Friday, March 23, 2018

Sense of Purpose? What Sense of Purpose?

Floating through life can be an exhausting process. Trust me, I have tried and it is not worth the effort (or lack thereof). 

Growing up, it seemed that every couple of years I would wake up to the arrival of a new sibling. I finally gave up on having a younger sister after Brother #5 came along. In reality, I slept through the 60s….I had no idea what all the fuss was about the Beatles, the drug culture, Vietnam War or any of that. Insulated as I made myself, each day was pretty much the same: wake up, do what I was told, wait for the sun to set and do it all again the next day.

The intervening years had me floating through what I have jokingly called “my nine brilliant careers.” It wasn’t that I didn't commit to anything….it was just that many opportunities came my way and I tended to embrace them without any thought in mind as to where it would lead me. I was reasonably content; I was certainly busy, and in the busy-ness of the days with children, home and work, it was easy to mask that I really was not all that content.

Well, this is not a path I would encourage anyone to follow. In my career as a freelance writer and health coach, I have learned something about what it takes to be in this world and be content. It all revolves around doing what we want that makes us feel useful and, here is the important part, fulfilled.

In 2005, National Geographic researcher and writer Dan Buettner published an article that identified five places in the world where there was the highest concentration of centenarians--people who live to be more than 100 years old, and were living healthy and vibrant lives. He went on to publish his work in The Blue Zones, and what he found was that there were nine common traits of people in these areas (the Power9). One trait in particular fascinated me: having a sense of purpose. Those in Okinawa call this “ikigai”; in Costa Rica it is “plan de vida”.

People with a strong sense of purpose — what gets them out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm and joy — on average add seven years to their life expectancy. Studies also show that there is a detrimental effect for those who have no sense of purpose, or who have lost it for one reason or another.

Figuring out that ikigai can be a challenge, especially for those of us who have not made it a lifetime aim to live with a sense of purpose and meaning. To find it, Buettner suggests taking the time to make a list of our values, the things we like to do and then, the things we are good at. The cross section of these is the ikigai (The Performance Excellence Network has a nice explanation and diagram of this). Another way to look at it is to ask the following four questions:
1. What do I love?
2. What am I good at?
3. What can I be paid for now; or something that could transform into a future career?
4. What does the world need?

Perhaps this is why I let life happen to me. First, I couldn’t isolate what exactly I love to do, was good at, that had a value big enough to create meaning, as well as a way to make a living doing it. Beyond that, even if I could find that sweet spot, the risk of failure to achieve it was a huge stumbling block for me. I didn’t seem to be able to get away from the idea that what I could contribute to the world had any value to anyone but me.

Through the years, though, I have seen others successful in life doing work that mattered to them. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Irwin, or any of those people on cable TV whose "rags to riches" stories involved them taking a risk to do something they love, and hitting that sweet spot in the process.

What I understand now is that all of these people had a vision, a goal and a plan. Their desire to do work that bounced them out of bed in the morning was greater than the risk of failing. More than that, their desire to be happy outstripped the thought of living a life doing something they disliked, simply because it paid bills, or was something that made others happy. They were determined to not be defeated.

In reality, we make life more complicated than it should be because our focus is out of line. It is far healthier to hit that sweet spot--the ikigai, and in doing so, everything else falls into place. The challenge for me has been to take that risk. I believe that there are more of us who would rather take the risk of living life rather than merely existing day-to-day and going through the motions. This sense of purpose is the most important trait of the Power9 because without it, all the others (eating right, consistent movement, family/friends, etc...) can be achieved, but in all likelihood will not bring the contentment we all hope to have.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

When Gain is Worth the Loss

But now old friends they’re acting strange/They shake their heads, they say I’ve changedWell something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.

These lines from Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” provoke some reflection about life and relationships, about things lost and things gained as we move through our lives, and how we respond to it all.

There of course is a natural process to life and living. On an organic level we are born into the world, grow (gain), decline (lose) and finally die. Most of us want to spend the intervening years building and creating, seeking and discovering what we can do, in the hopes of making a difference in our life and world. All in all, the changes balance as parts of our life are lost in the attempt to gain something greater. Some might say becoming the best version of yourself.

It is amazing and admirable to see those who embrace their passions. Watching faces light up and hearing the excitement in their voices as they show off their flower garden, perform with a band, share photos and videos of hiking trails they have explored. Heck, even watching someone get excited about demolishing a house is thrilling. Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” was someone who exemplified this spirit to the end of his life. People living every day.

What about those who seem content to sit on the sidelines? Those who, for whatever reasons, avoid doing, creating, discovering the person they were meant to be? In other words, those who hold back (even a little) from truly living every day? Perhaps they don’t want to be where they are, but are unsure that the gain is worth the loss.

Part of it may be fear. Fear of creating something in their life that may change them in some way, and not quite knowing how to handle it when it happens. In the pursuit of a passion, the energy and drive it takes to learn the craft may move them away from people and places of comfort. Oh my gosh, they may even need to expand their world a bit (or a lot) in order to fully embrace that thing that makes them feel happy, content, successful, fulfilled, or just want to get out of bed in the morning. Longtime friends and even family may not understand the changes they see. It can make them fearful of losing those connections.

Part of it may be that the passion they want to follow involves massive action on their part. A gardener does not become a master in a week or a month or even a year. Proficiency with a keyboard or guitar is not acquired overnight. Taking a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail requires more than a good pair of hiking boots and a canteen. Making a choice to pursue something they have only dreamed about involves learning and growing; breaking old habits by replacing them with the mindset and actions which will prepare them for the greater and grander life they want. It requires commitment and change if they hope to be really living every day.

The question comes down to a willingness to risk going all in and accepting the internal challenges that must be faced in order to create a life that matters not only to them, but others as well.  It is a willingness to risk being thought strange when placing their feet on a path different from those who accept them as they are. 

In embracing the changes that will naturally happen in life and making choices to create an exceptional life, people may be lost, but perhaps only briefly. The reality is that those who will remain lost are likely those who were never really deeply connected to us in the first place. It is certain that the old self will be lost; old habits and attitudes will be lost, but the gain is so much sweeter as we truly will be living every day.