The new year offers us a natural time to look back and review where we have been. It gives us the opportunity to make new commitments to ourselves and, perhaps, to others. And it creates an easy jumping off point for a “reset” on almost anything.
Like many others, on January 1, I always re-commit to eating better and exercising more. This year I am adding one more resolution – one I feel more committed to than the others – I want to do better at living each day with a sense of purpose.
I have spent my professional career very focused on purpose. I am a clinical social worker by training and had 20 years working in a public mental health center. Purpose and mission were clearly in front of me every day I saw clients or managed programs. Even when I oversaw the administrative functions for the organization, the purpose behind those functions was crystal clear to me.
As a teacher, speaker and consultant, the purpose of my work is still clear. It is what makes working a lot of hours and traveling into the night to get to a client location worth the effort. A sense of professional purpose still guides me.
In my personal life, keeping purpose clear and grounding has not been as easy. I have an overall purpose –primarily as a Christian and a mother. But the day to day demands of work and home seem to create a fog that can dim the clear view of who I am and where I am going.
When we get fuzzy about our sense of purpose in any sphere of our lives – professional or personal – we can lose our way. The irrelevant can feel enormous and the important things can pass us by unnoticed.
When this happens at work, we create mediocrity. We overemphasize policies and personalities and forget that we are there to make a difference in the lives of customers and, if we are leaders, in the lives of colleagues as well.
It’s not that different in the personal sphere. Losing a sense of purpose creates mediocrity there, too. Friendships fade due to inattention or children grow up and we regret time not spent with them. Kind words go unspoken and love goes unexpressed.
Unfortunately, unlike eating better and exercising more, the path to reconnecting to your purpose is not as clear cut. How do we reset our view, focus and energy when all of the demands that clouded our clarity of purpose are still present and demanding?
There is a story I quote from Kevin Cashman’s book Leading from the Inside Out that tells of a soldier stopping a priest as he is walking on the road. The soldier shouts, “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?” The priest pauses in response to the questions and then offers to double the monthly pay of that soldier if the soldier will stop him every day and ask him those same three questions.
These are the questions of purpose for all of us – professionally and personally.
- Who are you?
- Where are you going?
- Why are you going there?
Giving intentional thought to our purpose is the first and most important step of reclaiming it (or discovering it in the first place). Part of why leaders need to be talking about the purpose of their work to their teams, is because it keeps people thinking about it. Part of why we need to spend more time talking to our kids, is because it is in those conversations that we have the chance to help them find their sense of purpose.
Daily demands crowd out our time to think. It’s hard to hold on to a sense of purpose without thought and reflection.
So here is what I am committing to this year:
I will spend some time every day thinking about those three questions. Unlike exercise, which fades quickly from my activities because of daily demands, thinking can be done easily in the moments between the demands. I shower every day. I drive multiple times a day. I have no excuse to not think other than a lack of intent to do so. This I will fix. And I will think about these questions that matter.