You’re about to be an Oxford graduate. What’s next?

Insights from senior leaders and Oxford alumni on how to build a life of character and commitment

Photo by Noel Broda on Unsplash

Spring is in the air, so is hope, and so is anxiety. As Oxford students dive into the exams and assignments of Trinity term, one of the most frequently asked questions at the cafes, common rooms, and college corridors is “What’s next?”.

It is a question for society as we look to a world beyond Covid, but it is also a deeply personal question. Friends, family, and acquaintances are curious to know where you will end up after Oxford — be it a new job, a new startup, a new research project, a country on the other side of the world — the options are endless. It is not easy to decide what’s next, and even more difficult to justify why so.

The deeper issue here is not the next job but the bigger adventure. The question comes down to purpose, or in Simon Sinek’s phrase “finding your why”. With this in mind, The Oxford Character Project hosted a series of discussions on the topic of “Purpose and Vocation” on 8 May 2021. We invited senior leaders working in technology, business, and law to share what it means to lead with purpose. They were joined by a group of Oxford alumni who spoke of how they found their calling after graduating from Oxford, and the challenges they encountered along the way. Here are our three key takeaways, consolidated from the discussions.

Takeaway #1: Purpose matters, only if you put it into practice

The theme of purpose is currently much under discussion in the corporate world. Oxford Professor Colin Mayer is a leading voice, at the heart of a British Academy Initiative. The movement is catching on and these days almost every organisation will state its purpose in a pithy 15-word phrase on its website. However, crafting a purpose statement is the easy bit. One speaker mentioned that in the world of purpose, there are much well-crafted BS. The real challenge is getting people behind the purpose in a way that puts that well-crafted statement into practice.

An important theme in the discussion was what purpose actually is. According to Stanford Professor William Damon, purpose is “a stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is both personally meaningful and simultaneously leads to productive engagement in the world beyond the self.” This pro-social dynamic was a focus as alumni reflected on their post-Oxford careers. Many of them spoke of a “sense of purpose” as something that connected them to important causes, and sustained them to persevere through challenges.

Takeaway #2: We find our purpose when we turn to others

Writing on the importance of purpose in order to overcome and lead others through difficulty, Victor Frankl (Auschwitz survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning) put his finger on the need for “a fundamental change in our attitude toward life”. He suggested shifting from an orientation governed by personal ambition to one governed by personal responsibility: “We had to learn… that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us… Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Regardless of the individual differences in how the speakers approached purpose, a common pattern was connecting their inner calling to the needs of communities that they deeply care for. If there is a gap in those communities that can be filled with one’s strength, that is a good point from which one’s purpose can grow and develop. As one speaker remarked, “Don’t ever become a leader unless you LOVE people”.

Takeaway #3: If you want to live a life of purpose, invest in character

In his recent book Value(s): Building a Better World for All, Mark Carney highlights purpose as an essential attribute of values-based leadership. He frames leaders as “stewards of the purpose of their organisations” whose job is “to ensure that the purpose of their organisation is always present and anchors its goals, values and strategy.” The integrity of a leader’s own purpose and its alignment with the purpose of the organisation is vital in order to build and maintain trust.

Carney underlines that attributes such as purpose “are not finite goods that are exhausted by use but muscles that grow with regular exercise.” They come down to positive character qualities or “virtues that can be nurtured.” This was one of the major themes in all of the discussions, the human qualities that adjoin well-configured sense of purpose — Humility, Curiosity, Kindness, Honesty, and Resilience, to name a few.

So, what can we practically do to find our purpose and live a meaningful life? Here are four practices that our speakers and OCP team found helpful –

  1. Create a “Personal Board” — 5 people who will keep you grounded and offer different perspectives from your own.
  2. Go for a “Mindful Walk” with someone you trust enough to have a candid conversation on purpose. Keep your mind open and do not let your assumptions hold you back.
  3. Connect with one new person every week who works in a different sector, or comes from a different background, or has a different ideology. You will learn more than you think.
  4. Acknowledge the contributions others have made to your life and express your gratitude. A simple “Thank you” note goes a long way.

If you are keen to explore more, you can sign up for our online course — Leading and Flourishing in Difficult Times. Developed by the Oxford Character Project and Human Flourishing Program in Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, the course combines research on leadership, character and flourishing in an engaging 5-module programme and the fourth module is all about “Leading with Purpose”.

Written by Anjali Sarker, Programme Manager, The Oxford Character Project

Dedicated to developing a new generation of wise thinkers and good leaders