Purpose is Emergent

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Jay Robinson

November 20, 2020

Welcome to the Purpose-Grounded Life podcast. I'm Jay Robinson, the director of purposely.org.  We're a nonprofit organization that coaches and facilitates what we call a peer group process that helps to create the space around which we can cultivate the purpose-grounded life. Thanks for spending this time with us in this podcast, as we talk about some of the big issues of life. 

One of my undergraduate students kept saying over and over again, "I've only got one chance to get to this right." She kept saying that phrase repeatedly during our conversation. " I've got one chance to get to this right." 

We were talking about career. We were talking about the academic major that she was wrestling with that may or may not lead to the kind of career that she was wanting. Now, the reason why she was saying this phrase, "I've got one chance to get this right," is because she was under a lot of pressure, partly from home from her parents, partly from herself. 

The pressure that she was getting from her parents was simple. They were expecting her to pick a practical major where she could graduate and get a job and make money. And it seemed to be the overriding message that she's hearing from home. Get a job. Make some money. And that's understandable. College is expensive. And she had changed majors multiple times. So she was really feeling this pressure that she needs to pick something--something, you know, practical, and get on with it. 

And some of the other pressure was coming from herself. Even though she was just 21, she was already feeling this pressure that things weren't working out the way that she had imagined that they would. And there's this pressure that she was putting on herself that she's got to get life going really quick. She's got to get things working right, moving in the way that she had pictured that they would go. 

And so she felt like she was out of room to think about it. She was out of time to think and to ponder. She's got one chance. I got to make the right decision and get moving in the right direction. Right now. 

And so, over and over again, she says, "I've got one chance to get this right." 

But if it was just a job that she was wanting she wouldn't have been feeling that way.  But she was intuitively wanting more than that. She was looking for more than that. The picture that she had of her life was of far more than employment. 

And I think that's where many of us are. 

I think that we're all on a quest to find our own direction in life. We're all asking the same kinds of questions about what we should be doing with our lives, but we want more than a job. We want to make a meaningful impact. We don't want to just make money. We want to make a difference. 

We want our lives to count for something. We want our work to matter. 

And that means that we are looking for purpose. 

What I want my student to hear is what I want to say to you. You don't have just one chance at that. 

I don't think this is something we do just one time. Pick one thing. My life's going to be about one thing. I'm going to go in this one direction. I'm going to pick a major it in my teens. I'm going to pick a major while I'm a teenager that's somehow going to lead me into a career that's going to go in the same direction forever. 

First of all, I don't think that life's like that. I don't think that life's in a straight line, not like that. The notion that we go to college. Pick a major. Graduate. Get a good job. Start our career. Live happily ever after. I don't think that it's a straight line like that at all. 

And it is not always clear what comes next. It's not always obvious how to get to where we want to be from where we are right now, especially when we don't even necessarily know where we want to be. 

But purpose is emergent. It grows over time as a by-product of our deepest values. 

The purpose grounded life is centered on cultivating this growth. 

This is a path focused less on goals to strive for and accomplishments to achieve and focused more on the kind of person that we want to become. 

And this means that purpose isn't something that we discover so much as we develop it. It doesn't hit us like a bolt of lightning where all of a sudden everything makes sense. 

Purpose emerges over time. We cultivate it. We develop it. It emerges as a product of our values. And that's not a one-time thing. This isn't a one-time something out there someplace that if I could reach for that, or if I could attain it, or strive for that thing out there some place, then my life would be successful. 

Purpose emerges as a by-product of our inward reflection of our inward work of who we are as a person. 

And so purpose is about values. 

And values are very different than setting goals. We spend a lot of energy on goals. 

Goals are fine. Goals help us aim for things. They help us to create a strategy. Goals can help us to be forward thinking, and that's very good. But goals have their limits. Here just as an example. You realize your room in your house or your apartment is just really messy. And you realize you're tired of living in this mess, so you'll give yourself a goal. This coming Saturday, you're going to clean your room. And you do. You spend the day cleaning, tidying up, getting everything where it needs to be. You accomplished your goal. Yay. 

But if that's the only thing you did, and if nothing else changes, in a very short period of time your room will become just as messy as it was before. 

Goals are good, especially for reaching certain objectives. Goals can help us to get focused. But if you're looking for long-term results, you need something more than just a bunch of goals. You need a process. You need a process that helps you to stay on track. A process that helps you to step back and refocus so that you can move forward in new ways. 

Process is about change. 

This is why I say that the purpose-grounded life is not so much focused on goals. If I could get that goal, if I could reach that place, then everything would be great. But the purpose-grounded life isn't focused specifically on goals. 

It's focused on process. This is something that we cultivate through reflection. 

What kind of person do I want to become? What is it that I want my life to be about? 

There's a foundational story in Buddhism of how Buddha came to understand the four noble truths. Buddha had been a wealthy Prince as a young man. He lived a life of plenty, and he became frustrated with that life. He was frustrated with the meaning of life and the direction of life, and he determined that he was going to do something about it. 

As the story is told, he sits under a fig tree for 49 days while he is contemplating life. And it's in that space and in that time he comes to realize what is now the four noble truths. 

And one of the things that is so normal really, as abnormal as the story sounds--you're going to sit under a tree for 49 days--that's a very normal way of behaving, and pretty much all spiritual leaders, whether it's Buddha or whether it's Mr. Miyagi, virtually all spiritual leaders are going to be teaching the value of stepping back and creating the space for inner reflection. And while they have different techniques and different language to describe it, this is an essential ingredient. It seems to me, this is a very common thing that we will hear from spiritual leaders of multiple cultures and multiple times in generations of being able to create the space where you can step back and to truly think about the meaning of things. 

This is very difficult for us to do. 

I mean, let's be honest, our society in general is not a society that rewards thinking about deep questions of life and of meaning. We are a part of a society that's focused on doing things, achieving things, getting things. We're not a part of a society that's focused on reflecting on the meaning of things. 

And so we don't really know how to do that. 

The notion that we would achieve some sense of enlightenment, you know, some sense of purpose and sense of life meaning in the same way that Buddha did in that story, that we're going to just sit down and we're gonna think about it really hard, and we're going to reflect on our lives, and then we're going to be able to come up with this big new pathway forward. 

This is just outside of our normal realm of reality. You and I live in a five second culture. Yeah, five seconds. You know, that's the space like when you're streaming a Netflix show, that's the space between when one episode ends and the next episode begins playing. It's literally five seconds. We are so far beyond being what we used to call a microwave culture. Microwave? I'm going, it takes you two or three minutes to microwave things. We ain't got time for that. Five seconds. 

Five seconds is what we give ourselves room to think between when one thing ends and the next thing begins, and there's always some other next thing. There's always some other something else that's going to be grabbing our attention, that's going to be telling us we need to be engaged in some activity, some project, some thing that we need to be doing. 

And while that's, you know, rather harmless as it is. I mean, if you're binge-watching a TV show, I mean that's harmless in general, that you're only five seconds in between episodes. But that's not just the only part of culture that's like that. We live in a culture where there's always one more thing, after one more thing, one more thing. Whenever we have downtime, we feel like we need to fill that time with some activity. We pull out our phones and start scrolling and just browsing things. If we have any downtime, we start watching something, or we put headphones on, and we start listening to music. 

Which is all fine. It's all neutral activities. It's just, we don't ever not to do those activities. We don't know how to not do it that way. 

You actually might be listening to this podcast while you're driving or while you're doing something else. So even while you're in the middle of a really important activity, driving your car, you want to do another activity while you're doing that activity simultaneously. 

We feel like we have to fill our lives up like that. That's the value of culture. Those are the values that are being implanted in our brains, whether we think about it or not, whether we realize it or not. The values of our culture are telling us we have to be engaged in these activities, and we need to multitask. We need to be doing multiple things simultaneously. 

With that as the backdrop, how in the world can we engage in that kind of deep inner reflection that might lead us to a deeper sense of understanding of who we are as a person? 

With this as the backdrop, how do we give ourselves the space to reflect on the meaning of things when we're just constantly in the activities of things? 

The purpose-grounded life is not about getting things. It's not about doing things. It is essentially about reflecting on the meaning of things. 

The purpose-grounded life is not about productivity. 

We're not looking for ways to get more things done. The purpose-grounded life is not focused on getting more done. It's focused on getting right things done. 

And the only way that we can really know what the right things are is if we are cultivating the space where we can reflect upon those things, where we can reflect upon the meaning of things. 

And part of our problem is we're always thinking that the answers are out there someplace. There's something out there that if I just had that thing out there, if I could just incorporate that thing out there. There's this temptation that there's something out there that if I just had that, then everything would be fine. 

It's common to see written articles, and even entire books, on the notion that there's this one or two things out there, and if you just could do those one or two things, then that would recenter your life. Like there's some sort of trick to this. Well, and in fact, the word "trick" is often used in that kind of writing. That there's just this one simple trick. This one little thing that if you could just incorporate that, then your life would be better. 

 I just don't subscribe to that. I don't see evidence that that that's the way things are. I mean, it's not just one thing, and cultivating purpose is not about trying to find one magic thing. 

It's about cultivating our values. 

And if we can't talk about values, then we won't ever be able to talk about purpose. 

This is why I say that the purpose-grounded life is focused not on goals and accomplishments. It's focused on the kind of person we want to be, and that's a process of cultivating values. 

So to talk about values for a minute. I mean, we'll be discussing this ongoing in future episodes. 

But to talk about values for a minute. My student who kept saying over and over again, "I've got one chance to get this right," is expressing this cultural pressure that she's got to hurry up and figure out how to do something so she can make money. 

So that money becomes the core value. 

And while, sure, money is an important part of life. We all understand that. We all know that. But when it becomes the core value of what we do and why we do it, because of money, well, then that makes money the value. 

You know, our work is an important part of life, and it's important that we include work when we're talking about purpose. 

But purpose is not about work. It is about many things. 

So here's one way to think about values. That, when we think that there's something out there, if I could get that thing--so a job, a career, a paycheck, a house, a car, a family--that something out there that if I had that, then I would be happy. I would be fulfilled. And there is this value of getting. 

This is a value of wanting. Now there's no real evidence that anything works like that, that all of those things, if we had them, that they would equal happy, or that they would automatically equal fulfilled. But this is a real value that we get just from being alive and just by listening to the voices of our culture, that then we need to be striving for those things. Constantly striving for that getting. Striving to get. Striving to satisfy our want. 

So that the getting of things becomes a core value of culture. 

We all understand the value of money. I mean, there's a reason why two thirds of Jesus' parables as are recorded in the Christian New Testament--there's a reason why two thirds of those parables were about money and how we should be stewards of resources. So of course money is important. We all want to live. But the temptation is that money becomes the all consuming value. That this is the value of getting. The value of wanting. 

But what if there's another way to think about that, another way to think of a different value? Of rather than the value of getting, we incorporate and cultivate, a value of giving. 

So we think of work as an expression of our gifts. 

Purposeful work is about far more than a job or a paycheck. It is a natural expression of our gifts of who we are. 

So the question that we ask then is not, what am I going to get out of this? But what can I give to this? What do I have to contribute? 

When you see the world, when you look around, what problem in the world do you want to help solve? What issue do you want to make better? What change do you want to help to create or to lead? 

And when we think about giving as our core value, then we change the way that we talk about work, and the way that we think about it. So that our value is not just wanting and getting and of needing, but it's the value of giving of ourselves. 

You have things to contribute. 

You are a person of worth. You are valuable. You are worth much more than your paycheck that you're getting, or even the paycheck that you would hope to get. You are worth more than that. 

You have things to contribute. You have things to give. 

What are those things? 

When you reflect upon that, when you reflect upon what you have to give, how your work can align with your gifts, then you are cultivating a path of purpose. 

I mean no disrespect to Buddha or any of the spiritual leaders, but it's just highly unlikely that you or I in this culture that we inhabit are just going to suddenly sit down, get real quiet, reflect really deeply, and suddenly come up with some real deep sense of understanding. It's just so far outside of our realm of thinking within our culture. 

And we spend so much of our lives with these activities of doing things, striving for things, wanting things, getting things, wanting more things. To step back and to reflect upon the meaning of things would be, of course, very difficult for us to do. And, of course, you know, in defense of Buddha and other spiritual leaders, none of them are teaching that this is a quick one-time thing. They're not suggesting there is some quick one-time fix here. 

They are suggesting that we need to incorporate this deep sense of reflection as a part of the normal rhythm of life. And that we have to incorporate the kind of stepping back that we need so that we can reflect deeply and discover new ways to move forward. 

So while this is very difficult for us to do in our culture,  I will say that there's one essential ingredient that we could do that would make it more likely that we could cultivate this sense of reflection, and that is put ourselves in the right environment for it. 

I mean, we need to find an environment that encourages this, and that helps us to grow. 

We talk a lot in our culture about competency, and we measure competency. We have tests and exams and metrics. 

But we often neglect capacity. 

And capacity is the room that we have inside us to grow. How much space is in there inside us to grow? One way to think about capacity is a potted plant that you might buy. And you water that plant, and you feed the plant. But at a certain point it's growth will stop because the pot's not big enough. It just doesn't have the capacity for it to grow any larger, and at a certain point, it doesn't matter how much water you pour on, it doesn't matter how much you fertilize it, if the pot's too small, well, it's just not going to grow very big. 

So if you want that plant to grow, you have to move it into a bigger pot with a bigger capacity. Ideally, if you want it to reach its full potential, you might want to plant it outside someplace. 

And in the same way, the environment that we create for ourselves, the environment that we put ourselves in makes all the difference. And this is something we're going to talk about in upcoming episodes a lot. 

But right now, I would just like to leave you with this image of your capacity of who you are and the environment that you are in. 

And putting yourself in an expansive environment, an environment where you are broadening your experiences, an environment where you are feeling nurtured, where you feel genuinely loved, where you genuinely belong. These environments help us to grow our capacity. So there's more room inside us, so we can reflect on the meaning of things. 

And the more that we reflect upon the deep meaning of things, the more likely that we will find ourselves on a path where we are cultivating the purpose-grounded life. 

What I said to my student I want to say to you. 

You don't have to have your whole life figured out by the time you're 21. Or frankly, 31, or 41, or 51. Life isn't something that we figure out. 

It emerges. Pathways emerge. 

And for us to be open to what is possible, for us to be open to what is emergent within, there is a rhythm of stepping back from all these activities, from all the striving we do, so that we can reflect, refocus, and then discover new ways to move forward. 

And that's an ongoing process. 

We don't just do that one time, when we pick a major, for instance. 

This is an ongoing process of stepping back so that we can discover new ways to move forward. 

At purposely.org, we facilitate a peer group process that helps to cultivate this kind of space that we're talking about. I would invite you to visit us there to learn more about how that process works, and we would love to be able to work with you. 

So thank you for spending this time. I look forward to the opportunity for us to continue the conversation in future podcasts. And you can visit us at purposely.org and comment and discuss these issues that we're raising and the process that we coach and facilitate. 

So I hope to see you there.  

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