It is no secret that those who feel their lives have an important purpose believe that their lives are meaningful and more satisfying.
Those with purpose are more resilient, grittier and motivated to accomplish their goals and achieve their resolutions, not just their New Year’s resolutions like I am obsessed with and you are reading about, but long-term goals and resolutions.
Purpose involves making a contribution to the world. It has an external component that goes beyond just seeking your own comfort and happiness, but contributing to matters larger than yourself.
In my case, my purpose has primarily become to support my family the best that I can, and not just financially. I want to help them thrive and achieve the most that they can with the gifts that God has bestowed upon them. This includes an abundance of moral support, encouragement and helping them with a never-ending list of little things. If my children or wife need something from me, it is my intention to provide it.
As an economic developer employed by a municipality in the Chicago suburbs, I sincerely work on a daily basis to help businesses, developers and property owners thrive and contribute to a vibrant and expanding economy. Given the time, I could write over a thousand pages on the subject of economic development, but for those of you unfamiliar with what economic developers do, we are typically employed by government entities work to expand and diversify our communities’ tax bases. We recruit new businesses, retain existing ones and assist businesses when they can expand operations locally. Wisegeek.com has a fairly accurate synopsis of what we economic developers do.
As a certified professional in the field and having worked in this capacity for over seventeen years now since working as a P.O., as detailed in my book The Probation Officer, I have come to realize that not only can I do well in the eyes of my employer and support my family in the suburban middle class lifestyle that we have become accustomed to, but I can truly help those who wish to open their own first business in my town or perhaps expand into a second and third business. I enjoy working with single proprietor business owners the most because those are the entrepreneurs that I can relate to the best.
Anybody could work with Starbucks, McDonald’s or 7-Eleven. Those corporations have attorneys, engineers and architects on staff who can apply your community’s set of Zoning and Building Code regulations to their projects with little to no help from municipal staff. Fortune 500 companies including those three have been among the easiest companies that I have ever worked with. Not so easy is explaining to a former teacher or someone who worked for other restaurants for decades how to select the ideal location, how to best negotiate with a landlord or seller, and how to navigate our community’s complex approval process.
Besides my primary purpose of supporting my family and striving to be a better person, my secondary purpose is to assist aspiring business owners and to bolster the economy of the community that employs me.
You undoubtedly have different strengths, talents, insights and experiences than I do. Things that you have done, that have been done to you, and that you have learned about and worked hard to accomplish differ from my own experiences. Taking that a step further, some things that I have done may seem nearly impossible to you, while others are too mundane to mention. By the same token, if you have ever repaired a car engine on your own, built a structure or composed a great song, then I am in awe of you.
Seeking your purpose requires a great deal of reflection and knowledge about who you are. You have to consider what kind of person you are and what type of person you want to be. It may change from year to year, so it is not static.
When you reach middle age, as I have, you begin to question what type of person you have been and whether you are okay with that. You begin to consider your purpose beyond trying to be a good employee and striving to support your family. Those are fine purposes, but there must be something else.
Through my considerable amount of reading, thinking and writing about a wide variety of topics since early 2016, I have gained a keener insight into my own true self and have sought a more meaningful life than I had been living. Writing this is part of that, but only a small part. I would be better off not writing about it at all, but doing more of what I write about and being more of who I aspire to be.
Do you know exactly who you are, where you came from and where you are heading? Now is as good a time as any to reflect upon that, gain a firmer grasp of your own identity, core beliefs, values, life goals and, of course, your purpose. I know and you know that we both could serve a greater purpose than we currently do.
Even though I realize that I jump from one concept to another and it can be difficult enough to achieve things like a list of resolutions, becoming more creative while consuming less, getting more organized, becoming wealthier, gaining grittiness and learning to better appreciate what you have and coveting less material goods, I think that reminding yourself of your greater purpose on a regular basis is an important component of improving yourself that you should never let stray too far from your thoughts.
We Are Storytellers
In The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, author Emily Esfahani Smith draws a distinction between redemption and contamination stories that we spin about our lives.
What she means is that the same thing could happen to two people and, depending on how they internalize and interpret what happened, they could have two very different stories of what transpired. Positive individuals tend to craft positive identities and tell stories of redemption and what they learned, how they grew and overcame obstacles. They craft a positive identity for themselves and feel more in control of their lives.
On the other hand, those of us who generally feel stagnation, regression and anxiety when confronted with life’s difficulties and let-downs craft very different stories.
I could tell you a story of feeling like a pawn in a power game earlier this summer after having been transferred from a department where I fit in well, had a boss who I admired and worked my ass of for and felt that I had found my place in our organization to a young, inexperienced and less tactful boss who I do not admire or respect a lot, who urges me to work mostly by email and dropping in my office when I am in the middle of doing something, and where I have to feel around for my place every day.
There are some schools of thought that keeping your employees uncomfortable and on edge is the best way to drive them to greater productivity. I even agree that that managerial style may, in fact, work well for many workers. It just does not work well for me. It makes me feel like instead of being a self-starter and diligent employee who thoughtfully and strategically plans my next move to the (highest) benefit of my community’s economic development, I am now ordered to storm the front lines like the proverbial bull in a China shop in the hopes that we can mow something down.
Nevertheless, I have come to realize that how I interpret the story matters almost as much as what actually transpired. Someone else in my shoes may interpret the transfer as being wanted by another department, working for a forward-thinking new breed Millennial boss who is ready to do everything in a new way, and that moving from a highly rules-and-regulation-oriented department to a more results-oriented department is a good thing. Also, that our stress on digital marketing and information processing is the way things are being done now and those who fail to do so will get left behind.
I am sure that you, too, have stories that you tell about your lives, both good and bad, and that they reveal how you understand yourself and how your life has unfolded.
Sometimes I stop and ask myself, “How the fuck did I get here, working for a young boss who was in grade school when I was a grown man, working in a suburban community that fights new development more than welcomes it, yet always wants more and more?”
I ask myself how we ended up living where we live, how I ended up driving a piece of shit car when I always wanted a Porsche, and how can our family be the only one in our community that does not own iPhones and still watches tube TVs?
Well, I can answer all of those questions when I think back to what I have decided my purposes are. Long ago, I decided that it was more important to me to support my children both emotionally and financially to the best of my ability, which entailed me saving up a whopping number for me, $200,000, or one hundred grand per child, toward their college accounts.
I can assure you that, as a college sophomore attending a highly-ranked private college known for its music programs, our son is more grateful that we pay his way for him than he would be with an iPhone and nicer car. As a high school sophomore, our daughter would prefer the phone and car for the time being, but I think that may change when she, too, is a college student and hears about the massive debt being taken on by her fellow students.
I do have a lot of stories. As a matter of fact, there are few situations that I have not encountered along the way. Some good, some bad and some downright ugly.
Personally, I am striving to overcome my tendency to dwell on negatives and the “woe is me” stories that nobody really wants to hear, anyway. People prefer to hear and read stories about overcoming adversity, contributing to others and, ultimately, becoming more successful.
That is why you are reading this. Not to hear about how unhappy I am about my transfer. I realize that I should be more grateful for what I do have, and I am resolving to improve my outlook not only about the future, but what has already come to pass. By reframing some of our personal narratives, both you and I will live more purposefully.
We all have some baggage to claim, but we must not allow that baggage to hold us back from striving to achieve our purpose.
Our emotional baggage brings fear, guilt, hurt feelings and insecurity. For most of us, there is at least one major source of pain that impacts the way we view the world. The baggage can come in many forms, from having suffered abuse, having been bullied, the loss of a loved one, the trauma of having been assaulted, the helplessness with not being able to help someone or yourself with a physical ailment, mental ailment, addiction or incurable disease.
By the time you have reached middle age, as I have, you may have even experienced many or all of the above, and those types of adversity cannot help but breed cynicism, unhappiness and feelings of anxiety or depression.
Although these traumatic experiences can make us feel helpless and leave wounds in our psyche, they make it even more imperative that we show resilience, perseverance and the grittiness to overcome these setbacks, thus making us wiser and strong enough to continue pursuing our purpose.
I could detail all of the baggage that I claim, but it would be boring to read and painful to disclose. It includes the painful deaths by cancer of several loved ones, having been assaulted and attacked by two thugs who tried to kill me soon after graduating high school, losing out on job opportunities to less qualified and, in one case, a much younger candidate, a painful injury to my ankle in June of 2013 that has become permanent, and my recent unwanted transfer to a young, inexperienced and pushy boss, just to name a few. I am sure that I could list out dozens more given enough time.
The idea that we can grow to lead deeper and more meaningful lives by overcoming adversity is hardly a new concept, but it is definitely easier to read or hear about someone else doing it than doing it yourself.
So, tomorrow is Friday, November 10th in 2017. You may read this soon thereafter, in 2018 or years from now, but what does it mean for tomorrow?
For one, I was going to take a much-needed day off tomorrow, which would have been my twelfth vacation day of the year. Nothing to exciting about that. Just another middle aged Middle Class American white male taking a day off to rest his mind and body a bit.
In my quest to take twenty vacation days this year, or at least eighteen, I am going to fail miserably. I had to cancel my planned vacation day, where I just would have hung out around the house, relax a bit, read a bit, write a bit and take care of some menial home-related tasks. The reason is that I have too much work piled up, and even if I work on it eight or nine hours straight tomorrow, I still will not be able to finish everything that I have to do this week.
Am I going to stay until 7:00 PM? Come in on Saturday? Take some work home with me?
It’s bad enough that I have to cancel my twelfth vacation day of the year, and with one planned for the day before Thanksgiving on Wednesday the 22nd, and only two planned for the month of December, it seems as if I am going to finish this year having taken a mere fourteen vacation days, well short of my goal.
So tomorrow as I drag myself into the office for yet another busy and stressful day, I am going to remind myself of my purposes. Tomorrow is a payday, so I will be Paying Ourselves First in the form of a check to my wife’s IRA, and then I will be paying bills and paying for wants and needs for my family as part of my purpose of supporting them to the best of my ability.
One of the bills that I will pay when I get home from work is our monthly $2,500 to our son’s college. There are more after that, but that is obviously the big one.
Two or possibly three of the projects that I will be working on tomorrow instead of reading in the bathtub and making myself a great lunch will be small things, although not so small to the businesses that ultimately benefit from them, that will boost my community’s economy by small increments.
One of the projects that I will be working on should ultimately result in a multi-million dollar transit-oriented development (TOD) that will become rental housing for upwardly mobile Millennials and empty nesters.
Thus, instead of lamenting my lack of a vacation day, which would in reality be a mental health day in my case, I will take some small measure of comfort in knowing that I am working toward fulfilling my purpose.
My young and inexperienced boss who severely lacks tact may not appreciate it, but you and I will.