dreams. “Acting with purpose is not a conceptual idea,” Harper said. “A lot of people paved the way for me, and I am keenly aware that others are hoping I will pave the way for them.”

Finally, Harper said, “I don’t accept most notions at face value, because in most cases they haven’t applied to me. Developing a critical eye, discerning your own truth, and learning who supports you is a survival skill as a minority in any context (gender, race or sexual orientation).”

When you are lucky enough to successfully align your career with your life purpose, Harper said, “There’s no cognitive dissonance between achieving, rewards and impact. I don’t have to second-guess myself at night. I can root unabashedly for colleagues’ success while also being motivated to raise my game. Mastering my craft has ancillary benefits, even at the risk of short-term sacrifice. I’m surrounded by people driven to get better. They want to learn. They want to master something. That’s incredibly inspiring and demands the same from me.”


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