I’ve almost completed a post-graduate programme on the psychology of coaching – mentioned in a previous post. During a recent workshop, we covered the topic of existentialism. Prior to the course, I couldn’t even spell this. Here’s my take on what it means…
Taxi Drivers: Think of your most recent conversation with a Taxi Driver. I’m guessing that s/he probably didn’t say the following: “This is a wonderful day to be alive”. Yet, that’s exactly what a taximan said on Friday, April 11th. Several things might have underpinned this positivity. A burst of warm April sunshine. Finding €50 in an old suit. Great medical news. But, slightly left of field try this: You know that it’s a terrific day when you connect with your fundamental purpose. Stay with me on this one…
Non Religious: Now, I don’t wish to offend anyone’s’ religious beliefs. But for me, conformity – whether being a Catholic or a Consultant – simply doesn’t answer this more fundamental question: What is the core calling in your life? It’s like having the opportunity to write your eulogy and work backwards from this by asking: What really matters? What defines me? These questions are centrally important because this is your life. And, you’d better figure out how this one ends, because it’s already started. Showtime!
Outsourcing Meaning: Historically many people outsourced the meaning of life to theologians who figured out all the big questions (‘Who made the world?’) and they delivered the ‘rules’ around how we lived. They made it simple for us by crafting easy to remember formats e.g. the 10 Commandments. But, being born into a particular religion is not the same as deciding the core purpose in your life. You can’t outsource meaning any more than you can outsource eating. And a life without meaning is a life without vitality, without spark, without the knowledge that you are in pursuit of something special. Connecting with the core meaning in your life is a way to tap into a rich and engaging energy source. For some people this might have a religious component, but not for everyone. Central point = you ‘own’ this.
Not Freudian: One of the downsides about studying psychology is that you are continually reminded of the importance of those early years. As a parent you can ‘beat yourself up’ about your lack of skills and the negative impact of this on your kids. It’s reinforced in the popular stereotype, like the poem This Be The Verse, from Philip Larkin. The opening lines are…
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
The Freudian view (to massively oversimplify), could be summarized as Blame Your Parents. Why do I feel such anxiety? Why is my confidence low? I’d feel much better about myself if I’d had more encouragement as a child and so on. The blame for of the above can be placed squarely at the door of parents. In contrast, the existential approach sees the core responsibility for happiness as something each of us owns, a different perspective. It’s up to you to figure out the core purpose in your life. It’s not something on your mothers’ ‘to do’ list. Even if you father takes the pledge and doesn’t drink a drop of Guinness between now and doomsday, that won’t reveal the purpose in your life. The good news is that you are the CEO of your own life. The bad news is that if your life is not going to plan, you can’t outsource the blame.
Taking a Stand: When you figure out the purpose in your life, you essentially take a stand. To know what you are ‘for’, you have to also know what you are against. You cannot be what my sister Teresa describes as a ‘go by the wall’ – someone who stands for nothing. It’s nothing whatsoever to do with job titles. Who you are is bigger than what you are.
Important People: To bring this idea alive, let’s focus on a couple of people who’ve changed the world. Think about Mother Theresa feeding the poorest of the poor, the untouchable caste in Calcutta. Or Lech Walesa, a former electrician, making a powerful speech to the US congress. Telling them that the “World market for words is saturated. It’s time for action”. Nelson Mandela cherished the ideal of a free and democratic society – a point of principle which he was prepared to die for. Closer to home, Mary McAleese, ‘took the Presidency to the People’ – by making the office holder incredibly accessible. And then you eventually come to ‘little old me’ and ask: “But, how can I change the world? I’m just a lowly…” (Brand Manager, HR Specialist, Nurse, Manufacturing Operative, whatever). You might believe that it’s possible for world-class people to change the universe but that you only operate in a tiny arena. Here’s the deal. You don’t own the responsibility for changing the world. But you do own 100% responsibility for determining the course of your own life. While you may not be changing THE world, you will be changing YOUR World.
Discovering Purpose: Now, this is where it gets a bit tricky. ‘Purpose’ is not signposted. There are no maps showing ‘YOU ARE HERE’ and no exact route forward. People generally know that they are ‘off purpose’ through dissonance – a sense that life is not what it should be –a feeling which might be described as ‘this is just not right’. The following 2 step process should help you to unblock this (1) Ask yourself the following: Have I become lost? Have I been just going along? How can I become the very best version of me? What is my dream, my possibility? What am I passionate about? Some people decide to work with an external coach or a therapist who can pose those questions (given the importance of the topic, make sure you work with someone skilled in this particular space). Others embark on a D.I.Y. strategy (2) Your ‘Statement of Purpose’ subsequently becomes a guide. Just as the North Star has guided shipping for millennium, you start to move towards this. It’s something to aim for rather than be attained. In the words of Martin Heidegger: “Possibility is higher than reality”. The scary bit is that you may have to break convention, moving away from what’s expected of you towards what you expect of yourself – with all the risk and anxiety that this poses around being judged by others (hint: people are responsible for their own life, not for deciding how yours should be lived).
1st World: This topic only makes sense for those of us living in the so-called developed-world. If your kids are starving, you’re unlikely to be wrestling with the meaning of life. So, we are in a privileged position to be even able to address this. Crafting a personal purpose statement takes time. It’s a complex and ambiguous journey. While you can’t ‘prove’ the meaning of life, you can discover what will have value for you.
The Prize? Is it worth the effort? The potential ‘Prize’ is huge. When I look back on my own life, I realize that I’ve worked through a number of phases which provided great meaning at that moment in time. Completing college, getting a career established, adopting children and so on. But as these milestones are achieved, it’s important to set out a new vision for the ‘Next Chapter’ in your life. I understand the journey because I am a fellow traveller.
I know, I know. It all sounds a bit serious. However this is a powerful idea and worth the investment of effort. I really hope there’s something in this for you. Happy hunting!
PS: After I’d written this blog, I came across this TED talk from Ric Elias. He captures all of the above in a short, but brilliant delivery. Well worth a look.
PPS Lighter Moment: Advice from a great Roman politician (courtesy of Brendan Moran).
“The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome will become bankrupt. People must again learn to work instead of living on public assistance.” Cicero, 55 BC
Reads quite well for something that’s 2,069 years old! This stuff has stood the test of time (Brendan suggests that perhaps we haven’t learned all that much in the meantime).
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