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Vivienne Ming: Build Purpose to Prepare for the Unknown

Vivienne Ming: Build Purpose to Prepare for the Unknown
Published March 20, 2019 by The 99U Team

When we set the theme for our 2019 conference — The Creative Future — we imagined a future where creative skills are more pervasive and prized, and how that might reshape the world around us. As we prepare for the event in May, we’re asking our speakers to share a skill they think is important for all creatives to navigate what’s to come.


After pursuing research in cognitive neuroprosthetics at UC Berkeley, Vivienne Ming founded Socos Labs, an independent think tank exploring augmented intelligence and the future of human potential. Vivienne will be speaking on the main stage at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, taking place May 8-10 in New York City.

Q. What is a skill you believe to be futureproof?

A. It’s not programming or machine learning. In my work and my research, I find myself repeatedly returning to purpose, or more specifically, the psychological construct of strength of purpose. For a concept that might sound very soft, purpose has very hard, tangible positive returns on life: education attainment, wealth and income, health and wellbeing, and even simple happiness. Purpose-driven people likely always have and always will lead richer lives.

Strength of purpose takes time and commitment to develop. But, there are immediate strategies to cultivate. One of my most valued is to always be ready to walk away if I believe that I’m not serving my purpose. No matter how lucrative the opportunity, how prestigious the job, how profound the potential, my purpose must come first in all of my decisions. I’ve learned that my life is best when it’s not about me.

Q. Why will purpose be so important in the future?

A. There are any number of answers that I could have given to the first question, and the one thing they all have had in common is that they have no unique value in the future. We are obsessed with trying to predict one particular future like it’s an insider stock tip from which we can corner the market on some small set of skills that will be uniquely valuable in whatever post-apocalyptic wasteland or futuristic utopia awaits us.

"Two of the big misconceptions about purpose are that (1) you have to 'find your purpose' and (2) there is only one purpose that is meant for you. In fact, purpose is something you get to construct for yourself."

Instead, the only thing we know for certain is that the future is unknown, and in all likelihood, the rate of uncertainty will only accelerate with time. Qualities like strength of purpose—along with resilience or self-assessment—have always driven positive life outcomes, not because they fit into a specific science fiction narrative, but because they are the answer to a very simple question: How do I build a person for the unknown?

Q. When have you seen the power of purpose at play?

A. As a matter of both my personal experience and the rich research literature on purpose, we understand one big paradox: Purpose by is defined by sacrifice. Your day-to-day experience with purpose is, in a very real sense, more about losing than gaining. It is how purpose plays out across a lifetime that matters. Every time I’ve turned down “Chief Scientist” or similar job at a brand name companies I’ve left behind money, prestige, and power (and it hasn’t always been an easy decision). In those moments I didn’t gain anything. Years over year, though, my life gets better in every dimension. And research shows that this is true for everyone.

Q. What advice would you give to anyone looking to cultivate purpose for the future?

A. Two of the big misconceptions about purpose are that (1) you have to “find your purpose” and (2) there is only one purpose that is meant for you. In fact, purpose is something you get to construct for yourself. Purpose could be spiritual or deeply grounded in the human world. All that defines a purpose is that it’s bigger than you and will take more than your life to accomplish. As the saying goes, “The world gets better when old men plant trees.”

You get to build a purpose for yourself. You pick the tree under whose shade you will never rest. Perhaps it sounds sound exhausting or naive, but imagine a society of people capable of constructing their own purpose. For what would you sacrifice? That is what will carry you into the future.


Hear from Vivienne Ming and more creatives shaping the future at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, May 8-10, 2019 in New York City.

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