Purpose, Success & Happiness (Power of Purpose pt. 3)

When Katrin-Tanja Davidsdottir became the Fittest Woman on Earth at the 2016 Crossfit Games, she looked at her coach Ben Bergeron who she had trained with day-in and day-out for years and said

“I am not as happy as I thought I would be”.

In part 1 of this series, we discussed the importance of knowing your WHY before part 2 shed more light on how our WHY translates into career choices and development. It stands to reason that knowing your WHY and chasing it relentlessly means that from here on out, you will be successful and happy to live your purpose-driven life happily ever after. Godspeed!

Or does it? Let’s take a step back and peel back some of the layers to reveal our perception of success and happiness in the live of changemakers:


A question I find endlessly fascinating – and have brought to more than one dinner party over the last few years – is “What does success mean to you?” 

When asked how I distinguish social entrepreneurs from non-social entrepreneurs, I usually respond “They define success differently.”: A traditional entrepreneur keeps a keen eye on her/his financial bottom line; this – in part – explains the current startup and venture capital world’s obsession with hockey-stick-like growth. 

While purpose-driven entrepreneurs, too, need to make the numbers work, they work to serve a double (financial sustainability + social impact), if not triple (+environmental impact) or even quadruple (+ ethical governance) bottom line. 

As systems thinkers and ecosystem builders for social change – how do we define success?

According to Simon Sinek: 

Success comes when we wake up everyday in that never ending pursuit of WHY we do WHAT we do. Our achievements, WHAT we do, serve as milestones to indicate we are on the right path.

Simon Sinek, Start with Why, chapter 8

In Katrin Tanja’s case, becoming the Fittest Woman on Earth was a milestone, an achievement. But it’s not her reason for being in the world. Her WHY – I speculate – has more to do with being strong and healthy and inspiring young girls and women to be their best selves.

In my experience as an ecosystem builder and thanks to my conversations for Social Venturers, we are still missing an essential ingredient to ensure that we can live our WHY daily and consistently for decades to come. I’m talking about the rather nebulous and little explored challenge of creating a lifestyle that  prevents us from burning the candle on both ends. You can hustle at 100 miles/hour in hot pursuit of your WHY but if you don’t take care of yourself, you will end up tired, exhausted, potentially burned out- the perfect martyr. And d you know what the problem is with martyrs? They don’t make it to the end of the story. They are unable to serve their community in the long run. 


Having spoken to dozens of Social Venturers, pursuing your WHY is deeply gratifying. But if we don’t strive for balance in our lives, we run risk of dropping out of the game altogether (read more on this in The Infinite Game of Ecosystem Building). 

Let’s assume that turning your WHY into a viable career – self-employed or other – does not produce results overnight. In fact, I would go as far as to say that you will have to dig deep and work consistently toward this new purpose for an extended period of time to make the changes you wish to see. 

In my third year in Richmond, VA, I found myself hosting our first Rebelle Con, working as a community builder for B Corps, running a business model validation program for early-stage entrepreneurs, mentoring founders one-on-one and supporting the communications and marketing efforts of a nationally ranked accelerator for high-growth startups. I was also eight months pregnant.

For the most part, I was pursuing my WHY relentlessly and felt satisfied by the work. But I was incredibly exhausted, stressed about taking maternity leave, I suffered from insomnia (possibly pregnancy-related, nevertheless skyrocketing my already high cortisol levels) and each Friday, I could feel my mood plummet toward a rather dark place that kept me in bed for most of the weekend. I was living my WHY, but why wasn’t I walking on clouds with fulfillment and joy? Why was I feeling deflated? Why did I constantly feel like I had done a disservice to myself? 

Putting yourself in the service of your community often also means neglecting yourself. Driven by passion, the lines between professional and personal blend like watercolors on a dry canvas. 

I kept asking myself what would need to change for me to feel better. I tried different things: Pedicures with the girls, a massage and non-alcoholic happy hours (yay La Croix!). I finally understood that the best form of selfcare is to create a lifestyle that doesn’t require dedicated selfcare. A little too late it dawned on me that I had neglected myself to the point that even doing work as fulfilling as mine was not enough to make me feel successful. To be honest, I mostly felt like I was rather mean to myself. 

You can’t pour from an empty cup

There’s a good chance you have heard this quote before. So had I. And I was ignoring it with all my might. The truth is, as an ecosystem builder who is always trying to make her/his community better for the next generation of entrepreneurs, you are often faced with a choice: 

  • Either you do it even if it means overextending yourself and not getting paid, or
  • It won’t get done and the system remains sub-optimal.

In my case – and that of many of my colleagues and friends – you tell yourself that just this one more time, you can do it and it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t pay because at least a handful of entrepreneurs will be better off than they were before. 

I went full steam ahead – I knew I was about to go on maternity leave and the effort was going to be temporary. But ecosystem building, and the pursuit of your WHY, shouldn’t be temporary. If they are your way of life, then you need to be able to live that way consistently. 

Back to your roots

Only you know what your lifestyle needs to include to make sure you can stay in this game of creating social impact and building thriving ecosystems. My advice: Take a leisurely walk down memory lane and remember what you used to enjoy before the world started telling you who to be and what to strive for.

I spent most of my childhood chasing my friends around the woods outside our village in rural East Germany. I read through the entire children’s section of our village library. I have kept a journal since second grade and wrote my first, and only, novel at the age of 14 (a heart-wrenching teenage love story). Many memories from my childhood summers include meals outside. 

To this day, I enjoy moving my body to exhaustion, being outside and biking wherever I can. My favorite escape is sticking my nose deep into a book and emerging only for food and water intake and the occasional night’s sleep. I write in bursts, sometimes just ten minutes a day to sort through my feelings, sometimes three days straight with no room for an overbearing inbox or tv. Though I came late to it, I have started to love cooking and would love to take up dance classes. 

What did your kid version have fun doing? 

Let us agree that in order to continuously work toward a better world, we need to be deeply anchored in our WHY.

In order to excite others about what we do, we need to learn how to communicate our WHY clearly. Doing so allows us to approach whatever social or environmental issue we’re trying to solve from different angles throughout our lives.

And in order to keep our flame alive, we need to balance purpose-driven work with a lifestyle that refills our cup on a regular basis. 

Twice a year, Social Venturers offers a mastermind program for changemakers to help them dive deeper into their true purpose and helps them figure out how to re-orient their lives toward their purpose and values. If you’re interested in learning more, join the waitlist!

Read the previous parts:

Banner image credit: Photo by Blake Meyer on Unsplash

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