I have discovered that, for many people, the idea of “higher purpose” is fairly well understood, and its importance and link to basic human happiness is self-evident. Most of us, at least at certain junctures, ask the question “Why am I here, and what am I meant to do with my life?” Whenever I bring up the topic with friends or others I encounter, I get a lot of head-nodding. I have come to believe that we all start life with a sense of who we are and what mission or purpose we are here to pursue, but we lose connection with that purpose over the course of our lives as we deal with the distractions, challenges, and expectations of life in a complex, rapidly-changing world. Yet we yearn for that grounding, that compass that can guide our lives, the work we do, who we serve, and the role we play in the world.
So, assuming that common understanding, I will not try to tightly define “purpose” or “mission”, as others have already done that much more thoughtfully than I ever could anyway. Instead, at some risk of exposing more about myself than you would ever care to know, I thought I might use my personal experiences and “purpose journey” to give one view of how we can find (or re-find) meaning in our lives. For those who saw the overview on purpose that I wrote last week, today’s entry is the first in a series of three on the topic – this first one covering the role purpose plays in our individual lives; the next shifting to its importance to enterprises seeking to grow, prosper, and realize their potential; and the final entry focusing on how to actually bring purpose to life for an enterprise’s owners, employees, customers, and surrounding community to see.
When I look back to my earliest childhood memories and sense of myself, I find some common themes and visions or fantasies of what I was meant to do with my life. These themes can sound, on the surface, a bit grandiose and expansive, but, these were some of the ideas running through the head of “Young Phil”, and at a very early age. They include:
A desire to connect with people as individuals, to meet them where they are, and then to bring people with different world views together toward the common good;
An especially long-term perspective on time, manifested through a fascination with history as well as the distant future, and seeing patterns linking where we have been to where we are going as a people;
A deep concern for the future of our planet – which was not tightly defined as a child, but evolved as a young adult into concern about issues like climate change;
A sense of myself as a teacher (I was one of those kids who started playing school at a very young age) – as someone with a passion for sharing knowledge with others, including knowledge about themselves, what special gifts they have to offer, and how best to realize their dreams;
An enterprising side that imagined myself starting new businesses and engaging with customers and, though I wouldn’t have used the phrase then, business partners and colleagues;
A vision of myself playing some kind of role in public service.
As I reflect on these words, I am saying to myself “What a presumptuous (and confused?) little boy!”, imagining myself playing all of these different, perhaps competing, roles in the world. Now, with the benefit of life experience, I also realize that we may have a life purpose (that evolves over time) as well as more temporal, purposes for the moment that can guide our lives in a given moment or phase of life and may be less expansive in scope.
Transitioning from “Young Phil” to “Adult Phil,” I explored some of these life themes and potential purposes through my education, work, family, friendships, and personal reflection. The realities of needing to make a living and raise a family helped lead me to a particular focus on the "enterprising” theme. Once you jump into something like the world of business, it can take on a life of its own, and you begin to lose some of other themes that have the potential to animate your life. I dabbled as a teacher as an instructor in a night MBA school, but ultimately embedded teaching into my work life as a management consultant and adviser. I built connection with others mostly through my work and family life, but rarely found time to play much of a role in my community. I spent the better part of 25 years privately dealing with existential fear of the role climate change might play in our future as a civilization, but with no sense of how I might contribute to the solution. After all, I am not an engineer, and am unlikely to develop the breakthrough solar or wind technology that will solve the problem.
Those early-to-middle-age adult years were characterized by a weaker awareness of my life purpose. Or, better put, my life had entered a stage with a very specific sub-purpose: raising and supporting my growing family, while also trying to build the skills and experiences to succeed in the working world. But they were important years nonetheless for learning about myself, as the opportunities and challenges of everyday life helped me, indirectly, to explore how those “Young Phil” themes might one day more prominently manifest themselves in my life.
Fast forward to the moment that changed everything for me: the sale of my consulting business, which also roughly coincided with my children becoming adults as well as my parents passing on from this world. All of a sudden, the normal structure of life that seems to make decisions for us disappeared, and once again revisiting “why am I here?” became an imperative.
I started that quest with a list of areas of interest, which included a number of potential ways I thought I might be able to make a difference – big or small – beyond myself (but in the community at large). Then, over the course of a few years, and quite organically and without much detailed planning, that exploration led to the beginnings of a definition of my life’s purpose. I don’t have it all figured out – it is still a bit fragmented, and at the same time bordering on grandiose. But, I can start to see it, and I have tried to manifest some of it in Great Lakes GrowthWorks.
I also began to realize that one’s life purpose is not an end in itself. As the Dalai Lama has said, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” We are happy when we find a way to live, work, and – for many of us – serve in a way that gives us fulfillment and contentment – a sense of feeling “in flow” because we are doing what we were meant to do. So, defining your higher purpose isn’t all about how you will save the world, and it’s not a competition to have the absolute greatest impact on others. It is ultimately about being who you are, giving you the happiness and fulfillment we all crave.
But, here’s the real epiphany: my emerging life purpose, or the themes that are moving me toward better defining that purpose in the second half of my life, is starting to look a lot like the list of themes Young Phil might have generated, but with a more adult perspective shaped by the current conditions in which we live. I won’t bore you with the full litany, but it includes being drawn into areas such as:
Playing my small role in the evolution away from fossil fuels – probably by leveraging an understanding of how to reach people “where they are” to overcome the barriers to common understanding and action to address climate change;
Helping people incubate new businesses and industries that will be critical in a world run on cleaner, renewable energy – a world filled with new opportunities but also significant dislocation created by a major change in the way our economy works;
Helping others to define their unique gifts and to harness them toward fulfilling their own life purposes.
By now, you may be seeing some parallels between the way Young Phil thought and the way Older Phil is starting to think. For example, the Young Phil concern for the future of the planet gets expressed as an Older Phil interest in addressing climate change, and the enterprising Young Phil becomes an Older Phil who feels drawn to help emerging companies to develop solutions to that climate challenge and help build the new economy.
For me, the key to re-defining and animating my personal mission (though I’m only in the beginning stages of doing so) has been to get back in touch with the Young Phil that is still there. I have recently taken to supplementing the traditional “Where do you see yourself in five years?” interview question with a new query: “What is your first childhood memory of how you imagined your life and your role in the world?” Being able to answer that question with some clarity can provide inspiration for finding our purpose later in life, or our “sub-purpose” for a specific segment in life. I encourage us all to pay regular visits to our younger selves. Doing so may provide the key to unlock the path forward for whatever years we have left on this planet.