As an executive coach, I have the privilege of talking with people about their very personal hopes, dreams, worries, and fears. And, over the past little while, I’ve worked with several clients who have been struggling with finding meaning in their lives. A freelance musician told me that reading and writing fiction make her heart sing, but that she doesn’t have the time to do either. An IT executive explained that he craves intellectual stimulation, but feels deeply unchallenged in his job. An HR Vice-President desperately wants to pursue some volunteer work, but feels constrained by her professional responsibilities and a need to tend to her children and husband.
Unfortunately, I hear these types of grievances from clients all the time.
In today’s world, most of us are told to “do what we love,” or at least are constantly reminded of the importance of “work-life balance.” The mythology of the first seeks to remind us that we can make a living doing something pleasurable — even though we’re not all privileged enough to have this luxury. The second presumably instructs us to carve out enough time in our “lives” (separate from “work”) to pursue our passions. Both of these scenarios can be easier said than done.
As a result, many people see the the options as follows: either sacrifice steady income to follow your dreams, or stay in your current situation, feeling stuck because other options seem too risky.
Existential psychologists argue that a central aspect of the human condition is to imbue life with a sense of “meaning.” In his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that searching for meaning is “a primary motivation” for each of our lives, and that it must be “unique and specific” depending on the person.
Finding meaning is indeed a tall order. Because of this, many resign themselves to inertia, and an ongoing sense of dissatisfaction.
Does this sound uncomfortably familiar to you? If so, consider this as a gentle nudge, and here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Remind yourself that life really is too short.
Of course, we all know that death is inevitable — but how often do we really think about it with a conscious reminder? While this seems a little morbid, reminding yourself that you won’t be here forever is a powerful motivator to shift from inertia into action.
A recent study supports this as well. When a largely female sample of undergraduates were told to live the next month like it was their last in a particular city, they were found to have twice as much of an increase in their sense of well-being at the end of the study compared to a control group. Let this reminder make you more connected to yourself, your desires, the present moment, and those around you. Merely increasing your sense of connection and presence will enrich your sense of meaning day to day. And that’s a great place to start.
2. Take small steps — and notice your satisfaction at each one.
When clients of mine believe they will have to drop everything in their current life to pursue a greater sense of meaning, I’m quick to reassure them that such rash action isn’t required.
I’ll tell them to start doing something — anything! Small as their first action step may be, it will be more fulfilling than procrastinating. If you enjoy writing, for example, then try free-writing just for fun, or create a blog. If you want to be of service, find opportunities to volunteer. Want to create a business? Take a course, investigate how you might do it, or get something started on the side. Instead of having to deal with the gnawing feeling that you’re not doing anything, you’ll find that engaging in activities that bring you joy will give you a greater sense of purpose in your life — even if they don’t become a new career for you.
3. Recognize the meaning that’s already here.
In our ongoing quest for self-improvement, we often overlook the good that is all around us, and lose sight of the present moment. When we reflect on our own mortality, we are not only better prepared to reflect on how we spend our time, but we’re also primed to adjust our perspective at large.
For example, in the aforementioned study, researchers found that participants who thought about their time as limited were more likely to savor their experiences by focusing on the positive. This is like the last day of a vacation, when you try to squeeze out every last bit of enjoyment so you can imprint it into your memory.
Try to shift from focusing on everything that you see as “not enough” in your life, and instead, savor the goodness that is already there. It might just change your overall world view.
A few years before my father died, I asked him some questions about aging — specifically, what surprised him about the aging process, and what he would do differently. He said he had been surprised by how swiftly time passes, and, that if he were to go back, he would probably spend more time slowing down, smelling the roses, and connecting with those close to him. When I asked my mother, she added that she would have tried more things, and not have sold herself short in some areas. (These observations are consistent with other research in this area, suggesting that when people look back on their lives, they regret the chances they didn’t take and not fully savoring the potentially meaningful experiences in their day-to-day lives).
Remember, it’s up to you to live your life in a way that is meaningful to you. I hope you’ll take the challenge, and get started with some step, no matter how small, today.
A mindfulness practice can also help you to experience greater meaning. To learn more, click here.
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Most organizations have, at some point, gone through the exercise of articulating their mission, vision, and values. Some, such Twitter, Google and Southwest Airlines, are lauded for adhering to their values—keeping them top of mind when developing strategies or making decisions. But in my experience, many more organizations engage in the values exercises as a well-intentioned formality that ends up playing little to no important role. Organization values will likely end up on some hidden corner of their websites, or listed in an internal Google doc that no one ever reads after their first day of orientation. When asked, employees are probably not even unable to name the values, suggesting they have little impact.
If you’ve had a similar experience in your professional life, then you might have some skepticism about the utility of examining your own values as an individual professional. Still, I encourage you to read on, as I’ve found that periodically reflecting on them can be a powerful tool for catalyzing greater fulfillment and success in your career.
What do I mean by values? They are certainly abstract, but also integral to your daily life. Values are ideals that represent your convictions—the guiding principles that shape (or, at least should guide) your actions.
As is the case with many businesses, we, as individuals, can sometimes lose touch with our values. We may give up vegetarianism for an occasional burger even though we are environmentalists; we may give advice to someone whose beliefs we disagree with for the sole purpose of networking. Whatever the break in our values is, doing so can cause unease. And so, getting back in touch with what we believe—on and off the job—can bring a greater sense of fulfillment and meaning to our day-to-day lives.
Recently, I worked with a client I’ll call Marissa who was feeling disengaged, perhaps even bored, at work. She was just a few years into her career, and had even landed what some would describe as a “dream job.” Her job afforded her challenging work, access to senior leaders, a caring boss who was an active mentor, and real opportunities for influence. Still, after a while of dealing with a large workload, daily annoyances, and keeping up with deadlines, she had lost touch with the initial feelings of excitement that she had about her work. Instead, she unhappily found herself amongst the ranks of those who dread Monday mornings, and look forward to Friday happy hour with anticipation.
So Marissa took a step back, and reflected on her values. She realized that some of the most important values to her were achievement, service, learning, and personal relationships. And, when thinking about it, she was able to see how her current job was very much aligned with her personal values, a recognition that reinvigorated her motivation. She was learning new things and expanding her knowledge every week (sometimes every day), and felt very proud of the accomplishments she had made. Although her role didn’t allow her to work with the organization’s customers directly, she was able to see how the work she was doing contributed to making other’s lives better. Although she enjoyed her relationships with coworkers, considering her values more critically urged Marissa to realize that she was not spending enough quality time with her significant other. So she committed to spending more time on her relationship, while also appreciating the ways that her job aligned with her values. As a result of these enormous insights and very small shifts, she felt a greater and more profound connection to her daily work, and fulfillment with her life as a whole.
With greater meaning and fulfillment, comes greater engagement, and likely greater productivity and higher-quality work.
Research has even shown that getting in touch with your values, can help to combat stereotype threat, the potential decline in performance that can unwittingly occur as a result of not wanting to be seen as conforming to negative stereotypes regarding your demographic group. (For example, in research, women have been foundto perform more poorly on a measure of math ability when their status as women was made salient in experiments). However, in one study, researchers found that a brief writing exercise in which women reflected on their personal values helped to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat. In other words, reflecting on your values may improve your performance.
Getting in touch with your values can also provide you an important cue—namely, that it’s time to move on if and when you determine that your values are in conflict with the work you are doing. Research has shown that when there is a mismatch between your personal values and that of your organization, you are at increased risk of burnout. Cynicism, one of the components of burnout, occurs when you feel less attached to, and engaged with, the work you are doing. If a values clarification exercise reveals to you that you are simply in the wrong job or at the wrong company, you might consider moving on.
I’ve dealt with plenty clients (and experienced it personally), who were in jobs that were mismatched to them. Once the made the decision to move on, and got themselves settled on the other side, they’ve been happier. Even those who didn’t leave voluntarily (i.e. they were fired), often felt a sense of relief and acceptance once they got over the initial shock. In retrospect, they were able to see how at least part of their under-performance was related to being disengaged or conflicted because of a values mismatch.
The easiest way to get in touch with your personal values would be to simply contemplate them. As you reflect on your life, what values are most important to you? Make a list of what comes to mind (you might want to use a journal for this exercise). If you have a hard time coming up with them, do an internet search of personal values to find a list of words to choose from. Choose 5-7 of them, and rank order them.
You might also want to sleep on it, to see if they still resonate with you after you have had a bit of a chance to consider them.
As you are engaging in the exercise, you might find that there is a disconnect between the values that are most important to you on a daily basis versus the values that you would like to be most important to you. For example, if you, like Marissa, determine that a core value in your life is getting the short end of the stick, that’s useful information! Use it to make tweaks that will bring things back into balance.
Once you have settled on your values, put them somewhere that will allow you to be reminded of them often—maybe on your nightstand, desk, computer wallpaper, or on your smartphone. They don’t need to be very conspicuous—but recording them in language can help you internalize them so you can keep in touch with the ways that your work actually does align with your values to fuel a sense of meaning, even on the days you may feel less motivated. Plus, if you determine that you are in a situation in which there is too great of a mismatch between your organization and your personal values, you can begin to make important changes that can bring a greater sense of happiness and well-being to your life.
Your values can also affect your leadership style. To find out about your’s, click here.
“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” ~Maya Angelou
I currently wear a lot of hats. I’m an entrepreneur focused on building my business and over-delivering to my clients. I’m the mother of a very energetic and joyous two-year old boy. I’m the wife to an equally entrepreneurial husband, who values my opinions in business and beyond. I’m a sister, daughter, and aunt in a close family. I’m a workout fiend who makes time for activities like tennis, pilates, and circuit training. I’m a pretty active blogger who likes to put my thoughts out into the ether, hoping that they’ll help others. And, I’m a bleeding heart who tends to say “yes” to different pleas for assistance ranging from reviewing resumes, to speaking to students, to devising a marketing strategy for a talented teenage artist.
Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Right now, I’m in the fortunate position of having that statement apply to me. Still, if you’re doing the math, there’s only so much time in the day. As a result, I sometimes feel like I’m doing an awful lot of “doing” and not enough “being.”
Historically, I haven’t been so great at them. Instead, I’ve been a nose to the grindstone kind of person who could delay gratification with the best of them to get stuff done. Plus, I’m ultra-curious, so I truly enjoy intellectual stimulation. As a result, I could manage my time like a pro, reading non-fiction and journal articles while on a cardio machine, cranking out high quality material at warp speed, and coming up with creative ideas in my car that I immediately wanted to start implementing once I got home. I could be fully present with my son, then grind something else out the minute he went to sleep. Even when I would go for a massage, instead of lying peacefully, I would find myself chatting with the massage therapist, eager to learn more about the workings of the human body and what I could do to get rid of muscle imbalances.
It sounds dizzying even as I type it, but honestly, it usually feels fine. After all, when you’re passionate about something, like Confucius said, it doesn’t feel like work. And, I make time to do things like exercise, so I’m doing everything I was supposed to do, right?
It would seem so, except for the fact that it wouldn’t be until outwardly imposed breaks hit that all of this activity would catch up with me, usually in the form of getting sick during holidays. Or sometimes, I would feel completely and utterly tired despite full nights of sleep (I am not one to skimp on sleep).
And, I’m not the only one. Earlier this week, I was talking to a friend (the mother of an infant), who mentioned she had gotten sick over the weekend as a result of firing on all cylinders in her life. I have another friend who constantly updates her Facebook page with status updates about how busy she is, while also feeling that there’s nothing she can do about it except be as productive as possible to keep up.
Lately, however, I’ve been actively questioning this approach. And what I have found is that while the outcomes of taking a break aren’t as tangible as checking an item off of a to-do list, they can be just as rewarding.
For example, last month, I took a few hours to go to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, to recharge. I had heard about how peaceful it was there, and so I decided I was going to take a break with the goal of simply relaxing in solitude. And, it was wonderful.
Although I’m someone who meditates pretty regularly, sitting in the silence of a cavernous empty church, designed with clean, simple lines juxtaposed against beautiful stained glass, was particularly tranquil. Walking along the paths, taking in the loving craftsmanship of the statues and the natural beauty of the flowers was humbling. Sitting by the still lake on a bench, writing in my journal while being serenaded by a group of ducks was a nourishing experience.
And, though I was initially a tad irritated when a friendly stranger sat beside me on the bench and engaged me in conversation (after all, I had come for solitude), I quickly went with the moment, and ended up enjoying an interesting dialogue on metaphysics, including an opportunity to practice my French (which I hadn’t done in years).
It was only a few hours, but the experience truly refreshed me and left me with a sense of peace I haven’t felt in a long time, because I gave myself total and absolute permission to just be.
Since then, I’ve been being intentional about taking time for breaks such as these more often. I take bubble baths. I take power naps when I need them. This morning, when I felt too tired to go to the gym, I listened to my body instead of forcing myself to go. I resumed attending my gentle yoga class after a one-year hiatus. I also plan to carve out time on my calendar to spend a few hours at the monastery again in the future.
And the funny thing is, everything still gets done, just as it did before. Clothes get folded. Projects get completed. Blog posts and reports get written. The world keeps turning.
About a year ago, I asked my (amazing) parents for words of advice they would share for younger people based on their own life experiences. Both of them said something similar, “I would stop and smell the roses more.”
“If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens.” ~Fay Weldon
After years of hemming, hawing, and stiff-arming my intuition, I decided to take the leap. I searched through my documents folder, edited the date on the resignation letter I had written a year prior, and finally mustered up the nerve to actually hand it in.
Immediately after I did so, I was shocked to find that I didn’t have the overwhelming feeling of terror I expected as a result of leaving my stable, not entirely fulfilling job of the past ten years. Instead, I felt an all-encompassing sense of peace and certitude. I knew that pursuing my passion of being an author, speaker, and entrepreneur was absolutely right for me.
While it was empowering to finally take a stand for my authentic self, at the same time, I also knew that making such a big transition would require a lot of personal growth. I would need to truly embody all it is that I say I believe. It is one thing to declare you are a spiritual person who trusts in your intuition, and quite another to actually act on it.
So, while I always saw myself as having ownership for my life, I knew that diving headlong into uncertainty and ambiguity would definitely push the issue. However, I saw this as both an exciting challenge with the opportunity for exhilarating rewards.
I am still on the journey, but I have definitely received a lot of signs that following my heart was the right choice for me. How do I know? I feel greater aliveness and enjoyment in my daily adventures. I am stretching myself in ways I have never experienced before and finding out just how courageous I am. I have being exposed to exciting opportunities I have always dreamed of, that serve as a reward for listening to my gut. And, I have a sense of peace and deep knowing that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing.
As I mentioned, I knew this transition would require a lot of growth on my part. So, as I’m going through this experience, I have been picking up a lot of tips and lessons. Here are some of the biggest ones I have learned so far:
1. Make Sure the Timing is Right
As I noted, I really took my time to reflect before deciding to move ahead. This allowed me to be sure I was making a well-informed choice for the right reasons. I suggest you take a similar approach before making a drastic change.
Before you make the jump, check in with yourself to make sure that now is the right time. Are you running away from something? If so, maybe there is a lesson to be learned in staying put. Are you racked with fear about the prospect of doing something different? Perhaps you need to process those feelings further. Do you have any resources that could carry you through challenging times? If you are taking a risk, having some backup can help to allay anxieties.
Do you have a deep sense of peace about the transition, knowing that it may not be a smooth road, but the journey in terms of life lessons, fulfillment, authenticity, and purpose will be worth it? Then, the time may just be right for you!
2. Recognize Sometimes You Just Need to Hop, Not Leap
Before drumming up the courage to go out on my own, I made little shifts in my life that in retrospect, really prepared me for where I am now. And for some people I know, those little hops have been all they have needed to achieve greater meaning and fulfillment in their lives.
While the dramatic metamorphoses are the ones we often hear about, sometimes you just need a little fine-tuning to be more aligned with your purpose. Reflect on whether you actually need to make a drastic change. Perhaps taking up a hobby, asking for different assignments, or challenging yourself in some other way is all you need.
3. Give Yourself Time to Grieve
Before I made my transition, I consulted with someone who told me to give myself time to grieve my old job. While I initially questioned her opinion since I felt very ready for the move I was making, once I left, I recognized the wisdom of her counsel.
Things were different – I was no longer seeing my coworkers on a daily basis. While I welcomed my newfound flexibility, my routine was different. Plus, my identity was shifting from employee to entrepreneur and author. Giving myself permission to reflect on the past, get my bearings in the present, and mindfully look to the future allowed me to honor the positive aspects of my old job, heal parts of me that needed it, and move forward with energy and purpose.
4. Create a Safe Environment
I found that for myself, being in the midst of a lot of change made me crave having pockets of stability and calm where I could find them. To create that for myself, I went through a major decluttering process.
As I cleaned out closets, files, and junk, I asked myself a simple question – “Does this still serve me?” With each item I immediately knew the answer. And, unsentimentally, I either threw away, or found a spot for it. Once I went through this purging process, I purchased a few items to beautify my space.
This process was important for me on an number of levels. Symbolically, I was able to get rid of some of the ties to the past that I didn’t need to have anymore. I was putting a stake in my future, and didn’t need some of my “security blanket” items anymore. On a practical level, having an energizing environment makes a tangible difference in how I feel on a daily basis.
5. Stay True to Yourself
I have found that people vary widely in terms of their risk tolerance. So, while a lot of people fantasize about working for themselves and becoming entrepreneurs, there are a whole lot less of them who actually decide to go that route. Knowing that, I was aware that there would be some friends and associates who would offer unsolicited advice, worries, or second-guesses of my decisions.
Through all of this, I continued to listen to my intuition and recognize that other people are welcome to their opinions. I and I alone, however, am the one responsible for making a life with which I will be satisfied.
6. Be on the Lookout for Lessons
I knew that making a major shift would set the stage for a lot of personal growth opportunities, and I welcomed the opportunity to continue to peel back my layers and become more enlightened. When challenges arise, I pay attention to my reactions to determine what I can learn from them. By striving to become a better person as a result of the risk I took, I am indeed accomplishing that goal.
7. Move Ahead with Gusto
After taking the leap I knew I couldn’t just sit back and wait for things to fall into my lap. So I have been pursuing my goals with energy, intuition, inspiration, passion, and gusto. It’s been an amazing journey, with lots of rewards, and now, I can’t imagine not having made this choice!
Have you made any big life changes? What tips would you share?
As more and more information emerges about the benefits of taking a holistic approach to life and work, chances are you’ve stumbled across terms like E.Q., positive psychology, and mindfulness. And, like many people, you may be more familiar with the terms themselves than their actual meanings. To help set the record straight and enhance your understanding of some valuable concepts, here is a handy glossary which offers you a complete overview of some terms relevant to this area.
Also known as EQ, Emotional Intelligence is a term that has become increasingly prevalent in the business world. It refers to a person’s ability to monitor the emotions of himself and others and use this information to guide his thinking, behavior and actions. An increasing number of studies have shown that those with higher EQ levels enjoy better mental health, enhanced on-the-job performance and highly developed leadership skills. As such, hiring managers are consistently on the lookout for EQ in potential job candidates.
While psychology has historically focused on human dysfunction and mental illness, this trend has shifted since the turn of the current century. Positive psychologists use scientific methods to study the conditions associated with helping both individuals and communities to prosper and perform at their best. The term is gaining rapid popularity in the world of business where corporate psychologists such as myself are drawing on the science to help companies and employees achieve greater wellbeing, and in turn, drive more profit for the companies in which they work.
Originating from ancient Buddhist meditation practices, mindfulness has since emerged as a contemporary term which describes a person’s dynamic awareness and acceptance of his/her thoughts, emotions, sensory experiences and surrounding environment. It calls on individuals to experience and non-judgmentally stay aware of the immediate moment, rather than be distracted by thoughts of the past or present. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a prominent figure in mindfulness defines it as, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Mindfulness has proven to be a valuable practice in a variety of realms and is now used across an array of areas including corporate, education, health and social rehabilitation.
As the name suggests, wellness relates to a person’s overall state of wellbeing encompassing the mind, body and spirit. This balance is actively sought out by an individual through decisions and choices that nurture the creation of an all-encompassing healthy lifestyle. While the term is incredibly broad, common wellness dimensions include mental, physical, spiritual, environmental, social and occupational.
Spirituality is a hard one to define as it can mean different things to different people. That said, most spirituality encounters involve a path to self-transformation, inner discovery and meaningful experiences. Some of the more popular spiritual journeys involve religion, meditation, nature, reflection and sensory experiences. While work and spirituality have often been considered separate domains, research shows that they can co-exist to create better outcomes.
This is a very personal post I wrote for Tiny Buddha about my own journey to find purpose. If it resonates with you, I would love to hear from you in the comments!
“Our lives improve only when we take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” ~Walter Anderson
Growing up in a small town in Western Canada, I was known as the kid who accomplished things.
I was the well-mannered and conscientious child who skipped grade two, was at the top of her class, played three musical instruments, took ballet lessons, French lessons, swimming lessons, and any other lesson in which I expressed an interest.
While this might sound like the calendar of an over-scheduled kid, it actually never felt that way. I had a real love of learning, and appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to so many things.
While I was grateful for all the privileges afforded to me by my parents, the unintended side effect of being the kid who accomplished a lot was that it set a very high bar in terms of others’ expectations of me.