When Mark Zuckerberg gave the 2017 commencement address on Thursday at his alma mater, Harvard, there was some irony. He was introduced with the title "doctor," the result of the honorary doctorate he just received. But Zuckerberg never graduated, as he dropped out after a couple of years to putter about with some idea called Facebook. "I'm honored to be with you today because, let's face it, you accomplished something I never could," he said. "If I get through this speech, it'll be the first time I actually finish something at Harvard."

The graduates had achieved something that Zuckerberg failed to do. And yet, who would argue that he is successful beyond anything someone in the audience was likely to achieve. He's one of the biggest billionaire entrepreneurs in history. But money and fame aren't anywhere near enough for satisfaction. There has to be a reason for what you do, a purpose.

"Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for," he said. "Purpose is what creates true happiness."

If you lack a sense of purpose in your life, then nothing ultimately matters, including what you choose to do and whether or not you succeed. Purpose recognizes something as greater than yourself and offers a place and role. Without purpose, you are the show and an empty-feeling one at that.

But, as Zuckerberg noted -- and this applies particularly well to entrepreneurs -- having purpose for yourself isn't enough. He described a problem Facebook had some years ago. Early in the company's history, some large businesses wanted to acquire it. He wanted to keep growing the business and connecting people, a particular passion of his.

Nearly everyone else wanted to sell. Without a sense of higher purpose, this was the startup dream come true. It tore our company apart. After one tense argument, an advisor told me if I didn't agree to sell, I would regret the decision for the rest of my life. Relationships were so frayed that within a year or so every single person on the management team was gone.
That was my hardest time leading Facebook. I believed in what we were doing, but I felt alone. And worse, it was my fault. I wondered if I was just wrong, an imposter, a 22 year-old kid who had no idea how the world worked.

While Zuckerberg had a sense of purpose, virtually no one else in the company did -- at least not one connected with his vision and the company. His mistake was having assumed a common passion that went beyond making money.

You can't have a purpose for others. They must feel purpose as well. But there are some things you can do.

  • Talk to people about what matters to them outside of employment -- what they'd hope to achieve. Understand if people do have purpose and then consider whether that has a natural fit with what you want.
  • Clearly communicate your purpose, though avoid going on to a degree that you sound like you are proselytizing. Let people who work for you understand what you're trying to achieve beyond greater profits.
  • Help people share your purpose by giving them responsibility related to it. Even if it is a "normal" function in your business, find ways to explicitly tie it to the purpose.

The more you can encourage people along your path, the more effectively your team's efforts will be.