‘What do you want to be when you grow up, Mummy?’ A question from my 4-year old today. I started to explain that I was already grown up, but stopped myself because I’ve recently read Lynda Gratton’s ‘100 year old life’, and theoretically I could start another couple of careers yet. I explained that I like to help people and the organisations they work for to be the very best that they can be, so that they’re able to help others. And she told me that she wants to be ‘a window cleaner like Paddington Bear’ so she can make the world clean for everyone. A happy vision.
I wasn’t one of these people that knew exactly what they wanted to do from 4-years old (I’m assuming the aspiration to do window-cleaning in a duffel coat will change for my daughter too). I knew I cared about the world though, and I knew it wasn’t enough to just ‘care’. I knew I wanted to help make things better, whatever that might look like. Donned in my WWF or Friends of the Earth T shirts, I was a small force to be reckoned with. My dad got used to making a donation to charity practically every time he got his wallet out, and my mum reconciled herself to recycled toilet paper.
It’s great when we realise we want to make a difference, but it helps to have focus and direction to make that happen. I have found the work of great speakers such as Bill George and Simon Sinek on finding our ‘why’ to be hugely useful. I already knew my ‘why’, though it was somewhat vague, but my biggest challenge was I lacked the courage to pursue my purpose until my mid 20’s.
The Chinese Philosopher, Conficious, said that ‘we have two lives, and the second begins when we realise we only have one.’ We move into our second life of true purpose when we get busy creating meaning and impact. This has been true for me. The trigger for reaching out for our ‘second life’ will differ for each of us, but I wanted to share my own story as an example.
My ‘first life’…
I spent my first life achieving a bundle of academic credentials and actually doing some really nice stuff, alongside about 10-15 years of living with various eating disorders that tore at my time and energy and most of all, destroyed my self-esteem. Only a few people know this (though, anyone who took a look at my 5.5st frame could have hazarded a guess). Why am I sharing this? I’ve championed mental health personally and through others, fighting the stigma attached to it and the impact it has on people, but I haven’t personally put myself out there. It has deep, personal significance for me, and we can only break the stigma if we talk about it. The good news is I reawakened my purpose, following a period of wishing I wasn’t here at all, and I believe it has given me an even stronger sense of meaning and purpose in what I do.
My second life, or realising and working toward my purpose
I studied Psychology at university and loved it. Having worked through university, I needed money at the end of it too, and when I was offered a job as a Corporate Tax Consultant for Arthur Andersen, I thought this would make my family happy. Somewhat fortunate for the world of Corporate Tax and for me, this role was made redundant before it began, and I found myself working in a corporate law firm in the City in the HR department. It was here that gradually I found my way back into Psychology, and into Occupational Psychology, for the Royal Air Force. I felt like I had found my ‘purpose within my purpose’. I wanted to make a difference to vulnerable people, and I wanted to do so though understanding what makes people tick, so I could apply evidence-based practice in my work. If I was going to support the performance and potential of amazing people, I wanted to know that I was coming from a place of increased understanding…from evidence. Geeky? I wholeheartedly embrace geekiness. There is little more creative than science, and I love it.
Taking my first steps toward my purpose
Jenny Blake, Author of ‘Pivot’, says that the ‘only thing that matters is your next step.’ This is so true. From one bold step into a new culture and a new place where I knew no one, from what had become the somewhat ironic cohort zone of working 14hr days in the City, I had found where I wanted to be. It is from here that I developed my skills in Occupational Psychology. I was lucky to work with some of the greatest and finest minds I’ve ever met. The startling camaraderie and intellect of the RAF astounded me then and now. I went onto find the magic of OD and a community of people who truly believe in the humanistic roots of this work, and to apply this within incredible organisations such as Save the Children and Sue Ryder. And I found the practice of coaching to support others to achieve transition, dazzling performance, or whatever it is they’re seeking. My meandering career route didn’t just require a sense of purpose. It required me to trust and believe in each step I took toward my purpose.
I want to make a difference to the lives of others through supporting compassion and humanity in the workplace, and to enable and support the cultural change that will sustain this. I want to support and create systemic change that enables organisational strategies and impact. I want to build work cultures that treat people with care and compassion. I want to help people to feel alive in their work; to feel stretched and fulfilled. Or just quietly satisfied, if that’s more their thing. It took me a long while to build the self-belief that I don’t just ‘want it’, but that I can and will achieve it. And I will.
So, what’s your ‘why’? And when you’ve found it…what then?
If you’re interested, I’d highly recommend ’True North’ by Bill George or ‘Find Your Why’ by Simon Sinek as some inspiration for finding your own purpose and next steps. Or delve into the work of Victor Frankl on Logotherapy, with a intro in his book, ‘A Man’s Search For Meaning.’ There has been a wealth of research on meaning and purpose at work since Victor Frankl wrote his first book, but I would challenge anyone not to be moved, and moved into action, by this book.
So you’ve found your ‘why’. When we’ve found the ‘thing’ that matters most to us, what then? We’ve actually got to take some form of action, and it’s not always obvious. Career pathways aren’t linear. There is no straightforward pathway to your purpose. Your purpose and meaning may be self-oriented (we all need to pay the bills) or directed toward a greater social or economic purpose. If you think you’ve found a linear pathway, toward this, I’m afraid you’ve probably found a grading structure. Your purpose is not a job role – you’re much bigger than that.
Alongside my work in supporting systemic and cultural change in organisations and teams, I’m an accredited Coach. I support people to define and to realise their purpose. Working toward short-term goals serves a purpose, but I prefer to work with my clients to achieve true, courageous change. This may be supporting your transition into a new job role or leadership opportunity, or it may be to enhance your leadership, resilience or self-belief that you can and will achieve your aims.