Many people will agree: being wealthy isn’t the only key to happiness. It’s also about using your wealth in a way that is meaningful. But to do that, it’s vital to understand and define your purpose and what matters most to you – whether that’s your family, creating a better world and society, politics, supporting specific causes, or simply enjoying the money you’ve worked so hard for.
Once you have a clear idea of your purpose, it then makes it easier and more fulfilling to make decisions for the future, as you can align them to those goals.
At the Purposeful Planning Institute in the US, Ian McDermott, who works as the dean of innovation and learning, says the Covid-19 pandemic caused many people to re-evaluate their priorities. “People had such a massive interruption,” he says, “and with that comes a kind of stocktaking. Within three months people were asking: ‘What am I doing this for? Why have I been living like this?’ It triggered a lot of self-reflection.”
In Singapore, Annie Koh, who is a senior adviser at the Business Families Institute at Singapore Management University, had a similar experience. “The pandemic was a wake-up call. Families have always talked to us about wealth planning, but we were starting to see them ask us and other families: ‘How did you arrive at your purpose statement?’”
An interest in defining purpose has also been driven by a younger generation starting the transition to take over the family business, she adds. “They’re having good conversations with the patriarch or matriarch where they’re saying they don’t want to do business in the same way anymore. They may have been asking those questions in the past, but they didn’t have enough power then.”
Dare to dream
Purpose has always motivated successful people. Indeed, academics have questioned the notion whether success without purpose is really success at all. Using wealth in a way that is meaningful to you can bring a huge amount of happiness and joy. “One of the defining qualities of purpose is it will always transcend self-interest,” McDermott says. “Purpose is always in service of something bigger than the self.”
You may know exactly what the principle of your wealth will be. Or you may need help to direct your focus. Soulla Kyriacou, chief operations officer of A Blueprint for Better Business in the UK, says there are often commonalities. “We go in and ask: ‘What is it that you actually care about?’ And most people care about the fact that there’s lots of inequality in the world, there's lots of poverty, that climate change is pretty scary. Then we ask: ‘If you had a magic wand, what would you do?’ And we encourage them to just dream, forget about all the barriers and challenges and just think about that.”
McDermott likes to try a similar-yet-different tact. “I ask: ‘What really angers you?’ I have yet to meet someone that couldn’t tell me that and why. Then I ask: ‘Suppose you could do something about that, would you be interested?’”
He agrees with Kyriacou that it’s important to think big in those initial stages. “In a sense you’re rekindling wonder, or recapturing awe. You start to think: ‘My god. I could do that. That would be amazing.’”
Finding your direction
In Koh’s experience, families should spend time talking about their values to derive a common purpose statement that becomes their “north star”. This might be separate to the family business itself, for example within a family office. It may also be informed by their professional experience.
One family she works with in Europe has a lot of experience in the food and beverage sector, and after selling the company they are now actively investing in agritech companies. “They’re looking at technology to help improve yields, to grow vertical farming and move away from pesticides.”
Another family set up a charity to provide scholarships for underprivileged children to go to university, and another established a community hospital. She’s also seeing a big drive to support female entrepreneurship in Asia. “The future is female. We live longer than men. We have more time to create value,” she adds.
A Blueprint for Better Business has identified five principles of a purpose-led business, which may provide some inspiration to entrepreneurs and family enterprises alike. Purpose-driven businesses: are honest and fair with customers and suppliers; are a responsible and responsive employer; operate as a good citizen within their wider communities; see themselves as a guardian for future generations; and, finally, deliver long-term sustainable performance.
“Our view of purpose is about two things – the purpose of business should be to do something that's worthwhile, that people want. And secondly, it's to respect the dignity of people,” Kyriacou says. “We need money to survive. But that's not enough. You have to breathe to live, but it's not the reason you get up in the morning. People get joy and fulfilment out of more than just money.”
Creating a plan
There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But in many ways, successful entrepreneurs, business leaders and family enterprises are in a prime position to make an impact. “It’s their money and their legacy,” Kyriacou says. “If you think about all the big foundations that have been formed over the years, a lot of them are people from business that have earned lots of money, and they want to do something good with it."
“But we also want them to do something good while they're running the business, rather than wait until they’re retired. If you can make your money in a way that benefits society, as well as donating and doing philanthropic work, imagine how you could change the world.”
McDermott would urge people not to rush, and to accept that finding purpose and happiness through wealth will be a journey. “This requires a bit of exploration. Apply an entrepreneurial mindset and run some trial projects. Create feedback loops and learn. You’re going to need to be able to make mistakes, and you’re going to need to be at ease with getting it wrong.”
“One of the really fascinating things about people who have wealth – sometimes great wealth – is they don’t recognise how they can have an impact,” he adds. “People often assume you leave a legacy in your will. But why wait? You could become an agent of influence in your lifetime. And wouldn’t that be something.”