Reflections on "The Purpose-Grounded Life"

Jay Robinson Avatar

Jay Robinson

October 04, 2020
Jay Robinson Avatar

Scott Clark

 

Jay: Hi, this is Jay Robinson. Welcome to the Purposely Podcast. I'm the executive director of purposely.org, a nonprofit organization committed to cultivating the purpose grounded life. Today we want to pick up where we left off in the very first podcast. This is a reflection on that first podcast, which we entitled "The Purpose-Grounded Life," so you might want to go back and listen to that first podcast if you're listening to these out of sequence.

And with me today is a colleague and friend of mine, Scott Clark, who will be joining with me in this reflection, in this conversation. Scott was a former student of mine. I don't want to say how many years ago that was, but let's just say back in the day. 

I appreciate Scott spending time to be with us and to join me in a conversation. We don't present our work here like we are experts. We may have technical expertise, but that's not the perspective that we're creating this conversation from. And at purposely.org, we feel very strongly that we work as trail guides, as process leaders, as facilitators. We want to work as thought partners helping you reflect about your life and think in ways that perhaps you hadn't thought before. 

So we're not trying to give a whole bunch of technical answers as in like a Buzzfeed list--you know, do these five things and your life is going to be great.  Instead, we want to invite you into conversation. And we believe that community building is progressive acts of collaboration, and that means we have to listen to one another. And I want to thank you for taking the time to listen to us. 

So, again, thanks Scott for being with us.

Scott: Hi Jay. Thanks for having me to be your conversation partner for this first reflection. 

Jay: And we want to pick up, like I said, from that first podcast where I brought up two different kinds of concepts. And so we want to highlight that and talk about that in deeper detail in this reflection. The first one of those is the difference between technical and adaptive solutions to challenges we might have. And then the second will be this concept of agency. And we want to talk about that and introduce the concept of creative agency. 

But first, let's talk some more about technical and adaptive challenges. I used a few examples in that first  podcast, and I thought it might be helpful if I introduced maybe another one. 

Scott: Um, I think that's a great place to begin for anybody new to this process. Just what do you mean by technical problem? 

  Jay: Let's give an example that we've probably all done. It's new year's, and we want to make a New Year's resolution. And the number one New Year's resolution--it's pretty much universal--is we decide we want to get into shape. We want to be more healthy, and that's our goal for the year. And we tend to take a technical approach to that. So what would we tend to do, Scott? What's kind of a common answer to this problem, "I want to get in shape." 

Scott: All right. So somebody who has definitely tried to do this multiple times, you know, has definitely done that new year's resolution to get in shape and make this happen. 

Jay: I think We all have, but yes please go ahead.

Scott: First thing would be, yeah, everybody's been there once or twice. First thing is join a gym, start doing some research on a diet, pick up some new diet, some new eating habit. Try and tough it out as long as you can. That's typically been my baseline experience with that problem.

Jay: And that's a technical solution, and it makes perfect sense. There's nothing wrong with that. The gymnasium is the place where we go to work out. We might learn some new techniques. There might be other people there that might encourage us. It might also intimidate us, but that's a different conversation. But the gymnasium is where we go. So it makes perfect sense that we would want to join a gym. And there's nothing wrong with diets and workout programs. That makes perfect sense.

So why then do those tend to fail?

Scott: Burnout. Just exhaustion. I think it kind of isn't central to us, central to who we are and who we want to be. We're just trying to force this extra stuff that we have to do, a diet that we don't like, lifting weights that exhaust us, that just isn't fun to us, unless you just happen to be somebody really into that hobby. It's hard to cram that into our already busy lives when it's not something that really speaks to us.

Jay: Yeah. Yes, that's really good because that's how we tend to think about it. So we've created this new year's resolution, and our thought process is all these things that we do are new things that I'm going to add. So everything else stays the same. Nothing else changes. But now I'm going to go to the gym three times a week. I'm going to work out 45 minutes, and I'm going to eat X number of less calories a day. And I'm going to work out X number of minutes, and then that's going to get me to my goal. And that's not technically wrong. That's just, as you said, that's really hard to do. I mean, if that's the only thing that we've done, it's really hard to do that and then follow through for long enough to see the kind of results that we would want to get.

Scott: Absolutely. So we've talked about getting in shape as a common problem that people face. And we've talked about the technical things we would do to address that common issue that many of us confront. What's the adaptive way to approach getting in shape?

Jay: It's really our it's our mindset you know, and that's the difference, that thinking technically we are thinking about very specific tasks and very specific skills, processes that we could apply to the problem. And that's not wrong. There are many obviously correct technical answers to problems. But an adaptive approach is pretty much fundamentally backwards than that. So if a technical approach is we want to find specific detailed action items that we could check off in a list, to be able to work adaptively means that we have to step back from the problem far enough and deep enough so that we can see the big picture of what's really going on. 

And this is very difficult for us to do. There's not a lot of training, there's not a lot of encouragement in our culture for this kind of a reflective process of stepping back so that we can see it from a different perspective and see things from a different angle. So if we're talking about, in my example, we create a new year's resolution, and we want to get in shape, we need to be able to step back from that far enough to look at the big picture of what's going on in our lives. I mean, first of all, why are we in such bad shape? What's going on that we need to change? Because if we don't really know what's going on, or why we would need to change, then how would we be able to change?  And this is not easy for any of us to do. We are very, very good in our own minds of locking in to the things that we've always done and locking in to the beliefs, the practices, the attitudes, the world views that we have. It's very difficult for us to step back and to accurately and clearly be able to identify where that might be lacking. So the adaptive approach to our problem, here, I have created a resolution that I want to get in shape. The adaptive approach that I need to be able to step back and look at the whole picture of my life--what's going on that has gotten me quote unquote, out of shape? So that also has to be addressed. It's fine going to the gym. It's fine starting a diet or a workout program. But unless we address the other issues those technical answers won't work. Does that make sense?

Scott: I think it does. I think you're kind of presenting the problem holistically. It's not just, I need to add these new activities to my life. I need to examine my mental health, my physical health, maybe even my spiritual health. What are all the factors contributing to the way that I eat and the activities that I participate in? Maybe it's job stress. Importantly at the same time, I think it's many of these things, if not all of these things, and we have to do a lot of reflective work to see that big picture, as you say. In your podcast, you mentioned about how we get stuck in the--coming out of psychology--we get stuck in the Skinner box where the mouse hitting the button harder and harder and harder, which is us putting on a difficult diet or picking up a difficult gym routine. We're just working harder and harder and harder, but we're not getting the reward that we seek.   

Jay (2): When you look at what gets promoted in pop media or in social media are these rapid, quick results things, these 30 day challenges, right? You know, these 30 day body transformations. And if that works for you, then that works for you. And that's fine. I'm not trying to tear any of that down. But for the typical person that's really hard to do. And so we're just, in the example of the Skinner box, as you say, with the mouse hitting the button. So that if we're having problems, we just do the same things that we've always done. But then we think the answer is let's just do that harder. It's very difficult for us to realize, wait, this isn't working anymore. What I'm doing isn't really helping me in the way that I wanted to be helped, so I need to do something different. That is its own stressful place to be in, when you realize the attitudes I've had the, things I've done, the beliefs that I begin with, aren't working. They're not helping me like they used to help or like I thought they would help. So now I need to do something different. And that it's just, it's really hard to be at that spot. 

In my example of the mouse hitting the button, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that in psychology, what that's actually demonstrating is the concept of extinction.

Scott: Yeah. So you were actually extinguishing the behavior. Um, so you've trained them to do this new activity, hit this button, get a reward, but when they stopped getting that reward, they will hit the button harder, faster, harder, faster, harder, and then they stop. And all this time and energy that they spent learning a new behavior goes out the window if they returned back to their same routine, because they stopped getting rewarded. And using this example of physical fitness, all of us experience that same thing. When we first go to the gym, when we first started eating right, we see those quick gains. We shed that first five pounds. And we're feeling great, or we're feeling excited. But then that routine, as time goes on and life gets busier, it becomes harder and harder, and we don't get the instantaneous reward that we were getting there the early days. And we stop.

Jay: Exactly. And that's why in our initial example, new year's resolutions tend to not make it out of the first month.

Scott:  When I was 16 years old, my first job was working at a gym. And it was this really exciting time of the year at New Years because we just get a flood of new people. You know, tons of new applications. The gym is just absolutely bulging with people getting in there, trying the resolution. By March, we're back down to the same people that always show up, and maybe one or two of those new year resolution, people are still sticking with it.   

Jay: So the other thing about the technical approach is that it's simpler. You know, I mean, it's just simpler to go online and find somebody's workout program and then just copy that. So that the technical solutions, on the surface, they seem easier. But if we want long-term wellbeing, and if we want long-term benefits, then we need to be able to step back and truly grapple with what's going to work for me. And somebody else's workout plans, somebody else's diet, somebody else's gym, it might be fine for them, but that might not work for me. And that's also a part of the adaptive process. We have to figure out what works. And that's just harder than ordering a P90X routine and just doing that like crazy, 'cause they tell you exactly what to do. And they tell you, if you do it just like this, you will have these results. and that's just not true. It's just more complicated than that.

Scott: Um, just to finish out ,with the metaphor that we're working with, I think that maybe if  for our little mouse that is trapped in this little box, the adaptive solution would be to get out of the box. You know, the diet would be harder, he's got to figure out how to escape everything that's been built around him. But if he could see the box from the outside, he would see the trick.  He'd see all the things that were making him have to push that button and realize that the food's just sitting there on the other side. If you could just see it from a new perspective.

Jay: That's exactly correct. And what a great analogy for that. So, what we spend our time on, and what we've been doing for over 20 years in our nonprofit work is we've been working with individuals to help them work with other people. Because the kind of things that we're talking about is best done, this adaptive process, is best done with other people. It doesn't mean we can't do it by ourselves.  We have amazing abilities and amazing capacities. But if were left by ourselves, we're probably still gonna just stay inside the box, doing what we've always done, because that's the world that we're in. That's the reality that we understand. It's very difficult for us to get ourselves out of the box. But then it's amazing if we're open enough to listen to the perspective from someone outside that box. If we can be open enough to listen to what somebody else is seeing, it's amazing how that changes our perspective. To go back to our original example, if you hired a professional trainer, for instance, you have a very different experience probably. If you just had someone else who was able to look at you with a little bit of objectivity and to help you to see how doing the same things that we've always done, just doing those things harder, is not going to lead to the kinds of long-term outcomes we want.

Scott: That's a great point.

Jay: So, I feel very strongly, we feel very strongly, that this adaptive work of being able to step back to see from a different perspective is best done in a community with other people.

Scott: I could really see how that would be so important for every type of change, not just physical wellbeing. Not just for this example, but to be able to see ourselves through the eyes of another. It'd seem so important, but I think it's also something so rare in our world today. I know it's so easy for us to just live within our bubble of our cell phones, of our social media of the groups that we've put ourselves into. That's really, really hard to find people who will show us ourselves and our world through a different pair of eyes, through a different perspective, especially when we could isolate.

  Jay: Yeah, and just being with other people is not magic. It doesn't mean that we're just going to suddenly magically start helping each other. We spend a ton of time with other people hanging out, kind of doing casual things. And that's fine. I'm not criticizing that. I'm just saying  that that's not what I'm talking about when we're just kind of casually hanging out.

Scott: Yeah. And I'd like to speak to that, because I had that experience a lot in college, which is when we first met. We worked really hard on being intentional about forming relationships and get people involved in our community. But a lot of times the only thing we're focused on with just being with one another. Just being in the same space, just hanging out. Very rarely do I feel like we took advantage of our friend groups to make a positive change in one another's lives. One of my best friends in college, we spent, I can't even name or can't even count the unimaginable number of hours we spent together talking, laughing, learning about each other's families and hopes and desires. We had what I thought were very deep, meaningful conversations. 

But while we were hanging out all the time and having all this fun and getting to know each other, we never once stopped and talked about what were the immediate struggles of our lives.  This individual I thought was going to graduate and be successful, have everything going for him. And then I found out the year after, they failed out. And never once did we have the conversation, how were you doing at school? Despite the fact that we were both college students, where our primary focus in life should have been being good college students, we never had the conversation, how are your classes going? And one of my biggest regrets of that time is that if I'd just known or if I just had the courage to ask what was going on in his life, maybe we could have elevated our relationship, elevated our friendship, into being something that would have benefited him and getting through school successfully.

Jay: Thanks for sharing that. And that's really one of the simplest way to think about it. We facilitate what we call a peer group process, and it's at its core intentional friendships. It's really elevated friend groups where we learn how to create the kind of intentional space that we can have those conversations. So we're not just hanging out with one another, we are rather intentionally helping one another along. And that means we have to listen to each other in a loving context where we encourage change, deep change, that's lasting. And that doesn't just happen automatically, does it? Just because we have friends and because we hang out, it doesn't happen automatically that we help each other change in the ways that we need to, or even want to.

Scott: I think it just requires a level of vulnerability that, yeah, we don't really want to talk about the real problems that we have. You know, we may want to share, we may want to complain, but if we actually told one another, "Hey, I've got to get in shape," or "I've got to pass this class," or "I've gotta be a better student," then we would have to actually start doing things together besides just having fun. 

Jay: Part of what's happening there is that our friend groups are acting as a refuge, as a retreat from those problems, from those issues. So we have these issues in our life, and our friend groups are places that we can be together where we don't have to think about that. You know, we can drink or we can party, or we can do other things and that's what we want to do with our friends. We want to have a good time. So having a good time is kind of opposite to dealing with serious issues, right?

Scott: Yeah, absolutely. What I think is unfortunate is when the sole purpose in our relationships is just to be present, just to hangout, have fun, party, whatever. What's sad is that we, I think we'd actually have more fun doing the meaningful things that make us better, wholer, than we would just hanging out. If we could look to our friend circle and say we accomplished something together, I think we would be more proud of those friends and more committed to those friends than we are to the ones that just happened to be in the same place at the same time with us and allowed us to escape from our problems rather than overcoming our problems, or reflecting on our problems, and being better through the process of having done so.

Jay: Yeah, and that kind of leads me into this other topic I wanted to talk about, and that's agency.  I first addressed that in that first podcast, but I want to quickly define it again. Agency is our capacity to be able to make intentional, deliberate actions that lead to desired outcomes. And all of us have this capacity for agency. We're not just mice in somebody else's box hitting somebody else's button. We can think. And we can make deliberate choices that lead to specific outcomes. Just because we have the capacity doesn't mean that we exercise it, but we do all have that capacity. And the peer group process is focused on cultivating that capacity for agency that we have in creative ways. So the adaptive process is a creative process, because if we're going to get outside of that Skinner box and do something other than hit the same old button, well, that's a creative process. And the peer group process helps to create that intentional space so that we can work in different ways, we can think in different ways, and then we can also engage in a creative process with other people that we want to share life with, other people that we enjoy being with, other people that give us strength and give us encouragement. So when we create that very intentional space, that highly elevated friend group, what we're doing in that space is we're working on together cultivating that sense of agency, our own capacity to make choices that lead to specific outcomes that we have already thought about and that we would want to achieve. And that's generally a creative process.

Scott: Okay. So you're telling me we create our own boxes and that we can shape them, break them, make them have a want?

Jay: Well, yes. And we can get out of the boxes that we're stuck in, but yeah, we have the capacity to do that. Don't you think?

Scott: I think we do, but I think you're right  it's much easier to do that when we're in it together with a group, when we're not in it alone, not just so that we can have somebody to see from a different perspective but so that we can pull from each other's creative talents and abilities to use each other's agency to explore new ideas and to be just creative.  A few weeks back, I read a book called Creativity, Inc. written by Ed Catmull, who was one of the founders of Pixar. And the whole idea of this book is to talk about the creative process that they go through when making a story. And one of the things that really stuck out to me in this book was that whenever they came up with one of these great movies that have influenced my childhood and the childhoods of so many young adults right now, um, was the way they had to get out there and experience things in order to make these stories seem real and tangible and meaningful. To make that a little less abstract, where they did a bug's life, which was one of my all-time favorite movies, they had to go outside and just get in the grass at a bug's level and study the bugs and look at them and see how they made it through their life and their world. When they wanted to do Finding Dory and Finding Nemo, they had to go scuba diving. They had to get in the water. They had to see what it was like to be in these environments. It wasn't just some writer going into a dark room to sit alone by himself, and then he comes out with a masterpiece. It was people as a group choosing to go and have intentional experiences to help them see and imagine in a different way.  

I know in my life, the times when I've had the most growth, when I felt the most adaptive, is when I've gone on an adventure with someone else that either showed me new parts of the country or brought me into new social settings, had me serve or act or live in a different way for a period of time. And I don't think I would've ever been able to do those things or as comfortable doing those things had I tried to do them alone. 

And out of those experiences, my most creative moments, the best stories that I have, the best stories that I can tell, have come through getting out of the walls of my life, the literal walls of my house, and going and doing something new. Intentionally.

Jay: Yeah, and that's great. I think that's how it works. And when we engage in a deliberate process with other people, we're far more likely to follow through with it.

It's not that we can't do it by ourselves. We could, we can, we do. But it's difficult to do an adventure by ourselves. It's really something you want to share. And so far as we're able to share this creative process with other people, it gives us insights that we wouldn't have had if we had just sat in a dark room, trying to think of it all up on our own. 

So to make that to come full circle with our big analogy of creating a new year's resolution, that if we shared that process with other people, we would be far more likely to follow through with it.

Scott: Totally agree. Just to give you the latest adventure that me and Beth, my wife, had been on. We've had the new year's resolution for a long time that we wanted to get up and run and be active every day. Uh, we weren't really good at that. 

Right around Christmas time before the world became what it is right now with lockdown and quarantine and all this stuff, we happened to stumble upon a dog. I had to go get something for Beth. I told her to go next door to the pet store. She finds this dog outside. When I walk out of the other store and I'm walking back, Beth is laying on the ground, staring eye to eye with this dog on the asphalt, and I'm like, Oh God, this is, this is our dog now, I guess.  for years we've been trying to get in shape. We pick up this dog right at Christmas this last year. And we live in a condo, and now every day I have to get up and run him three miles. 

He's been my partner in this new adventure, and every day we have to get out and do something together. I would be really excited to see what I could do if I had a friend who every day I had to wake up and do something with, and we had a goal we were striving towards. I needed somebody new in my life to push me to do a thing that I'd wanted to do, but could never quite do alone. My dog filled, that small gap in this one scenario. 

Jay: Yeah. So if creating that little sense of community with you, your wife and your dog, helped you to follow through, how much more impact would it have if you were with a group of your peers of say five or six people, and you were in a covenant relationship together, you were identifying your own long-term goals, the long-term things that you wanted to achieve. And you're creating this very intentional space to step back from all the busy-ness, from all the daily grind and the daily striving for stuff, so you could refocus, could reflect in new ways, you could experience recreation and renewal in an ongoing way. And all of that would help you to move forward in new ways that helped you with that long-term outcome. And in a nutshell, that's what this podcast is about, and that's what our work at purposely.org is about.   

Thanks for visiting us in this podcast, and we'd invite you to purposely.org if you'd like to know more about how we work with people and how our peer group process works. And you know how this goes, you know, click the subscribe thing on your favorite podcast app or device and follow our podcast. Thanks for spending this time. Thanks Scott for spending this time with us. 

Scott: Yeah. Thank you, Jay.

Jay: Join us for our next podcast coming up.

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