Words to Live By
Surely you’ve told your life story to somebody, something of your ups and your downs, and at least hinted at what you hold dear, your most important values. If only to yourself. What is your story, anyway?
Hanging on? Giving back? Changing the world? Just enjoying the moment? Big dreams? These last are like fingerprints, different swirls in familiar patterns: fortune, fame, so on, things we grow out of if lucky and mindful. And then there’s this unquenchable yearning for happiness.
Research into personal satisfaction, as crystalized by author Daniel Pink, points to the fruits of autonomy, mastery and purpose. That is, you decide what to do, you get reasonably good at it, and you know what you want to do with it, at least broadly. They beat the alternatives, anyway.
My metaphors are sailboats and a pair of fins. Reality brings plenty of headwinds and currents sweeping out to sea, forces bigger than us. Still, we can steer, ride the rip instead of being drowned by it.
But steer ourselves where? The idea, after all, is to go somewhere, ideally a destination of our choosing, to catch the most promising swell. Here is the logic in putting purpose first.
Life itself rarely is written so clear as whitecaps on the water, waves pounding. But I find my metaphors helpful. They give shape to the vague anxieties and misty promises of our times.
A few years ago, I experimented at work with an exercise my company had tried with me called “Finding Your Why.” Or something like that. By spelling out our personal purpose, each of us might become more effective and productive people. Maybe happier, too. This was the purpose of the program, to heighten ours.
I’m a sucker for these things in that “know thyself” way. Our work is not just work, I believe. It’s an expression of ourselves in life, even a form of worship.
Anyway, it’s where most of us spend a helluva a lot of our time and energy. But why, aside from a paycheck, always too small? To what end for the individual beyond furthering the organization?
Yeah, I got some raised eyebrows. Boss was asking for something that sounded suspiciously of the soul, or at least introspection beyond the strict call to duty. Weird.
Write a first draft of your “personal why” statement, I instructed. Why are you here, in this strange experience we call life? What were you put on Earth to do, and how do you see that contributing to a better world, or not?
I asked them to buddy up with two colleagues, take turns telling their life stories, and develop drafts of why statements: “My Why is to (fill in the blank) so that (fill in the blank).”
Your sentence might well be: “My Why is to become filthy rich so that I can play all the time.” The point is less high-mindedness than honesty with yourself. Not everyone will go with “My Why is to serve my community tirelessly so that no one ever goes hungry or without shelter.”
Some did all the steps and even met a time or two with their colleagues. Most didn’t find the time, and we all forgot about it pretty quickly.
As a workplace initiative, it was something less than a success. But in the context of my own personal why, even a raised eyebrow signals something — the briefest flicker, maybe a seed planted, Socrates peering through the blinds.
Here’s what I asked them to do: Summarize important events in your life, good and bad. Tell your life story (in summary) to two colleagues, one taking notes and the other just listening. List the five values you hold dearest (health, family, faith, fun?). List your top five talents. Listen to your partners’ life stories. Write a draft personal why statement for each of them. Write a draft for yourself. Meet again and then refine your statement. Touch base once in a while to check on progress.
If you do it well, you’ll have a sentence against which you can test choices, and not only at work. Ideally, you’ll have fins for the surf, a boat to sail, a direction to go.
Now, I did warn them this was blatant boss propaganda whose crass purpose was to harness their best selves for the sake of the paper and website, the community, the world and especially themselves, which in our business funnels right back into our work.
We’re talking here about words to live by. Beware, they can’t help but shape the story you tell yourself. You’ll want to choose them well. They’re also your blueprint to happiness.
Don Rogers is the publisher of Lake Wildwood Independent, The Union and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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