I love a good story. The more sentimental and nostalgic, the better. But it must be true. I envy those who get along with fiction better than I do. It's like a food you want to like but can't. Every so often I try, and beat myself up for putting it down (and away) before the second chapter. Because I read everything with a highlighter in hand, it's hard for me to get down with a story that doesn't require notation. I know...it's like a disease. I choose to celebrate it.
True storytelling is part of me, and it's no surprise that it became my life's work. Anyone reading my writing can see that my work self and life self are not separate. I live the way I work, and vice versa. In my tenure of learning the qualitative research business, that was not always the case. I've helped the world's largest companies understand their customers, positioning their global products to launch with a one-two punch. Sometimes I observe the way people interact with products and services like emerging technologies; other times I explore theoretical underpinnings for why humans think, feel and act the way we do. The stories I tell range from why a southern priest would be among the first adopters of the iPad, using it in his traveling sermons, to riding through the English countryside in a mobile veterinary trailer to attend the birth of a foal, where my goal was to observe the delivery systems of the many pharmaceuticals involved. This is consumer insights work at its most exciting. Yet through all of this exhilaration, a question was following me around:
What is the meaning and purpose of what you do?
Easy answer - I'm helping to improve lives through technological and healthcare advancements. But couldn't I go deeper? Other experiences culminated in my life at this same point in time (enter cancer and a few other big ones), and I found myself at a crossroads. For me, indecision means voracious reading! For anyone at a similar juncture, I recommend the following appetizers of amazingness:
The Firestarter Sessions, Danielle LaPorte
A Hidden Wholeness, Parker J. Palmer
Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
After the brain re-orientation of the Firestarter Sessions - a how to find your work/passion guide - it became clear that the crossroads wasn't about work. My question shifted:
"What is the meaning and purpose of who I am?"
Now I'm going all existential on you. There is a time in everyone's life when they enter a flurry of philosophical inquiry and self-reflection. Let it in! The tone of the question began to change from nudging to urgent. From nagging to inspiring. I came to the conclusion that I, together with every person on earth, am here to infuse meaning and purpose. Sort of a tautological answer, but here's what I mean. Evolving as a person meant first valuing myself, and then elevating others to identify their own value. Humankind needs to hold hands in the cultivation process. Now, I'm no crunchy meditative guru (as much as I covet that kind of work...I must not be ready yet). I'd made that realization, and my practical side chimed in promptly and said, "K, but what are you going to DO about this?" The key to a paradigm shift is proliferation, and the belief that change can and does start with an N of 1.
My first step was to recognize that sense of purpose must cut across one's personal and professional life.
A way of Being in one area of life cannot be mutually exclusive from a way of Being in another. In Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, he calls this the flowering of human consciousness. If we stop to observe, we can see and feel how we are beginning to take care of each other as a global community. Btw, this book is a work/life bible. I didn't mention it above because it's in it's own league. The other book to live by is Adam Grant's Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. The basic premise is that the givers of the world produce win-win situations, and along the way create opportunities for a chain reaction of good will. When we give our time, talent and knowledge to another without expectation of a return, the return comes barreling toward us 100-fold on both the happiness and monetary front. This is not a book about karma or faith. Case studies with hard evidence show us why success must be redefined to put giving front and center. The deep ripple effect is proven, and it matches Tolle's flowering notion.
My second step was to make a vow: I will do work that passes my meaning and purpose gut check, and elevates humankind.
The vow brought an immediate change to what I was 'putting out there.' I relaxed my frantic search for work that paid the bills, and began presenting myself differently - my genuine self only, always. This brought in people, ideas, collaborations and innovation from a wide net of like-minded people and organizations. Before my eyes, the work/life boundaries began to MELD. This kind of shift requires a suspension of immediate gratification - you may not get the job, relationship, or money right away. But when you do, you know they are right kind. I don't yet know what steps 3 and beyond will ask of me, but I'll be ready. I know this works, and it can work for anyone willing to break the mold. When you live congruously, everything else falls into place.