When Purpose-Driven​ Goes Wrong

Organizations are messy. They are full of people and people are inherently messy.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship to communities and to organizations. While I crave a feeling of community and the love and respect of others, I bristle at any hint of obligation.

I’ve written and spoken about my experience as part of a “cult” elsewhere. But one thing I haven’t been completely honest about is that it was a good experience. It was a bad experience too of course – and left me depressed and broke. But then again I didn’t go in happy and rich – I went in sad, unsure of myself and already in financial distress.

So the experience just accentuated those things and probably contributed to me joining up too.

Before this period, I’d lived a somewhat sheltered life. Sure I’d lived in Japan for years and travelled extensively and had many unique experiences – but in my heart I was still a boy who found the darker underbelly of life scary. And I was 40 years old at this point.

Just before joining “the cult” I’d left my 3rd wife and was finishing up an expensive grad degree of indeterminate value. Right after moving in a company I was hoping to start suddenly went belly up.

I was less than stable.

The “cult” gave me a sense of purpose, a group of passionate friends, a place to put my energy and excitement, and, the opportunity to hang out with people I would never have encountered otherwise. Addicts, sex workers, a convicted murderer, writers, lawyers, techies, investors, healers, doctors all were part of my community there.

I went to 12 step meetings, hung out in some of the roughest neighborhoods in SF and really talked to people there. I also helped put on events that were, to say the least, intense.

Sure when I left I was broke and suicidal for a time. I also feel I was lied to and exploited and that everyone – including me – was extremely self involved and a little bit (or a lot) damaged before and by the experience.

But it was fun. And it woke me up out of my suburban fog of mediocrity and expanded my horizons about what was, and is, possible in the world. It opened my eyes to the many different worlds and ways of living that were happening all around me and next to me but had been previously invisible.

Looking back 12 years later and doing work dedicated to improving how humans organize – making ethical businesses more successful and successful businesses more ethical – I’m struck by the paradox and complexity of this work and of my experiences as a “cult” member.

It was the best of times and the worst of times. I would not be who I am without it. I’m grateful and I’m angry. It was in some ways the most authentic human experience of my life and in others the most deceptive and damaging.

I think all organizations are paradoxes. I’ve yet to see a single one that even approaches perfection. Knowing about companies like TOMS Shoes lifted my spirits for a while. But I never liked their shoes and the benefit of their “buy one give one” business model is questionable – it was even damaging to some communities it operated in. But it sounded like a good place to work and I think did do some good in the world.

Perhaps paradox is a part of any human endeavor and all of our actions create both a light / positive and a dark / damaging impact on the world.

Perhaps as Beric Dondarrion said “the enemy always wins and still we need to fight him.

This fight happens in the small moments in my experience.

In the warmth we show each other and the care we allow our hearts to feel. It’s not in the grand plans to change the world. Hitler, my cult leader and they guy who founded TOMS all talked about changing the world through a grand vision.

This isn’t to say that grand visions aren’t valuable but that grand visions kept separate from authentic, day-to-day, almost mundane care and love will likely lead us astray.

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