There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. – Maya Angelou
This is #3 of 12 experiments for the year, offered to get you inspired, thinking creatively, and organized in the pursuit of bold life ambitions of deep personal meaning. Experiments 1 and 2 concentrate on the big question of WHY (aspire to live and leave a life respecting your greatest gifts and passions). They provoke you to think about life – your ideal versus the current version – and death – those things for which you want to be remembered as you pass into the great goodbye.
This March Experiment starts the migration of WHY to WHAT. If you’re still reading these essays then you’re likely loath to the idea of retirement years spent in the wading pool. That deep end of the grand basin feels risky, but damn if that diving board doesn’t look fun. WHY make the effort to mount the board, muster some courage, and take the leap? WHAT will you find at the bottom of the pool? Onward.
Is it important dive deep, especially if after a life of impressive achievement? I argue that it is for at least 4 reasons:
1. Midlife is the best moment to dream big and realize your authentic self. You likely have some stores of savings, the kids are gone, your network is extensive, health is still good, mind is still sharp, time is available, and your life experiences have a bestowed a wisdom to which your younger self had no access. Are you going to waste this golden moment?
2. Your accomplishments to date, impressive as they may be, may not reflect the untold story inside you. Amazing mom, corporate CEO; both and many titles in between are impressive laureates. If that’s all that needs be told and you’re fine with that résumé on your stone block, god bless and job well done. If not, there’s no better time to start on a new epithet. (See point 1.)
3. You’ll likely live a longer, richer life. Study after study of repeatable, empirical evidence reveals that pursuing authentic life purpose is a key to happiness, good health, and more days on top of the dirt. Just a few sources include centers of research led by Martin Seligman (UPenn), Sonja Luybomirsky (UC Riverside), Barbara Fredrickson (UNC Chapel Hill), and the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. The results of an 85-year Harvard study published just last month show that the essential ingredients to longer, happier lives orbit around positive relationships. And one key component of these is the personal growth enjoyed from the pursuit of purposeful life goals, shared with those you love.
4. The world needs your gift. There is so much beauty and so many problems in the world today. Perhaps your gift is artistic expression, perhaps it’s helping people in need, maybe it’s retracing the voyage of Kon-Tiki in a balsa log boat. Regardless, we all benefit. Jimmy Carter stands at the gate to ascension as I write this note, in hospice care back in Plains, Georgia. He was President of the United States; the most powerful man on earth. Now that’s a colossal accomplishment on which to call it a day and retire to the Palm Beach club set. But Jimmy’s legacy had only begun. Nobel Prize recipient, tireless human rights and healthcare advocate, green energy pioneer, Habitat for Humanity founder, and loving husband and dad. We’re going to need a bigger headstone! He will leave this world a much, much better place for all of us to live.
What to do, what to do
Some of us know well our deepest passions and where purpose resides. We understand our gifts, have dabbled with daring projects, and hold a solid sense of how to make a difference. Some of us have no clue. The most of us are somewhere in between.
There are an endless number of books available on uncovering your purpose (see additional reading below). I offer here 3 exercises on Options, Motivations, and Activities that will be helpful in surfacing possibilities should you be in that not really sure category.
Exercise 1: Options (let’s boil the ocean, shall we?)
1. List all previous existing ideas of hobbies, passions, or curiosities that you’ve considered pursuing when you had more time.
2. Identify enjoyable activities from your career. What parts of your jobs did you love doing (as opposed to those you dreaded)?
3. What activities put you in a Flow state; that is, when engaged in them your strengths are challenged and mind 100% immersed, numb to other distractions, and you lose all sense of time.
4. What’s on your bucket list if you have 12 months to live?
5. What types of roles, activities, or responsibilities do you want to avoid?
6. Compare these lists and look for themes.
Exercise 2: Motivations
What is driving you develop a greater sense of purpose? Why commit your energy, spend your savings, and abandon the easy life for a more deeply engaged life? What are your motivations?
This is a short list of 33 possible motivations that may be driving you, just a slice of total possibilities. Create your own, select 5, and look for themes.
Exercise 3: Activities
Create a table of activities from your career or life roles and identify those that you enjoyed and those that created the greatest discomfort. The table should include your job/role title, activities performed in each, and focus of those activities. Circle the activities you enjoyed and strike through those that you did not. Look for themes.
In my professional career I was an analyst, investor, and professor and I present my own table here as a sample.
These exercises may not uncover a specific project, but should be effective in setting your North Star. In the business world this is referred to as a company’s Mission and revealed through a Mission Statement. (Some life coaches refer to it as a Vision Statement; take your pick.) It has little to do with what a company actually produces, but succinctly encapsulates its core customer value. Three examples:
To create happiness for people of all ages, everywhere.
To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
To encourage and enable the pursuit of bold ambitions of deep personal meaning.
Nowhere here are specific products or services mentioned. Nothing about theme parks or electric vehicles or life leaping programs. But everything these companies do will align with their Mission Statements. If not, either the statements or the offerings must be reconsidered.
You should be ready to take a first pass at your Mission Statement if you’ve worked through the exercises above. What value will you offer the world and how will it tell that story inside? Focus on value not product or specific project. Think about your customers. There may be millions, there may be just 1: you. This is your life, your bold ambition, your interprize. What will it give us? Where will it lead you? What’s that North Star?
There is an endless list of books written on the topic of finding life purpose. No single one is considered the definitive work. I’ve read just a few and these are some titles I found particularly helpful:
Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life. – Ken Robinson
The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life. – Marci Alboher
At the Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion. – Elle Luna (I absolutely love this book)
If you have come across books on passion and purpose that you find powerful, please share in a comment or contact me. Thanks!
Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence