Finding your purpose: Muslim Professionals and the Quest for Meaningful Work
I’ve been very lucky. A series of transformative events through the important years of university and my early career meant that I ended up co-founding this website. And with that came my life’s purpose and mission.
This is the story of my personal quest for meaningful work and the lessons that I strongly believe you can apply to your quest for the same thing.
How I got out of my aimless years
It started with a phone call from Ibrahim in mid-2015. My first child had just been born. Both Ibrahim and I were early in our legal careers having graduated in 2012.
I had started off with a career in teaching straight out of university. It sounded like a good idea at the time but I quickly came to realise that I didn’t enjoy the work. Importantly, I also couldn’t really connect with why I was doing it. Sure, teaching is a noble profession. And we have all had teachers who have had incredible impact on our lives and careers.
But teaching in the English secondary school system as I was (I was on a training programme that prioritised in-class teaching, hence teaching straight out of university), it all felt quite rigid to me. A lesson plan must contain this. You must cover these topics by this time. Your lesson would not meet OFSTED criteria because it didn’t contain a plenary (I’ve still never come across this word outside of teaching).
And so I quickly became disillusioned. I wasn’t particularly enjoying the life of a teacher and the higher purpose just was not there for me. I didn’t truly feel like I was inspiring or changing lives. I was barely 22 myself so I’m not sure whose life I thought I was going to change.
In all honesty, it was a somewhat confusing time.
Several months later, I decided to leave that role. It was not ideal as I had not long before handing in my notice met the woman who is now my wife and we had agreed to marry. I’m not entirely sure what her parents thought of me quitting a stable job a few months before getting married to their daughter. I can’t imagine it was that positive but they seem to have trusted there was a plan. Thankfully.
One of the things I’ve realised in life is that the big steps are hardly as big as you make them out to be in your head. I am sure that many people stay stuck in jobs they don’t enjoy or don’t see the point of because the idea of quitting is unfathomable. Actually, I know this to be the case because of the amount of people reaching out to us who tell us this.
And whilst it is true that it isn’t always appropriate to simply quit a job, we often underestimate our own ability to find a way out when we are backed into a corner.
So anyway there I was. I had quit without much of a plan and I had a wedding on the horizon.
My parents have – alhamdulillah – always been well connected in the community and I quickly fell into a job at a local law firm. This was much more enterprising and I could see my talents being put to better use here. It was during this role that IFG actually started, and it was here where I started to become much more methodical in my career planning.
I figured that if I enjoyed law, I should actually qualify as a solicitor and do work on big deals. That was not going to happen at the law firm I was at (and where I had now been for a couple of years), and so I rattled off applications to the top law firms.
Those of you who are familiar with this process will know that it’s an intensely competitive process. But the reward for it is that these law firms will pay for your law school conversion courses and give you a maintenance, and then you have the offer of a training contract which is a 2-year period where you work as a trainee solicitor.
Salaries for this role at the top firms pay north of £40k-50k and once you qualify that goes up to £100k+ and increases year-on-year as your experience grows.
So the prospect of clear financial progression was appealing. But more interesting than that to me was the fact that it was these firms that were the lawyers behind the top deals happening globally. The sort of thing that you see on the front page of the Financial Times.
Finding purpose in the City
In the summer of 2015, I landed a training contract offer with a large US firm. It didn’t come easy. The process back then was much more geared towards people without a full-time job and involves a 2-week “vacation scheme” where you work with the firm for two weeks before they make any training contract offers. I ended up using my paternity leave to do a vacation scheme with one firm (who went on to reject me).
You can imagine my relief then when I got that happy phone call late in that summer of 2015 with the news that I had received a training contract offer. I promptly accepted it, handed in my notice, and prepared for 2 years as a student again.
Around this time, Ibrahim had also been through a similar process having landed a training contract offer with a prestigious London firm.
I want to break from the narrative for a second here to note that you can hopefully see at this point that things have started becoming much more purposeful. I chose to apply to top law firms for a very specific reason. It was about having the background, CV and experience that gives confidence to people in the future.
All this time, Ibrahim and I are basically ideating every day on various business ventures and ways in which we would like to influence the world and have an impact. We had bonded during our university years and a large part of that was a shared vision and passion for helping to improve the state of affairs for the Muslim community.
That purposeful thinking is what led me to take the steps I took in going into corporate law. From there, the story is actually really simple. I was perhaps one of the only people to go into corporate law with an exit plan ready in my head. The only thing that changed – and this is another lesson I’ve come to learn – is that my timescales massively reduced. I had originally planned for 10 years in law before leaving to do whatever it was that we were going to do.
I should stress at this point in 2017 that IFG was just two years old and nothing more than a place for Ibrahim and I to write some articles and hit publish. It was gaining an audience but it was absolutely not the case that we thought of it as the thing that we would spend the rest of our lives doing. Nor was it clear that that could be the case commercially.
But as time rolled on, both those things became increasingly clear and in late 2019, eight years before I had planned, I had quit my corporate career to pursue something deeper and more meaningful.
So that’s my story. And I am not saying that is a blueprint – I genuinely believe every path and story is different. But for those of you reading this who are battling with this question of meaningful work and higher purpose more and more, I suspect there are some common points with your own story. And whilst you’ll have to apply the points to your own circumstances, it’s helpful to discuss them.
Is entrepreneurship the only way to find purpose?
No it isn’t. But given that work tends to make up the majority of most people’s meaningful day, and we all need money to survive, you generally either find purpose via entrepreneurship or employment. Many people find that they have hobbies that give them a sense of purpose: volunteering, teaching, and other similar activities.
All of these are commendable and noble but, for me, combining my daily life with the purpose is the absolute ideal.
You might be reading this and not really seeing a pathway to finding meaningful work. Here are some practical tips on achieving that.
- If you are going down the entrepreneurship route, be thoughtful about the problem you are solving. What are the big problems and how can you solve them from the ground up? For instance, if you identify that Muslims need to be better represented in politics, what are the innovative ways to fix that?
- Unless you are doing something as a charitable endeavour, you will need to find a way to commercialize the opportunity. Some problems are hard to commercialize and therefore may need rethinking (or you do it as a charitable project).
- For those of you in employment, you want to seek a role in an organization which is tackling a big mission that you believe is purposeful. If you are working in such an organization and actively contributing to furthering its mission, that is the very definition of finding purpose.
- In order to achieve this, you might need to take a step back from your current role. Certain roles in investment banks, for example, will only exist in investment banks. But perhaps you can adapt those skills into something that another company needs and create a new role for yourself. Or perhaps you can quickly retrain as something else which is something another more meaningful company needs.
- Create a limited downside. I firmly believe that many of us overplay the risk aspect of making these kinds of decisions where we leave comfortable environments for less comfortable ones. The way to make this much easier is to create limited downside. Jeff Bezos refers to this as the “regret minimization framework” – the idea of looking back and potentially regretting not doing something. Hindsight is 20/20 and so I like to think of scenarios where you massively de-risk things by making a decision which is easily reversible. For instance, I didn’t leave corporate law until I had actually qualified as a corporate lawyer. Knowing that qualified corporate lawyers are highly in demand, it meant that even if things did not work out, I would be able to speak to a few law firms and find a way back into law. Create easily-reversible situations but commit to your new world.
In conclusion, it is perfectly possible to align our daily work with our purpose and live a fulfilling life which furthers the cause of God. It may seem daunting, but with a bit of creativity and sincerity, we can make it happen.
The key is to approach our work with intention and to be purposeful about how you achieve it.
However, it’s important to remember to not be reckless in our pursuit of purpose, especially if you have a family to provide for and other obligations.
Remember that most people go through life avoiding hard decisions. But the ones who make a mark on the world are the ones who face them head on with a plan.