Cultivating a Purpose Mindset in Next-Gen Leaders: Social Entrepreneur Aaron Hurst Returns to the Will to Change

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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Author and entrepreneur Aaron Hurst returns to the program to discuss the importance of developing a purpose mindset and reveals the formative experiences that shaped his work. Discover the difference between a purpose mindset and a transactional mindset, and how to cultivate a mindset that leads to greater fulfillment. Aaron also discusses how speaking differently to young people about learning and work can create a positive paradigm shift.

AARON HURST: What's interesting about a mindset, from a scientific standpoint, is that a mindset's based on a set of beliefs and those sets of beliefs cause you to view the world differently. In the case of a purpose mindset, a purpose mindset is a set of beliefs that enables you to optimize your life for fulfillment and making an impact. But it's a set of beliefs that are necessary to do that. So when you look at that, people don't change their beliefs. They rarely change their beliefs.

We basically find with adults, their beliefs are relatively static because they're going through life finding evidence of why they're right constantly. They're constantly doing confirmation bias. I mean, you know this from a discrimination work. People find evidence of whatever those stereotypes are. Similarly, with any belief, people find evidence for those things that cause them to reinforce those beliefs.


DOUG FORESTA: The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, best-selling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality. She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now onto the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and today's episode features a conversation with Aaron Hurst. Aaron has the distinction of being the second-ever guest on the Will to Change. I encourage you to go back all the way to 2017. You have to go to episode two, Purpose and the Future of Work, and I do encourage you to check that out. But in today's episode, Aaron returns to the program to discuss mindset, purpose versus transactional mindset, and also how to talk differently about learning and work to young people and the paradigm shift that that can create. All this and more, and now on to the conversation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Aaron Hurst, welcome back to The Will to Change.

AARON HURST: So fun to be back. I remember our first conversation very fondly.

JENNIFER BROWN: I do too. I do too. It was in the baby-baby days of Will to Change podcast. Everybody, we will share the link to our episode. My goodness, I think you were the third or fourth guest that I ever had. And I was so self-conscious about how to be a podcast host and now I'm just like, woo-hoo, whatever happens, happens.

AARON HURST: That's good. You're a professional, it means.

JENNIFER BROWN: It is. It is. But I mean, but anyway, you were foundational, I think, to my awakening around what today we call ESG, CSR, responsibility. Reading Purpose Economy, your book, which I recommend everybody pick up, it just was a huge light bulb moment for me because I've always believed, with DEI, that the sustainability of organizations comes down to, in part, the sustainability of its people, the health of its culture as a place where people can thrive and find their purpose, actually, and have that purpose be nurtured.

And part of our purpose may have to do with our identity, and not always, but sometimes I do think being seen and heard and valued has been a huge motivator. I can just pick one of my identities for the LGBTQ community. Working on that for now over 20 years as I've been, the whole game is I want to matter. I want to leave this better than I found it. I want us to be good actors in the world and be inclusive of this group of people in all groups of people.

And belief, I think as I know you probably share, although I'll be interested in this question, the belief that institutions have such a powerful role to play in somehow scaffolding us to do that work, almost providing the structure for us to explore and really, I hope, I hope, find our meaning and our significance. Now, do we do that well? Do we do it across the board? Is that true for most people? No. A job is just a job.

I know you and I are going to talk a lot about the transactional mindset versus the purpose mindset, but I would say that you and I share a passion and an ultimate goal of creating institutions and systems wherein more of us, most of us, all of us can feel our purpose is aligned with our day-to-day contribution and that we feel deeply fulfilled by that, and at scale.

I think that's the piece maybe that organizations bring, which is this whole sort of universe that you can be a change agent in and create a legacy that you're really proud of. But again, we're so far, I think, from enabling that. I have found it, but I probably had to be an entrepreneur and probably so did you, to ever feel that we had the time and the space to access that in ourselves. I mean, I don't want to speak for you, but it's probably you've been an entrepreneur as long as I have. In fact, have you ever not been an entrepreneur?

AARON HURST: I don't know. I was in two early-stage tech startups in Silicon Valley for about five years, the first 10 employees. It felt entrepreneurial, but it wasn't as a CEO. I mean, it's definitely where I've been able to thrive in that setting just because of so many of the variables you talked about. And it's interesting, too. I was raised a Bu-Jew, Buddhist and Jewish.

JENNIFER BROWN: A Bu-Jew, oh my gosh.

AARON HURST: And to your point about the connection of purpose, I mean the Buddhism, a lot of it's about being conscious and present. And then on the Jewish side it's about the sort of idea of repairing the world. The sort of core purpose of Judaism is repairing the world. And I think that those things really combine in a lot of ways to define the work I do and my identity. So I think you're absolutely right around sort of identity, origin, purpose, all these things swirl around each other.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And the elders in your world as you were growing up. I just want to hear a little bit about them because they were an eclectic bunch and, I would imagine, introduced you to a lot of these things and you had big shoes to fill as I've learned about your family. Tell us a little bit more about them.

AARON HURST: Yeah. No, I've been really lucky too. The more I say this, the more I realized how lucky I am to have a family that I do. And I think as a kid you're just like, "Oh, come on." You don't really appreciate your-

JENNIFER BROWN: You're embarrassed.

AARON HURST: ... legacy. And then as you get older you start to realize what a gift and what a privilege, frankly, that is. Yeah, I mean, my grandfather was actually born in Salt Lake City. He was one of the few Jewish people in Salt Lake City back in the day. And he went on to become an officer in the Navy and was actually one of the first officers in Hitler's bunk right when it fell. And I remember he took me into his closet once and he was like, "Check this out." And he had Hitler's stationary, it was like Adolf Hitler, that he had stolen from his desk in the bunker right after the war, which the whole long drama about, as a family, what do we do with this when he died? Because we like, you can't. But that's a whole-

JENNIFER BROWN: That's another podcast.

AARON HURST: Podcast. But what was interesting is he came out of that experience with this sort of purpose for himself, which was to prevent World War III, which is a pretty big purpose. And his core insight was that so much of the conflict in the world comes from cultures not understanding each other. And that we had increasingly developed a tourist-like type of interaction with other cultures and other people, which are actually not enabling us to get to know each other.

And that was the basis for him proposing later on, when he worked for President Kennedy, to create the Peace Corps as a model for that. Like how do you actually create ways for people to actually get to know each other by literally walking their shoes, spending the time so that Americans would truly understand people in other countries and vice versa, and humanize it. So that was always a major influence for me.

He then went on and was the CEO of the Aspen Institute for 25 years. And similar, that model is about bringing people together from different backgrounds that are on shared purpose as a way of developing leaders, but also just for helping problem-solving by bringing diversity of perspectives. And that was everything from people from different ethnicities and countries, to taking a world-class violinist and an astrophysicist and secretaries of state and having them try to problem-solve together. And just appreciating that diversity, which I saw some of that happen. It's really, really phenomenal when you just see the best of fields tackle something that's outside their field together. It was incredibly powerful.

My more immediate nuclear family. My dad was, I would say, a multiple failed entrepreneur at his court at some level. Everything from opening an LSD factory in Mexico, to mining gemstones. I mean, he was just constantly, I think, in his early days just tinkering with stuff. But when I was born, we were in Aspen, Colorado, because of my grandfather at the Aspen Institute, neighbors to Hunter Thompson, which was a lot of great stories there as well.

But we were living in a teepee. When I was born, my parents were in a teepee up in the mountains. It was a very different Aspen than we think about Aspen today. And then my mother, she was an astrologer, she was a belly dancer and she was an entrepreneur, herself, in running a small bookstore where we grew up and sort of curating a community of artists and authors around this bookstore/cafe before Barnes and Noble cafes and all that sort of thing.

And then my dad went on and got his PhD at Michigan in higher education administration, studying basically OD for higher ed. And that was really the backdrop for me in high school. And I really finally fell in love with the psychology of teams and organizations and all the dysfunction. I always just found, when I talk to kids that are in college and they're trying to figure out what to do with their life, I always ask them, "What class was the easiest for you that other kids may have not found easy? Because that's probably where your genius lies."

And for me, any class in organizational psychology, I was shocked that I was getting credit for it. It just seemed so easy just because it was just so aligned with the way I was wired. So that was origin story, just from the standpoint of my childhood, I immediately, as a student at the University of Michigan, I did my degree in service learning, like how do you use service as a means of learning? I went and worked in inner-city education in Chicago after doing a lot of work in the prisons in Michigan in college. And then did a stint, like I said, in Silicon Valley, and then started my first big organization at the Taproot Foundation right after 9/11. So I'll pause there, but that's sort of my origin, flavors of my origin story, anyway.

JENNIFER BROWN: Flavors. Flavors. Quick point. You're right, studying the organization doesn't feel like work or study. I had that same epiphany when I discovered the field, really, like you say. And I love your advice. Where do you feel most in flow? What are you doing at that moment? When what feels easy? What feels like you could do it all day and you have sort of endless energy and interest in it? I mean, that's such a clue for young people. And if we can get that to them sooner in life, which you and I will get to in a moment because I know you're turning your attention to the youngsters.

And I'm so glad you are because that's where it's at. But anyway, so Taproot, and then I began to get to know you also through your work on purpose and organizations and beginning to create an index around that, which was really a powerful concept ahead of its time. I have a question.


JENNIFER BROWN: The old style of philanthropy and what is being asked of philanthropy now and the conversations we're having about this sort of saviorism and this model that I think now has been questioned now for a while. And I know I came from the nonprofit world, too, and I go back and think about, was I really making a difference? Was I really integrated in the community? Was it a kind of model that was imposed on communities and I was participating it in it? A lot of those questions.

So I wonder, just as the kid, that next generation, did you see yourself shift, try to shift in the conversation about making a difference and being in the philanthropy world, as Taproot was. You did it differently and I think that was an innovation that you were on the cutting edge of that now has become a much more sort of commonplace conversation, which is that we need to think differently about how we raise money, where we seek donations. That whole kind of charity thing I think has been really brought up for scrutiny.

AARON HURST: Yeah. And again, probably a multi-episode podcast on that topic alone. But I mean, at high level, as someone who's studied it, the course shift happened with President Reagan in the Reagan era, whereas this first shift in the US, and people just sort of take it for granted now, but this idea that government is the problem, not the solution. And with that frame, which I don't agree with, but with that frame, we started to see the shift of responsibility, of seeing companies as having responsibility for these areas.

Whereas prior to that, I think companies were not seen and public did not trust them and they were seen as fundamentally self-interested actors and not part of the core of a civil society. With the Reagan era, companies suddenly got elevated into this new role where they were the saviors, they were the core, they were the reason for our culture, they were the core of our society.

But that wasn't true before the '80s. And it wasn't true in a lot of other countries. We sort of saw that shift. So with our generation, with Gen X, a lot of what we were raised to do as innovators is to think about how can we actually make corporations with this new charge be more responsible actors? How can we have business professionals be more responsible actors in sort of a world in which government is not going to play the same role?

And Taproot really sort of came out of that realization that nonprofits need to scale, they need to be able to do a lot more than ever before, but they don't have the infrastructure for marketing, and HR and tech, all these things companies have and take for granted. How can we get companies to actually provide those resources to nonprofits so they could scale to meet this gap that the government was saying they're not interested in serving anymore?

And then I think what we're starting to see now is a shift a little bit back, not towards embracing government again, unfortunately, but I think there is a sort of shift towards realizing that most philanthropy, at its core, is self-serving at an ecosystem level, which is to say the things people fund tend to be the things that don't actually threaten the core problems in society because those core problems are actually the thing that probably got them their money in the first place.


AARON HURST: So they're helping individual people, but they're actually just reinforcing the problems that exist in the system. And they're, in many ways, enabling us to continue this conversation about government is bad and these wonderful companies and wealthy folks are going to address these issues. And I think, while the intention is good, we've been raised with a system and an ecosystem that just causes people to invest in patchwork solutions.

I'll give you one of my favorite examples, which is actually... I worked for a nonprofit, doing something similar. DonorsChoose, which is a nonprofit and that seems great, but the whole idea is teachers don't have enough resources in their classroom. So they get people to donate paper and projects and pens and whatever it is you need for the classroom, an incredibly celebrated nonprofit that should not exist.

There's no reason why a teacher should have to go to philanthropy to get basic supplies for their classroom. And that sort of was an acceptable solution in the market. Instead of people seeing that as a canary in the coal mine, saying, "Holy crap, is our educational system broken if we've got to develop a platform to get basic supplies into the classroom." Which is interesting. A big part of the origin of nonprofits was actually to be those canaries, to identify problems that then the government would fix. And now it's sort of identify the problem and then you have to fix it yourself. So anyway, I've gone on and on because this is a topic of passion, but there's the long answer to your short question.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. No, we love the band-aids. I mean, in the DNI, world, look at all the band-aids that companies are being criticized for performative allyship, right? Or even just writing the check. Oh great, good for you. But that's not actually addressing the systemic failures and the real issues that are happening, but it's easier for the company to check the box. It's just this constant conversation we're having.

It must be a flaw in the human mindset that we feel satisfied having "contributed" to something through doing something superficial. Because it's the thornier stuff, it's the systemic change that really I think now is asking and demanding to be changed and addressed. But you have to have the stomach for it. You have to have the courage for it. You have to have the funding for, yes, but I also think it's not just about that and that shouldn't be used as a red herring. I mean, I think there's a lot that we can reimagine that doesn't necessarily come down to spending inordinate amounts of money, also.

AARON HURST: Yeah. It's also just there's a class piece where, if you look at giving, people with the least means give the most as a percentage of the population, by a large margin. And then the very wealthy give away very little, but they're the ones celebrated because the dollar amount seems compelling. But actually, that someone who's making $15 an hour gives a dollar of that away is way more impressive than some billionaire giving away half their fortune. It's just how that plays out.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Wow. Well, thank you for expounding on that. It's a good reminder for all of us that this performative stuff exists across so many different industries, because sometimes we can feel like-

AARON HURST: It's well intentioned. It's well intentioned.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AARON HURST: It's so ingrained in the culture that you just sort of accept it instead of actually stepping back and being like, "Huh, that doesn't actually make sense."

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. Well, thank you for all the ways that you've presented to the world to tackle things differently. And speaking of, so you're taking your focus on purpose and now focusing on the purpose mindset, which is sort of your new effort, and focusing on parents', educators, and young people and igniting that, almost doing that work before that generation comes into the workplace.

Because then my role, as you know, is sort of downstream, right? Downstream meaning now we have these adults in the organization who aren't in touch with what is most meaningful to them. They haven't really had those conversations, done that work, been focused on that, and then get sort of swept up in this very powerful status quo that the system that loves inertia doesn't like to change. And then we get swept up also into everybody else's definitions of success, instead of being intrinsically very clear and then intrinsically kind of aligned to say, "Here's what I expect, here's what I need, here's what I want."

And what's so cool is up your work upstream, I think is going to bolster what we already see as a very different kind of consciousness amongst young people. I mean, as a Gen Xer, we rock, like you and I were saying. The best, of course. But we are still, I think, working in workplaces with very lowered expectations. We're the cynical generation. We're extremely, I think, very realistic, but to our detriment. We didn't have a lot of hope, I think, around our ability to, at least in a large corporate system, we were the forgotten generation, in many ways eclipsed by millennials, which were double our size as they came into the organization.

So anyway, I take it kind of personally, too, when I think that we couldn't ask for things, we had no heft, we weren't organized around it. Just, whatever it was, we didn't have the right or we didn't think we had the right, I don't quite know. But either way, the result was that work has been a total struggle, like our relationship with our professional selves, especially when we feel unsupported through different life changes and are struggling to get promoted, get advanced, shine, get whatever, and be in the caregiving sandwich of parents and kids and at the same time be this forgotten small generation that was not studied to death and was not catered to in any way.

We were totally the latchkey kids in terms of no marketers going after us, which kind of wonderful in its way because it's sad to see what's happening now. But at the same time, we didn't even understand ourselves, I think, in the context of the system, to the extent that now I see younger people coming in and self-identifying so confidently, only to be thwarted by this big gorilla of a system that is not ready to receive people showing up differently.

Anyway, that's why I heard about what you're working on and I want you to tell us what you're working on and why you're so excited about it, and how did you end up point turning your attention to helping young people with purpose and the adults around those young people to find it and nurture it and honor it?

AARON HURST: Yeah. No, absolutely. Yeah, the Gen X stuff's really interesting as well.


AARON HURST: I think I was very lucky in that I started my career in Silicon Valley because I think that was a very different Gen X experience than most.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it's different.

AARON HURST: So I'm privileged and I should recognize that. So, changing the subject, I'm just all about root cause. We're only on the planet for a short period of time, and if there's a greater way to make an impact, my point of view is stop and figure out a way to get to focus on that thing, whatever that root cause is.

And it was about five years ago, we were studying purpose in the workplace, which really was the next step on my journey. Because originally, coming out of 9/11, I was focused on the quest for meaning at work and doing that through the idea people did it through volunteering. And what I found is that they were doing pro bono work, skills-based volunteering, because their work wasn't fulfilling. And I realized I needed to stop focusing on giving people a vitamin to make up for their work not being fulfilling, and actually fix the work itself.

You can't give someone a vitamin and then go eat at McDonald's and say that's a solution. So sort of focused on that. And then I started doing research around it to try to figure out why are people fulfilled or not fulfilled at work. And the early hypothesis was it was going to be because of the profession, it was going to be about the company, it's going to be about their manager. All those things mattered, but not nearly as much as we thought. We found the majority of people in the nonprofit sector are not fulfilled. The majority of people in healthcare and education are not fulfilled.

And yet you find a lot of people fulfilled in accounting jobs or in jobs that you don't think of as purposeful jobs. So we really quickly were able to dispel a lot of the myths about purpose in the workplace. But the one that really stuck with me, which I have been figuring out how I can enable Imperative, my latest company, to go on and be wildly successful without me part of the day-to-day so I could focus on this, was the realization that the number one predictor of whether or not you're fulfilled is your mindset.

It's not the sector, it's not the company, it's not your manager. Those things all matter. But the thing that matters most is mindset. You can take someone with a purpose mindset and put them into an accounting job and they will find meaning in it. And you can take someone with a transactional mindset and put them into a job helping kids in an emergency room and they will not find meaning in it. And that is a fundamental paradigm shift for how we think about the world because purpose comes from the inside and that we've been thinking about as something that comes from the outside, that you're moving things around for somebody instead of addressing who they are.

And what's interesting about a mindset, from a scientific standpoint, is that a mindset's based on a set of beliefs and those sets of beliefs cause you to view the world differently. So in the case of a purpose mindset, a purpose mindset is a set of beliefs that enables you to optimize your life for fulfillment and making an impact. But it's a set of beliefs that are necessary to do that.

So when you look at that, people don't change their beliefs. They rarely change their beliefs. We basically find with adults their beliefs are relatively static because they're going through life finding evidence of why they're right constantly. They're constantly doing confirmation. I mean this from a discrimination work. People find evidence of whatever those stereotypes are. Similarly, with any belief, people find evidence of those things that cause them to reinforce those beliefs.

And short of a trauma, people don't really want to question their beliefs. It's too painful and too hard. So trying to change the mindset of adults is generally a fool's errand. It's doable, but it is a very heavy lift. With the exception of midlife crisis, which is a moment of crisis, a moment of trauma, where people will actually do the painful work of questioning their beliefs, often for the first time.

So what conclusion does that bring us to? If we want to change the world, if we want to change work, if we want people to be fulfilled, if we want people to be healthy, if we want people to be actualized, our greatest chance of it is to get to them before their mindset is set. How do we get to them before the cement settles and is set so that we can actually influence that mindset? Which really sort of is why I'm nothing. We need to focus on kids. We need to focus on the next generation and ensuring that the next generation actually enters the workforce with a purpose mindset.

That is our best hope of changing work. It's our best hope of addressing healthcare or mental health. All these issues stems from the fact that people with transactional mindset fundamentally are set up for failure personally and the ecosystem in which they operate in. So our big hairy audacious goal with my new venture is to have purpose mindset become the dominant mindset for the next generation. And to, as you shared, work with teachers and parents to help educate them about this difference and the importance of it and to teach them just small ways that they can influence the next generation.

It's not about inventing a whole new curriculums, it's not about designing new schools. If we had to wait for that, it's never going to happen. We're really looking at this as a parallel movement to the growth mindset movement and learning how growth mindset has become ubiquitous. How can purpose mindset become equally ubiquitous in education as growth mindset and how can we do that in the next 10 years?

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. Can you back up for our listeners and tell us the status of the growth mindset movement, as you call it, in parallel, and how these two things relate?

AARON HURST: Yeah, so growth mindset versus fixed mindset is something that I think anyone working in learning and development, anyone with kids knows it. And I think it's 93% of teachers now know about growth mindset. It's very saturated in the last 20 years. If you go into a classroom, especially grade school classroom or actually all the way through the classrooms, I have never walked into one of my kids' classrooms and not seen a reference to growth mindset.

It may not be called out as such, but you see the phrases, you see it. It's fully integrated into the narrative for education now. And they were able to do that because they took an idea that was super intuitive and clear to folks, this idea of fixed versus growth mindset, and they made it something where it was very easy for a teacher or a parent to immediately start to make changes around, versus it requiring some broad curriculum or certification.

And they also made it open source. So any curriculum developer, any teacher, anybody can use growth mindset. They don't have to send a royalty check, they don't have to adhere to a certain set of rules, which made it something that enabled broad ownership of it, which came with some watering down of value in places. But overall, it led to this broad adoption of growth mindset. And it's been incredibly successful in getting out into the market and we're really looking to replicate how that worked.

I mean, we believe transactional versus purpose mindset is a very intuitive idea that people get almost immediately. It's something that teachers and parents can do without having to go read a book or having to adopt a curriculum. And it's something that anyone involved with kids can start to use and experiment with. So we're very confident this is going to take off because of that precedent.

JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, it strikes me, I use growth mindset. In the DNI world, it's actually not a commonly discussed concept, and yet it's fundamental, as you can imagine, as you know, to our ability to fail forward, to not get it right, to continue to try, to be flexible and agile and be gracious with ourselves, to flex to the learning. But it's so hard for adults to, as you're speaking, I don't know if it's a quixotic effort on my part to say, "Could we learn to inhabit and exhibit?" What you're saying is so ubiquitous in the classroom. It's interesting.

I hope the ship hasn't sailed for adults. I wonder, in a way, as I'm listening to you, I'm thinking some of us rely on having adults change and embody that growth and discover purpose later in life. So I sort of wonder, not negating your focus now, but I'm hopeful you can give me something to hang my hat on that you believe about this, about adults, because otherwise it's sort of I'm tilting at windmills here.

AARON HURST: Windmills are fun to tilt at. No. So it's a yes-and. The greatest leverage point, if you had a million dollars to invest, invest it in kids. I'm going to say that without exception. I'd say working with adults, it's a continuum, so for the people who have purpose mindset, do whatever you can to help create an environment which sets them up for success. Because the system right now in a lot of cases is actually undermining that purpose mindset. So that's roughly the third of the population.

Another third of people who I would say don't have a fully formed mindset either way. They're pretty much agnostic and open to either direction, and those people, through the kind of interventions you're talking about, you can start to get them shifting towards purpose mindset. The final, roughly third, are deeply entrenched transactional mindset, and those are windmills, trying to work with them.

And I think every once in a while you have a breakthrough, but it requires them having to go through some serious trauma because a lot of these issues stem from even early childhood issues. And those are hard to do without serious therapy and psychological work, which is above the pay grade of anyone in a corporate setting.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah. I know. I think we have to conserve our energy too. We've got to work with that, to use a horrible corporate jargon, the low-hanging fruit, and mapping learners and saying, "Where am I going to get the most traction and where's the point of least resistance and the most benefit?" Which is finding the folks in that messy middle and also then the early adopters, the first two buckets that you described, and moving with them and running as fast as they can run.

And then that can happen at any point in life. But I take your point, and I admire where you're focusing now because leadership begins early, that concept of self being healthy, balanced, aligned, and also aware of your unique gifts and what could be your unique contribution. I would've appreciated any conversation about that when we were young.

I mean, your childhood may be different than mine because of your parents, et cetera, but there was nothing about that. And I wandered into my 20s and 30s wandering, wondering what I was supposed to get tribute. I mean, I remember very clearly knowing it was there, but not having the mechanism to find it, and that was so deep. So wasted time. I think, too, I regret that because if I could have found it earlier and focused in on it, well, I could have made the world a better place for longer.

AARON HURST: Yeah. But I think it starts off with smaller things, I think, for kids. It's about helping them find purpose and meaning in their day-to-day, versus something outside, and helping them to figure out how do I craft my daily experience in the classroom or with my family to be meaningful? How do I show up with that every day? How do I see everything? I mean at the end of the day, everything's either an act of self-care or of service. If you think about everything you do in life, it's either service or self-care, or it's destructive. But if it's positive, it's either in self-care or service.

And when you're sitting in a classroom or when you're sitting at a desk at a job, everything you're doing is in one of those two categories, if you decide to recognize it as such. If you look at it transactionally, then it's neither of those things. But through a purpose lens, you see everything as self-care or a service to others. And if you can start to build that frame, it just, you start operating differently. And yes, it's about you getting more quickly to change in the world, but it's also just more about you getting to fulfillment for yourself and coming from a place of abundance and strength and curiosity, when you start to see the world through that lens.

JENNIFER BROWN: Can you give examples of the classroom, of a kid in that classroom either directing their activities or making choices based on those criteria and what that would actually look like?

AARON HURST: Well, I think it starts with a teacher working to figure out the why behind things. I think a lot of times kids are just told, "Learn this." Why? "Because I said so." There's not a clear why behind it. When you start to connect it to why this is of value to a kid, that becomes an act for them of self-care because they're investing in themselves. They're investing in something that's going to help them be successful. It's investing in their own personal growth.

Or if it's working in a team project or doing work with your fellow students, that's an opportunity for it to be a service because you're actually engaging and supporting someone else, or you're supporting the classroom or you're supporting the teacher. So you can start to frame it differently for kids around anytime as a teacher you're saying, "Now we're going to do X," let's start talking about it as a either self-care or as service. It may not be different activities, but you change the frame in which you're processing them.

JENNIFER BROWN: I see. It sort of sounds like what's in it for me and then what's in it for others?


JENNIFER BROWN: So what am I enjoying, or what do I uniquely feel fulfilled about what I did or what we accomplished? But then how was I helpful to others and did that lighten me up, I think, right? That could be self-care too.

AARON HURST: Yeah. Well, and that's where it becomes a very positive cycle for itself. I think that's how you start to see a reframing of everyday experience. And now it's just in the house, in your household, what you're doing for self-care, like getting a good night's sleep, and what you're doing for service, like helping keep the house clean, so everyone has a nice place to be together and you're doing that because you love your family. Those are both acts that are driven out of purpose, but that we often don't frame that way. So it becomes that narrative and-

JENNIFER BROWN: And then contrast growth mindset as the compliment to that quickly for us.

AARON HURST: Well, growth mindset at the core is about this idea that I can learn anything.


AARON HURST: Fundamentally. Whereas purpose mindset is "I can be fulfilled," the fundamental belief that you can be fulfilled, which a lot of people don't have, and therefore, guess what? They're not fulfilled. So just like if people don't believe they can learn, they tend not to learn. Right?


AARON HURST: So it sort of goes along those lines. Does that follow up?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. That's so interesting. I can learn this and I can feel fulfilled in this.


JENNIFER BROWN: And then making choices based on that. Again, back to the DEI I work I do, "I can learn this" is the confidence piece of, even though it seems hard or I've never done it before, I can do it. And I think it's a confidence game. For me, I spend a lot of time encouraging, particularly those who are cynical, about whether I can actually do this and get there or not. Can I get to the other side of the bridge over the whitewater of change, personal change, and all that?

But then the "I can be fulfilled" is really interesting. Lately I've been thinking a lot about people don't believe DEI will actually someday be deeply fulfilling for them. Particularly allyship or when we speak about like, "Well why should I do this? Why should I care? It doesn't affect me." And actually, the beautiful message that people don't hear sometimes is that it actually will affect you. It will change you. You can find fulfillment in service. You talk about service, right?

But it's laying all this out to an adult, like you say, is just definitionally more... There's just a lot more noise that you have to get through in order to get to that pure place of "I can do this and I will benefit from this." Like what's in it for me? What's in it for others? I can be an instrument in this orchestra. This is something I can actually do.

It's so tough, in my experience, to awaken that and then to take somebody's hand and go through it, as a "Oh, now I see. Now I feel that. As you predicted, it actually feels good. Oh, it doesn't feel bad." But you're dealing with just a lot of... It's an uphill situation, much, much harder than it needs to be.

AARON HURST: That's why investing in kids is going to make this easier for the next generation. And a lot of it, my advice around this for parents is really being thoughtful about how you talk about work with kids. Because what I've come to realize that a lot of people, even if they have a purpose mindset, don't talk to kids in a way which it frames work for them to see work as a form of self-care and of service. They tend to get home and complain about work. They tend to talk about work as something to be avoided. They don't talk on a regular basis around the dinner table about the impact they made or a great friendship they have at work or something they've learned.

They're generally venting frustration. And if you take a step back and say, what message does that ultimately send your kids about work, and how are you setting them up for their lives? The odds are that your kids are going to replicate that because they're going to look to have that same experience because they'll have that expectation.

JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent point. I do that, even with my partner. She hears that part, and yet I don't pause and say, "You know, I felt really, really in the zone today. I had this wonderful experience where I was doing self-care through what I was doing. I was playing to a strength. I felt aligned, confident, satisfied." Satisfied, right?


JENNIFER BROWN: Satisfaction. And I felt I was of service. It felt like everything was like you described, was sort of lining up in what that one activity. And then to seek that in your life, to give yourself permission to say, "I deserve that. I not only deserve it, I must have it to survive." Which I hope is, I know that's where you're sort of going with this, which is this is not an optional thing, this is imperative.

AARON HURST: Yeah, that's right. No, I think that's exactly right. And it's interesting, like with my partner, she'll come home and vent about people because she'd had frustrating days. And I realized I had in my head as a narrative, she hates her job, and I said, "you hate your job." And she said, "No, I love my job." "What? I've never heard you say anything positive." She's like, "Well, because I'm venting to you."

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness. We're having the same experience.

AARON HURST: Well, I think it's almost every couple. And I think that the kids, when they hear, then it totally throws off their perception. And if you as a parent can just be thoughtful about it, it's almost like an act of gratitude of saying, "What am I grateful for today at work?" And share that with the answer to the question of how is your day? It changes your own wiring and it helps your kids see work in a totally different way.

And I think same thing as a teacher. It's like when a teacher explains why they decided to be a teacher, or when a teacher sort of shares like, "Oh, today was a great day. I was able to do X, Y, and Z. I really loved what we talked about yesterday. I really loved how you guys were contributing. I learned so much from it." All those things are inputs into your mindset and set of beliefs. We do it very unconsciously. And as a culture, we've created a complaining culture where we tend to just reinforce a transactional negative sort of view of learning and work.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's really powerful, very powerful.

AARON HURST: That's what I'm trying to shift. I'm trying to shift that so that we can talk about learning and work differently with kids instead of them changes what they're looking for. And then we can build in them the muscle to take ownership of their daily fulfillment and sort of embrace the gratitude within that. And then it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where, wherever they go, even if they have a job that's not great, they find meaning in a friendship. They find ways to challenge themselves. And they're curious enough that they look for that next opportunity for bigger impact and that serves them better and they become a higher performer, a better leader. I mean, every single data point shows that it serves them and the organization better.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. And what are your thoughts on how orgs are pivoting successfully or not to meet all the potential of young people right now? Is it getting better? Because I know you and I look at these organizations constantly, and I don't know, I'm just curious to know if you think they're getting it, if they're having the light bulb moments, if they're doing the courageous, whether it's restructuring of their approach or whatever.

Even the philosophy of looking at talent, as the human beings in your organization, and what this next generation, Gen Z particularly, which the best, is coming into this system with. Is it being encouraged thwarted? Is it being encouraged appropriately? How far or close are we to really making this wonderful alchemy that is possible, but that I fear is being left on the floor?

AARON HURST: Well, if you take a long view, I think there's a tremendous amount of progress. As entrepreneurs and people who are about social change, goddamn, it's slow. It's just too damn slow. But if you look at it from a broader, longer-term perspective, there is change happening. There's negative change happening, as well. It's not all positive. But I do think some of that change is happening. When I talk to leaders, I think most of them, like the ones that have a purpose mindset, they want this, so they want this in a culture. What they don't have is the tools, necessarily, to do it. And they also struggle because most of the infrastructure is designed to foster transactional interactions.

And that's a big part of why we started Imperative was we wanted to find a way to build a platform that enabled purposeful interactions versus transactional ones. Because all the technology in the workplace is designed around transaction. And I think that just reinforces and makes it harder and harder. And with remote work, it's become even harder to have that kind of meaningful interaction between people. Because everything is just transactional.


AARON HURST: So I think there's lots of rooms still to go, but if we can get a generation with a purpose mindset with the language around it, with that desire for fulfillment, they're going to change the system-

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, they will. They better.

AARON HURST: ... in the process.

JENNIFER BROWN: They must. We've kicked it down the field a bit but I think that they, showing up with commitment and courage and honoring and authenticity, and like you say, asking and demanding the system to be a place where they can continue to tap into that and experience that on a regular basis. And have the mechanism to say when it's not happening. And then have the courage to advocate for yourself, based on that you've built this habit in your childhood so that when you come into a system, you do expect it, but you also have the tools to know what are your choices if it's struggling to feel it, and to work from that place.

AARON HURST: Yeah, I think if you talk to leaders in business, or any organization, what they want most as a change in their employees is to have agency. They want them to take ownership. They want them to take control. So I think this is going to be very welcome because purpose mindset sets up that agency, because it puts you in the driver's seat. Whereas transactional, it's always about some kind of quid pro quo and you're always looking to get something from somebody else. So it's a fundamental shift, I think, in the culture, that's going to be very, very well received by executives, I believe.

JENNIFER BROWN: I like that. As a sort of "What's in it for me" for all generations to have empowered people at feeling they can make a difference, bringing their 150%, what they call their discretionary effort, to their extra thinking, their extra heart, but also their self compassion, which is so important, not to be just used up as a cog, but really to seek significance, which I think is such a fair and right thing to want at any age.

I hate that we felt our generation so disenfranchised. We laugh about it, but it was not the happiest place to be. And that is, to me, the worst feeling is to feel a lack of agency and the ability to make a contribution, but to steer your experience based on something that is so deeply authentic. That's only going to make the organization better. I mean, that's that beautiful diversity of identity and thought that is going to drive that tremendous innovation if we can get it to be heard and honored and welcomed. And there's space made for it. And it's prioritized in terms of the changing our systems from transactional ones that expect an exchange or a quid pro quo to something else.

And I wonder what that something else is. I mean, think we're in the midst of a massive change in terms of what we encourage and what we reward and what we train people on. I mean, people just ask me every single day in every interview, how is leadership changing and what we reward leaders for. Vulnerability, transparency, humility, cultural intelligence, emotional intelligence, growth mindset, agility, just good listening skills, lots of seeking to resonate is so critical with the system that you're in.

But I think resonating with this next generation is key because there's a clue in it and a message in it that we desperately must hear because that is the future. It's not about our generation and our mishegoss. It's literally listening very, very closely to what's coming in, because that's the system that we should be rebuilding with that group in mind. And it's very exciting. I mean, it's hard but-

AARON HURST: But hopefully in the research and the language. I mean, if someone asks you what kind of leadership people want today, I mean, I would say it's been growth mindset over the last decade and we're now adding to that purpose mindset. And if we can have leaders of both a growth and purpose mindset, that's the complete package.

JENNIFER BROWN: That is such a package.

AARON HURST: And with those two, you have what you need for them to thrive, their teams to thrive and to enable continuous compassionate innovation. So hopefully we can simplify this answer and just say growth mindset, purpose mindset. Any questions?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Okay. So I'll bring that into my teachings, Aaron. You're always adding to my toolkit, and I just so appreciate the context you set for us today. I hope the audience really felt stimulated by this and felt there were a lot of tie-ins to how we do our work as practitioners. Because at the end of the day, all of us are pursuing organizational change, but we all know that the humans in those systems have to feel replenished and healthy and balanced, and that they are getting something deep out of the interaction.

And I think we need to be endlessly curious about that and also dedicated to pulling that out of every generation, because otherwise we're just sort of sleepwalking through and that's never going to create thriving organization.

AARON HURST: No, I think that's absolutely right. And I hope that your audience, too, and if you're interested in this, if you're a parent, if your relative who's an educator, if you're just someone who gives a damn about this stuff, go to my website And on there, there's also an assessment where you can get an idea for where are you on that transactional to purpose mindset journey as a guide for your own journey.

JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. Thank you so much. That's fabulous. And can people, if they're in a school setting, what can they do, is there a system they can bring in, too?

AARON HURST: We have recommendation. I mean, we're still developing a lot of that, but we'll put up there some sort of core language and core recommendations for educators and parents on the Purpose Mindset website. So just encourage you to check that out, and if you're interested in learning, where you can also just sign up for the newsletter from there. And as we learn more, we'll be sharing it with the world because we need to make this change.

JENNIFER BROWN: We do. We absolutely do. Well, thank you, Aaron. As ever, delightful, stimulating, exciting, very hopeful, always, to talk to you. Thank you for everything that you've done.

AARON HURST: Well, thank you. It was so much fun.


JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

DOUG FORESTA: You've been listening to The Will to Change, Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you've enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit Thank you for listening, and we'll be back next time with a new episode.