As an undergraduate I took a number of courses from a wise professor. He was not only concerned about his subject matter he was also concerned about the long-term welfare of his students. He placed great emphasis on transcending social pressure by living a purpose driven life. He often cited a portion of a poem called “Tis the Set of the Sail” by Eller Wheeler Wilcox. It goes like this.
One ship sails East,
And another West,
By the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales,
That tells the way we go.
I once shared this with a class of executives. I was discussing the topic of purpose in life, and also at work. I was suggesting that when we have a life purpose we pursue it no matter what way the wind is blowing. If conditions are positive we pursue our purpose. If conditions are negative, we pursue our purpose. In the latter case we stay engaged in the face of opposition and we learn what changes are necessary in order to progress. Having a life purpose promotes learning, progress and living a meaningful life.
I invited a group of executives to share their own perspectives. One person spoke up and said, “All my life has been about pleasing others. I have worked to meet the expectations of my parents, my partner, my children, my boss, the people who work for me. I never stopped to ask who I am.
The room went very quiet. It was a statement of vulnerability. In making the statement the person made it legitimate for others to tell their truth. Another spoke up and said; “My life is structured by the need to provide. I have also never stopped to think about who I really am. I do not know what my life purpose is.”
The next morning I was pondering the fact that most people, both rich and poor, have never searched for or found a purpose higher than self-interest. Most of us spend much time living an externally driven, reactive life.
I thought of my own professional life purpose; “Inspire positive change.” For me these three words are like music of magical effect. In any situation I can recite them and they reorient me. I immediately take a proactive stance. “How, in this given situation, can I inspire positive change?” As I contemplate the answer I am drawn to some kind of positive contribution. This means, no matter my position in the group, my influence elevates and I am leading.
In addition to my professional life purpose, I also have a larger, overall purpose that is spiritual in nature. When I recite it, I am also elevated. For me these two life statements provide purpose and meaning. I find them invaluable.
It was not easy to come to these two statements. I spent years working on them and they evolved slowly. It all begins by looking inside, considering one’s best and worst experiences, one’s greatest strengths and weaknesses and asking what life has prepared us to do.
Anyone can engage the process. You first write any sentence and you do not worry if it is inadequate. You then examine it the next day and rewrite again not worrying about the flaws. You repeat the process. Over time you get closer and closer until you have some words that resonate with your soul. Even when you think you have it right you keep revisiting it, looking for some small change that will improve it. I invite you to this simple but important task.
In terms of positive organizing, I have a radical suggestion. In every organization the clarification of personal purpose should be at the heart of the “on-boarding” process. Every new employee should be assisted in coming to a personal and professional mission statement. Everything else that is covered in the on-boarding should be examined in terms of the purpose statement. People should be asked to see the connection or lack of connection to their purpose. Such a process will not only impact the new employees, it will begin to work backwards and upwards. It will eventually bring increased purpose to the organization.
What is my life purpose?
How could I help my people find their life purpose?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization