No matter how highly paid, if you lack the opportunity to fully apply your gifts toward a purpose that inspires you, any job eventually becomes soul-destroying. We are here to express our gifts; it is among our deepest desires and we cannot be fully alive otherwise. – Charles Eisenstein
In every human being there is a longing to know the reason for their existence, the purpose of their lives. Leo Tolstoy once despaired, “The question was: Why should I live? Or: Is there anything real or imperishable that will come from my illusory and perishable life? Or: What kind of meaning can my finite existence have in the infinite universe?”
— The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost & Hirsch, Hendrickson Publishers, 2003, p. 49
During my more than 20,000 hours sitting with people and hearing their stories, one of the most interesting conversations is when I ask them, “What’s your purpose? Why do you do what you do? Why did you decide to dedicate your life to this career?” The responses are often a blank stare – as if I’ve asked them to tell me how to achieve world peace.
After some moments of thought, the typical answers are “I was good at it in school.” “My counselor/teacher/parents/friends thought I could do well in it.” “I thought I could make enough money to live.” And my favorite, “I never thought about it; I just kind of fell into it.”
In my life, I’ve been aligned with my purpose twice – as a teacher and in my current role as a coach. The other jobs I’ve had all were the result of either being asked to come to work for an organization or doing something that sounded interesting. I never gave it much thought and that lack of alignment, while giving me rich experiences to do the work I currently do, always seemed to lack something. It took effort; it was work; it was exhausting! My physical and emotional energy levels were constantly on empty.
It wasn’t until my boss, Floyd Warner at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, came to me one day and asked me to go see a coach in Washington, D.C. that all this began to change. Floyd was concerned that because of my Type A, acute workaholism, “get things done” approach to work and life, I was setting myself up for health issues or worse. “I’m afraid you’re killing yourself,” he told me. Of course, in my wisdom, I informed Floyd that my workaholism was precisely what had gotten me to where I was in my career. His response was priceless: “Exactly.”
I had no idea what coaching was, but went to see Melissa McNair, one of the pioneers in coaching, and my initial work with her changed my life. Her first question was a wake-up call. “How do you want the last half of your life to be?” At 48 years old, I had never thought about that question because I was still 25 years old in my head. But that question, along with questions about my physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions of my life, set me on a course that was truly life-changing. Along the way, I uncovered my purpose, my big reason for being.
What about you? Are you mindlessly going through your day-to-day living? Or is your purpose something that makes no sense – what I call the “Theory of the Big Lie.” It goes like this:
In school, we’re taught to work and study and get good grades so we can get into a good college or get a good job. Then, in college, we’re told to work and study and get good grades so we can get that great paying job. Then we get that job and we’re told to work really hard so we can get a raise and a promotion, get a raise and a promotion, get a raise and promotion, until ultimately, we can retire and die. So… life’s purpose for many people is to retire and die! Which is insanity! And who is it that’s “telling” us this? Usually no one; it’s what we think others think we should be and do.
But what would happen if you were to identify your passions, your talents and gifts, and what others valued about you and your contributions? What would that work look like? Would it even be called work? And what would that do for your life? Thoreau observed, “The mass of men [people] live lives of quiet desperation.” Why be one of those people?
How do we discover or uncover our purpose? While there are many books and articles written about this, there’s no short-cut to the answer. It takes time – quiet, reflective time where you’re sitting and thinking and journaling about the meaning of your life. Scientists at the Innovation Lab run by LEGO have shared that 80% of the brain’s nerve endings end in the hands. The process of writing in a journal (or playing with LEGOs) stimulates areas of the brain and creates thinking that other methods can’t. It’s like having a conversation with yourself.
This discovery of personal meaning in what we do is the key that unlocks possibilities and creates happiness, fulfillment, and peace in our lives. It also means we never “work” again but live purposeful lives, fully in the flow of living.
Author and counselor Richard Leider offers a few suggestions in a 1998 Fast Company interview.
- Answer these two questions and answer them honestly:
- What do you want?
- How will you know when you get it?
- He believes people have their own solutions but don’t know how or avoid discovering them.
- Feed these three hungers:
- Connect deeply with the creative spirit of life – the hunger to touch the creative energy of life.
- Know and express your talents.
- Know that your life matters. Everyone wants to leave behind some kind of legacy
- Discover the four factors:
- How to live from the inside out. Start with yourself, not external demands
- Discover your gifts. What makes you unique?
- Discover what moves you. Where do you find joy?
- Discover solitude. Go to a special place where you can find quiet.
- Answer the ultimate question: What is your vision of the good life?
Anderson and Adams (“Mastering Leadership”) suggest a practice they call “Discern your ‘musts’ where daily journaling is around these questions:
- What are the deepest and highest aspiration for your life?
- What matters most to you?
- What brings you meaning and joy?
- What does the world need that I can provide?
- What is your life trying to tell you about who you are and what you are here to do?
“No leader sets out to be a leader per se, but rather to express him/herself freely and fully. Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself… First and foremost, find out what it is you’re about, and be that.” – Warren Bennis
Without a firm foundation of purpose, leadership can be empty and unfulfilling, leaving a nagging feeling of something missing in our day-to-day experience. Without answering the “why we exist” question, we are engaged in a series of distracted, disjointed activities, aimed at getting through the day, week, month, or quarter – but for the sake of what? With no purpose, there’s no chance of creating an organizational vision that inspires and communicates the urgency and importance of what we’re doing.
With a solid understanding of purpose, leaders know why they’re doing what they’re doing and why it matters. It enables them to articulate vision and advance in their own personal development from the reactive stage to the creative, self-authoring stage – instead of living and leading from others’ unspoken expectations, they’re able to write the story of their lives, their organizations and the contribution they make to the world. But most importantly, they’re able to create a compelling vision around which others in the organization can align their own personal visions.
“Purpose is the starting place for true leadership. The power to create what matters in the face of difficult circumstances comes from within, from passion and conviction.” – Anderson and Adams, “Mastering Leadership”