At a basketball game for eight year-olds I sat next to a young father. We got into a meaningful conversation and the topic turned to purpose. He said he would like to know his life purpose. I asked him questions about his most joyful experiences and his most challenging. He told three stories about each. All three joy stories were about bringing people together and helping them innovate as a group. All three challenge stories were about moving from personal fear to faith.
As we talked we came up with an initial statement. “My purpose is to live in faith and help people to organize collective efforts.” I told him this was not the final product. He needed to examine it daily, and make changes. He needed to experiment with applying his purpose. He needed to keep assessing and rewriting until something inside him clicked. He agreed to do so. He recently wrote and reported following directions quite well.
Yesterday was a busy day at work and in the midst of it, I had a quiet moment as I walked somewhere. I was feeling good and the thought occurred to me that wherever I go, when I’m at my best, I make positive connections along the way. I thought of many specific examples. It made me think of a line from the song, “Give Said the Little Stream; “I’m small I know, but wherever I go, the fields grows greener still.” When I got back to my desk, I added the following to my purpose statement: My path is my community. My purpose is to live in faith and help people to organize collective efforts.
The workday went two hours longer than I expected. By the time I got to the train station, it was a mess: at the height of rush hour, there were delays due to a train that broke down. I waited and waited for a train and when it finally came, I couldn’t squeeze onto the car and was left outside. In my hunger, fatigue, stress, and frustration, I had a mini-breakdown, knocking on the train door and saying something crazy to the people inside: “C’mon, make room, people! Have a heart! I waited with you on the platform too!” (I don’t get angry very often, but when I do, I do some pretty crazy things.)
Well, of course, I felt ridiculous and ashamed for acting that way and not being more patient. I took a train headed in the opposite direction (had to get out of there!). I arrived at a platform that was just as bad if not worse than where I had been, and I felt the fear come over me again. The train was about to pull in and a woman who had been standing next to me on the platform edged forward. I didn’t look at her directly, but I edged forward too.
Then I realized what I was doing and turned to her and said something friendly about how crowded it was and how I couldn’t get on a train earlier. She said something friendly back to me about how crowded it has been lately. When the doors opened, there was a surge of people around us, but together she and I moved toward the door and I motioned with my hand for her to go first into the train.
In the first experience, I lived in fear and organized no innovative, collective effort. My path was not community; there were adversaries all around me. But in the second experience, I overcame the fear I was feeling and reached out to someone along my path and formed a small but positive connection with her.
Many years ago, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. This morning I looked up one of my favorite quotes from that book that I still find inspiring: “Man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”
The last sentence is potent. We can become swine or saints. Both potentials are in us. What we become is determined by our decisions. Having a purpose statement leads to better decisions. We find our purpose by contemplating our past joys and challenges, experimenting in the present and continually pondering, clarifying and rewriting. As we discover our purpose we create a more generative present and a more generative future.
- What is your life purpose?
- How can you find it or help someone else find theirs?
- What difference would it make?
- How can you use this passage to create a more positive organization?