A friend left a comment on one of my Instagram pictures the other day: “I love all the joy I’m seeing in your recent pictures!” I took it as a compliment, and was grateful someone had noticed. Life, lately, has demanded a lot of focus from me. I’m feeling pulled in so many directions, have had to say no to many great opportunities, and have returned again and again to a purpose statement I wrote almost two years ago, that embodied the concepts of authenticity, choice, change, love, gratitude, creativity. I’ve had to fight to live a life aligned with my values of grace and gratitude, and focus on family (when there is so much exciting stuff happening in the work arena right now). I’m still working on finalizing a few client projects, and knee-deep in research for Authenticate and a productivity project that is supposed to debut in 2015. And I realize that I can’t squeeze in a relationship with my kids when they are 18; that time has to be invested now. Despite all this, life does feel balanced, on most days, even if it also means I’m apologizing to a few people who don’t understand why I’m not into 24/7 work mode.
My weekend research led me back to a topic I discuss frequently with coaching clients: purpose. I drafted some thoughts in Evernote, and as I wrote, I found myself thinking, someone needs this TODAY. So I’m posting.
If you’re looking for purpose, meaning, and significance in your life; if you’re looking for the impact that you can make on the world, or if you’re looking for a reason to explain away dire circumstances, you might be zooming in on something too specific. Purpose is a big picture, a long timeline, and our lives are just a tiny pixel in that big picture. That doesn’t mean we’re not an important part of that picture. Every pixel counts, no matter how big the picture gets.
It’s hard for me to imagine, and it might be hard for you, too: if the world really is such a huge place, how is it possible that we matter that much? How is it possible that our actions, or worse, inactions, could have a ripple effect that might hit the other side of the world next week, or even in the next century? Aren’t legacies things that are reserved for the rich and famous?
Here’s something I know for certain: you don’t have to be famous to make a difference. On the opposite hand, you could be a celebrity that leaves the world void of any difference made. Think of headlines–the last time you saw news of a celebrity dying of a drug overdose. We’re talking about people who supposedly have everything—the world is their oyster, so why have they have fallen into a pit of drugs and alcohol to escape that world? Would a sense of purpose, and meaning help them escape that emptiness? It’s hard to say that folks drowning in the sinkhole of substance abuse are folks that have a strong sense of purpose, significance, and meaning, right?
Yet if we look at the pixels that make up the front of newsstand magazines, their lives definitely take up more room than ours in the big picture, right? So if you think that your life doesn’t make a difference in this world, I can see where you are coming from. From the media’s perspective, I guess that’s correct.
But we’re not going to look at this from the media’s perspective. We’re not going to take a mass-market approach to living. I’d even go so far as to say that the mass-market approach to living doesn’t always end well, if we look at the headlines. If fame and fortune guaranteed happiness, the magazine covers would read differently. Then again, the media can’t sell magazines based on a long-term big picture; they sell magazines about today’s news, today’s drama, today’s minutia.
It’s hard for me to talk about purpose without talking about my faith. I believe in an intentional, benevolent God, who holds that big picture firmly in the palm of His hand. I believe there are good things on this earth, and bad things on this earth, but I also firmly believe that the bad things on this earth are overshadowed in the long run by amazing things He knows about that we don’t. I believe that in the timeline of all existence, of everything that was, or is, or is to be, that this moment that we are in, right now, is just a blip. It might be a yucky blip, a bad moment, a not-so-fun time in our lives, but in the scheme of a massive timeline, it really is a minuscule moment. The good, in the long run, will always win.
I realize that there are some folks out there who would want to debate this, and that’s fine. That’s where my faith takes over. I believe that good will win. But I also understand that in those sometimes sucky moments, it’s hard to see the big picture. It’s hard to see how the pain of that moment adds any purpose, significance, or meaning to our lives.
The secret to seeing the big picture, and adding purpose and meaning to life, is actually quite simple: find the good, and give it away. Take inventory on what you have been given. Start with the good stuff: talents, strengths, abilities. Add in the bad stuff: experiences, lessons, things that are hard to explain. See the good in it all, find the love, even in that sucky, yucky moment. (I didn’t say it was easy). Find the gift. And then give it away. Realize that you haven’t been given the responsibility of hanging onto it. In the words of our favorite Elsa, let it go. Anything given to you, good or bad, is given to you for the purposes of stewardship only—it wasn’t yours when you came into this world, and you can’t take it with you when you go. Thank goodness, right? This means that nothing is really ours, and anything we think is ours we are really just stewards of. Part of stewardship is sharing. When we are young, we are taught to share our toys, right? That’s part of good toy maintenance—making sure other kids get a turn.
So, how do you share the bad and the ugly, without being an overly negative person that no one wants to hang around? In my own struggles, I’ve identified four steps that help me wade through the thicker waters of life, and still help others:
- Tell the redemptive side of the story. Even if it’s an ugly story, if you can find the gift, you’ve found the good. There might be times when you flat out feel like you are making it up–that there is nothing good in this situation. The mind is a powerful thing, though. Grab a pen and paper and write out something good about the negative situation, even if you feel like it’s hogwash. Walk away from it for a few days, then do it again. When you feel like it, share the story publicly. If it’s not the right time to tell the story, wait until it is. Find the good in it, though, and see it as a gift. Eventually, it will be something that will be used for good, even if you can’t see it at the moment.
- Give more. In his book Give and Take, Adam M. Grant proposes that when we can give where we see results, giving will actually energize us instead of deplete us. When my husband and I hit rock bottom financially a few years ago, the first thing we started doing was tithing. What amazed us was that when we felt we were down to nothing, by society’s standards, we still found the resources to give. You have resources at your disposal–time, money, assets, knowledge. Find a way to share them.
- Count your gifts. You’ve been gifted with a unique set of talents, skills and abilities. It’s true, there is no new idea under the sun. What is new under the sun is YOU, and how you react and respond to ideas and circumstances. No one, ever on the face of this earth, is going to have the same perspective and the same gifts to breathe into others that you are. In this moment, this difficult moment, you can bring beauty like no one else, if you pull from those unique-to-you-resources. Here’s another cool thing: when you do this, the people around you blossom. The greatest gift you can give to anyone in any moment is the gift of your present self.
- Count your blessings. Literally. Start counting the tangible goods around you that money has purchased, circumstance has given, and Providence has provided. If you’re reading this, you probably have more within an arm’s reach than 80% of the world. (As of 2005, 80% of the world’s population lived on less than $10 per day.) Nothing produces gratitude more quickly than looking at what you HAVE, rather than what you lack. And nothing produces joy more quickly than practicing gratitude.
It’s a truth that we were all born unique. Even a set of identical twins has differences, both in the unique personalities they are born with, and in the circumstances that shape their lives. When you acknowledge this truth, you eliminate the need to conform, imitate, and you invite the fulfillment of life that happens when you celebrate your authenticity. It’s not an excuse to rebel, but it is a reason to be confident in your talents, skills, and abilities. The best way to live your purpose, on good days and bad days, is to be you, uniquely. Stop the comparison game, and look at what you were put on this earth to be, and be those things.
In other words, put into practice what composer Harry Dixon Loes wrote in 1920: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!