Finding Purpose in the Dark

Purpose can be a guiding star that shines through the darkest clouds. In these challenging times, our strength is renewed by remembering our “why”.

“Purpose precedes the first step of every journey, both personal and professional,” Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry wrote to us this week. “To connect with purpose, we go within, asking ourselves, ‘Why am I doing this?’ When our purpose is about others – and the gifts of time, talent and treasure that we give generously to others – it makes our “why” all the more enduring.”

Burnison goes on to say, “In the fog of fatigue, though, it’s almost impossible to have perspective.”

He’s right.

We make our worst decisions when we are tired or afraid. At our house there is a rule that we don’t make any big decisions after 9pm. By that time, we are typically so tired and so overwhelmed by the tsunami of information that we’ve had to digest. Our brains can’t function.

Fresh possibilities can appear when the sun comes up. The problems from last night remain. But we’ve been given the gift of another day to work on them.

Perspective emerges in the rear-view mirror.

“What we’re facing often feels bigger in the moment than when we look back on it,” Burnison says.  “We need to take ourselves out of this moment and focus on the horizon. Imagine, October 2022—what would we want to see? How do we see the world then? How do we see ourselves? What do we want to accomplish—and who do we want to become? These questions create an instant perspective shift.”

One exercise I recommend to people who are building a body of work is to write themselves a letter from the future. I instruct them to visualize their lives five years from now in living-color detail and assume that they will eventually clear every obstacle to get there.

Your purpose must connect with your heart. That’s why “getting rich” is not a productive purpose. It’s an outcome of adding ongoing, exceptional value to the lives of others. “Our rewards in life,” said elite sales trainer Tom Hopkins, “are in exact proportion to our service.” Purpose is about articulating how you will serve.

Clearly defined purpose programs your subconscious. If what you chase connects to what you value, your subconscious will program the rest of your brain to vector in that direction. The only downside is that our subconscious is always listening. It gets programmed by the information we consume, the people we hang out with, and negative self-talk, too.

How do we look past our unpleasant current reality and inject ourselves with the faith it takes to continue on our purposeful path?

  1. Clarify your purpose and continually replay the message in your head. I keep pictures of my family nearby, even when I travel, to remind me why I persevere. A written paragraph articulating my purpose is always within easy reach in Evernote. It is a touchstone I refer to before I make any decision.
  2. Avoid negativity. This one will be tough right now. Limit your information intake. I’m on Facebook vacation until after the election. It’s been so refreshing that I may never go back. Back away from the urge to fire your opinion out there. Assume that everyone you meet is as overburdened and exhausted as you are. Listen more than you talk. Practice empathy, even when enemies may surround you. Do things that deescalate. Live the mantra that kindness is the highest form of wisdom.
  3. Eat the elephant a bite at a time. Keep your eye on the prize, set achievable micro-goals that are achievable and celebrate their accomplishment. In times of turmoil, those micro-activities might take less than an hour. I start every with an early morning walk and make the bed before breakfast. As Admiral William McRaven said in his widely circulated commencement address, “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

And don’t beat yourself up if your two steps forward sometimes include three or four steps backward. There is no strength without resistance. A journey without setbacks has no value. We love flawed heroes who overcome incredible obstacles.

Albert Camus wrote, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

Your invincible summer still exists within.

We are living the defining moments of our lives. The things we do over the next six months will determine the fate of our grandchildren. It may feel like we are walking through “the valley of the shadow of death”. But with a firm purpose in mind, every step we take can ultimately be a step in the right direction.