One day our daughter, Shauri, called to tell us her boyfriend had just broken off their relationship. She was churning with negative feelings. She announced she was coming home to recover. The next morning I went to the airport. She climbed into the car and immediately started crying and talking about her unfortunate situation. She was in a deep emotional hole and, as she agonized, the hole seemed only to get deeper and darker. Finally I asked her if she was problem solving or purpose finding. The strange question jolted her and she looked at me quizzically.
I suggested that most people tend to live their lives in a reactive mode. They are always trying to solve their problems. People are then sad or happy depending on where they are in the ebb and flow. This is very common. Normal people tend to live in the reactive state.
I was suggesting an alternative. We can become initiators or creators of our own life. When we initiate, we tend to eventually create value, and we tend to feel good about ourselves. If we continually clarify our purpose we live with vision. We are drawn to the future we imagine. No matter what emotions we feel, we begin to pursue our purpose and our negative emotions tend to disappear. We experience victory over the reactive self and we feel good about who we are. We feel better because we literally begin to have a more valuable self. We are empowered and we become empowering to others.
Shauri was not buying it. She ignored me and then spent another fifteen minutes complaining. She paused for a breath and I again asked her if she was problem-solving or purpose-finding. She ignored my question and continued venting. We repeated this pattern four times. The last time I asked, she stopped talking and just looked at me. I could tell a big challenge was coming. In order to stop my insensitive questions, she asked, “How would I ever use purpose-finding in this situation?”
“You can use it in any situation,” I replied.
She asked, “How do you do it?”
I said, “Whenever I am feeling lost or filled with negative emotions, I get out my life statement and I rewrite it.”
Just then we were turning into the driveway. She asked me, “What is a life statement?”
I explained that it is a short document in which I try to capture the essence of who I am and what my purpose is in life.”
“You have an actual document that does that?” She seemed truly surprised.
Something had changed. She was expressing genuine curiosity. Here was a chance for meaningful contact and entrance to the reality of profound possibility. That is what happened.
I said, “Let me show you my life statement.”
She followed me into my study. I reached into a file, pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to her. Shauri read the document carefully and then looked up. She asked, “When you feel bad you read this and it makes you feel better?”
“No, when I feel really bad, I rewrite some part of it or add something new. The document is always evolving. When I finish, I feel clearer about who I am. By clarifying what I most value, I become more stable. “When I clarify my purpose and my values I center myself. My negative emotions tend to disappear before I even start to act. Just clarifying who I am and what I want to create seems to energize me. Even the thought of movement becomes purifying.”
I continued: “There is another reason for rewriting. People think that values are permanent, like cement. Clear values can stabilize us, yet they are not cement, they need to evolve. Each time we face a new situation and reinterpret our values they change just a little bit. Rewriting a statement like this one allows us to integrate what we have learned and how we have developed into our values. Hence our values also evolve with us. We co-create each other.”
I told Shauri I have executives in my classes write their life statements and they find it hard. They begin with very simple life statements.
I suggested that instead of spending the weekend feeling bad about what happened and working through all her reactions to the event, she might instead spend her time writing her own life statement and she did. By the end of the weekend she returned to DC happier, more confident and ready to move forward.
This passage is adapted from material in Letters to Garrett by Robert E. Quinn, See Letter 2.
What is a reactive life?
What is a proactive life?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?