Have you ever asked yourself:
“How did society get so damn greedy and soulless?”
When I was a kid, like many of you, I just assumed that when I grew up, I’d live in a world that was mostly fair, just and good.
I imagined that I would play with other adults who were entrepreneurial, clever and fun. I knew that, as adults, we would have to do responsible things like go to work and pay bills. But I had imagined that “going to work” meant pursuing a noble purpose, not some boring thing we were forced to do just to make money.
I had always assumed adult life was inherently fulfilling. That work was a beautiful thing.
I don’t know where I got this idea from. It’s not like I was born into privilege where pursuing a life of purpose was the norm. Quite the opposite.
I was born in the Philippines in a poor part of Manila. I lived in a small flat with my grandma, grandpa, their seven children and some of their wives and husbands. I remember Mum telling me how bad it was. She was really hurt by how people treated our family because we were poor.
I was lucky though. When I was a baby, Mum met my Dad, an Australian pilot, through friends. He fell in love with us and took us to Australia. Mum was brave. She left everything she knew to move to a foreign country, with a foreign man who spoke a foreign language – all so I could have a better life. Dad was brave in a different way. He looked after me.
Defying the odds, I grew up in a middle-class Aussie home. I was blessed with a real shot at life and I took it.
I loved learning. I did pretty well and got into law school. I assumed a bunch of student leadership roles. I thought I was finally on track to assume that fulfilling career I had imagined for myself as a kid. I was overjoyed when I secured a graduate lawyer position at a top firm in Sydney.
And that’s when reality first punched me in the face.
Working in corporate law, I quickly found out that many businesses didn’t exist to solve society’s problems at all. They existed to make the owners disgustingly rich.
I felt like such a fool. Of course they did – I was just in denial. I didn’t want to believe that the world could be so greedy. How can people be so greedy and still want so much more, when millions – billions! – of people have nothing at all?? Learning that lesson sucked.
You know what else sucked?
During my time in corporate I had the chance to learn – as an insider – about the attitudes that some rich people had towards poor people. The dominant attitudes towards the working class were not very empathetic or generous. It hurt a lot to find out that some people who were born into privilege genuinely thought that people ended up “poor” because they weren’t “smart enough” to become rich.
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That didn’t resonate with my experience at all. It was a deeply unfair attitude. My experience was that many smart people couldn’t get out of poverty, not due to laziness, but due to systematic discrimination against people who didn’t have existing wealth. Smart people who happened to be born into poverty, couldn’t get access to education because school books and clothes were too expensive, candles to study with at night were seen as a luxury, licenses or loans were difficult to obtain and many people had to work overseas for years without seeing their children, just so they could give them a life. Poor people made unimaginable trade-offs to support their families.
They weren’t lazy. They were brave.
For ten years I worked in law, then finance, within “the establishment” and learnt a lot. You might ask:
Why did you wait so long to leave if you were so ambivalent about it?
Good question. I asked myself that too. A lot.
I think I stayed in part because I wanted to prove to myself that someone like me could succeed in that world. I definitely also stayed because I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations. And, lastly (and I say this with discomfort), I stayed because I too got sucked into the system. The external signals of success were seductive. I started having dreams of fancy houses and boats and trips. Promotions, titles, status, respect, financial security. Surely all that stuff wasn’t meant for me?!
And yet, here I was. It was surreal.
On the one hand:
It was success beyond my wildest dreams.
On the other hand:
I hated myself for being a gutless, pathetic, sell-out.
The cost of living a profit-chasing existence – shock, horror – eventually took a spiritual toll.
Over time, I felt my soul blacken.
As the years went by, I became jaded, cynical, agitated and confused.
It did not make sense.
I used to think that, when I got more senior, all would be revealed. I would finally see what the fuss was about. Surely the noble purpose I craved to express would reveal itself once I reached the dizzying heights of senior leadership at a listed company?!
When I eventually got there, reality punched me in the face again.
Turns out that my peers – who I once viewed as role models – didn’t really love their prestigious jobs after all. They were just there to pay for their kids’ school fees and their upper-middle class lifestyles. Their mantra was “don’t rock the boat”. Their dream was to hold out long enough doing very little until they could retire on a sweet nest egg.
I didn’t want to believe what I was seeing. It was so damn hard to admit it. Admission would mean that I had to face the truth that the work I was spending all of my time on – that I was dedicating my precious life to – wasn’t a noble purpose at all. I couldn’t face the truth. So I stayed in denial.
But I kept walking into truth bombs.
I watched executives that I used to be awe-struck by give motivational speeches to hundreds of weary employees, in public – and then wail with despair at how futile the whole charade was, in private.
I didn’t understand – why would they say one thing, then do another?
Why was everyone pretending they were fine, when they were in truth, burnt out?
Why are we all forced to make the impossible trade-off between making money – or giving back to society?
Why couldn’t businesses put purpose and profit side-by-side?
I descended into an existential crises and, despite the promise of even more rewards, I quit my job without another one lined up. It was a massive risk. But if nothing else, I learnt I could get through anything. And besides, no amount of money was worth my soul.
That was a year ago. Around that time, I was introduced to Justin Brown, of Ideapod.
And, to help me hack my way into courage, I launched something called F-OFF: Fear of Failure Forum.
F-OFF is a movement to explore our fear of failure, why it holds us back and offers strategies to grow our potential.
It has been surreal. In just 10 months we have launched 4 sold-out events, partnered with two major brands to deliver forums to their audience and I even got asked to deliver my first keynote speech at a national conference – the Australian Financial Review Innovation Summit 2017.
To turn ideas into action, let's address our fear of failure — Kat Dunn is live at #ALRinnovation17!
Posted by Justin Brown on Tuesday, September 19, 2017
I also launched the Reimagine movement with Ideapod. What is that, you ask?
It is a shift in the way we think about business and the purpose of business. You can find out more here.