At a professional meeting, there was a session on how to find meaning and passion in scientific work. One of our doctoral students was presenting and she told two highly personal stories.
In the first, she explained that her family had humble origins. They sacrificed so she could go to the best schools in her country and then the United States. They were proud and they praised her. Her ability to impress them made her feel valued. When she finished her training in the United States, she could not secure a job. This was devastating. She went home feeling a great sense of shame. The shame was so great she became ill. She turned to prayer and a realization came. She was of inherent worth. She was lovable regardless of status; she did not need to impress others. She said the realization was enlightenment and it made her free. She experienced a new level of happiness.
In the second story, she told of later being accepted into our doctoral program and attending her first global, professional meeting. As a novice listening to accomplished researchers, she was overwhelmed. She again felt herself spiraling downward. Yet this time she was able to recall her previous experience. She recognized that her paralyzing fears were a function of social comparison. So she asked questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What are my greatest strengths? She then filled a page with her prime interests as a researcher.
A few weeks later, she participated in a formal session designed to help her define her highest purpose as a researcher. The objective was to clarify her interests, link them to purpose, and create passion for her work. At the outset, the instructor asked her and others to share their core stories. What life experiences led to the formation of their identity?
One of her stories was the above account of returning to her home as a college graduate. She said, “As I told the story in English rather than my native language, I had a ‘flow’ experience. I became absorbed in the act. The listeners were absorbed. They were attracting me into sharing my deepest feelings. I was listening to my deepest feelings. The sharing led me to understanding. It was striking. It was shocking. I could finally see. I then reduced my page full of interests to a small set of key words. These interests mattered the most. The words aligned with the difference I want to make in the world. I felt focused and I felt passion. The words continue to guide me.’”
We all live in the dynamics of social comparison and we tend to enact the self we think is expected. Our locus of control becomes external. Eventually a disruption comes. We get lost in crisis. The only way out of the crisis is in. We have to go inside and discover who we are. We have to clarify our values and our purpose.
When we do, we become free. Why? The truth of who we really are and what the world really is frees us from conventional beliefs. Instead of living in a fearful and reactive state, we become proactive. We become true to our natural assets and inclinations. We become a more dynamic whole. A higher purpose integrates us. When we are whole, we recognize our place in the larger, dynamic context. We seek to make the network of life more abundant, by contributing to its evolution. Our life has meaning because we are making a meaningful contribution to life.
The self is dynamic and the universe is dynamic. Because everything is changing, we may and we do lose alignment. Yet, once we experience the dynamic of rebirth, we know what to do in our next crisis. We consciously clarify purpose and values. When we are disintegrating, we know how to make ourselves whole and we can return to making other systems whole. The more often we do this, the more wisdom we acquire. I am grateful for a graduate student with the courage to teach this lesson in public.
- Why was the first challenge devastating?
- Why was she better able to handle the second challenge?
- What key principle do you take form this account?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?