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The Purpose-Grounded Life

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Jay Robinson

August 10, 2020

Hi, welcome to the Purposely Podcast. I'm Jay Robinson, the executive director of purposely.org. We started Purposely because life is not a straight line, and we all deserve opportunities to step back and see our life from new perspectives that help us to move forward in new ways. 

Purposely.org is an application of our peer group process that we've been facilitating in our nonprofit organization for over 20 years. We see this podcast as a broad general conversation on cultivating the purpose-grounded life. Thanks for spending this time with us here in this very first episode of our new podcast and giving us a chance to talk about this.  

There's a classic experiment in psychology where researchers feed a mouse when it pushes a button. The mouse pushes a button and it gets food. It pushes a button and it gets food. It pushes a button and it gets food. 

Then the researchers remove the food, so the mouse pushes the button and no food. 

Now, what does it do? 

It does basically the same thing that I do if I were to put money in a vending machine and nothing came out. I would push the button again. Several times. I would push the button harder. I might shake the machine, or kick it. I mean, this used to work. Why isn't this working? Where's my beverage! 

So, yeah, the mouse kind of freaks out. It pushes the button harder. It pushes it frantically. This used to work. Why isn't this working? 

It is instinctual for us to think that the answers to our problems, to our challenges, are to work harder. That when faced with obstacles and difficulties, our tendency is to rely on the things that we're familiar with, the practices, the attitudes, the behaviors, the things that we've pretty much always done. And then just do all of that harder. The bigger the challenge, the harder were supposed to work. 

But working harder isn't always the answer. 

We also need to be able to step back, to reflect, to refocus, to engage in ongoing renewal, and discover new ways to move forward. 

What would it look like for you to be able to intentionally step back from all the busy-ness and the constant striving and build space in your life to breathe, reflect, and focus on the most important aspects of life? 

In a nutshell, that's what we're doing. 

We're encouraging and helping you to craft the space, intentional space, so that you can step back, refocus, reflect, and discover new ways to move forward. 

This is not easy for us to do because moving forward in new ways suggests that we need to change, and listen, change is the hardest thing that any of us can ever do, even if we know that we need to change. And even if we want to change, it is incredibly difficult for us to do that. We are actually quite comfortable with the way things are. We're really good in our own minds of filtering out those things that don't conform to what we already do or what we already think or what we already assume. It is extraordinarily difficult for us to work differently and not just harder. 

We rely on the things that we're familiar with, the things we've pretty much always done. And we get these cues from the culture that that's what we should do. So from the culture, we hear all these voices of expectation telling us that the answer to overcoming our obstacles is, indeed, to work harder. What, you're having issues with money and finances? Well, work harder. You're not getting the grades in school that you think you should get? Study harder. Your relationship is on the rocks and things aren't working out like you hoped they would? Try harder. 

The message is that somehow we know what the answer is. We just need to get after it. 

But what if we don't know what we're doing? 

What if the assumptions that we're operating under that our attitudes, our beliefs, our practices are okay are, in fact, not okay? 

What if we don't know what the answer is. 

One of the reasons why we're conditioned to think that working harder is always the answer is because we're conditioned to think that our problems are basically technical problems, which means they have an answer. All we have to do is find the correct answer, implement that, and fix the problem. This is generally how we're trained in school. We are trained to solve problems by finding the correct answer. That's how we're graded. That's how we're measured. 

Of course, now, there are truly technical problems, and there are technical solutions that we can apply to fix those problems. For example, if your car is broken down, you take that to a mechanic, and they fix it. That's a technical process. That's a technical problem. Your car was working, then it broke. So to get it working again, you need to fix it. A mechanic knows how to fix it. That's a technical solution. This happened to me recently with my own older model Jeep, I was having trouble with it, well, it actually just died one day, and I thought the symptoms were pointing toward a bad starter. I did some research, came to a conclusion that that was the issue, put a new starter in, and I fixed it. 

That's a technical process. It was broken. It's a machine. We can fix machines. I researched an answer, found the answer, implemented the answer, and fixed the problem. 

Well, these are the same assumptions that we have when we're faced with obstacles in life, that life questions are technical in nature. That means that they have an answer. When we run into an obstacle, when something's not working the way that it used to work, the assumption is that we can research an answer, implement an answer, and fix the problem. 

It's the kind of attitude we have when we go to the doctor. You know, that were broken in some way. Something's not working right. It's not working the way it used to, so we need a doctor to research the problem and find an answer for that. And by the way, we would generally prefer that that answer be in the form of a pill, something that's really simple. 

Give me a pill to solve my technical problem. 

We are generally conditioned to think that the issues in life that we face are technical like that. They have an answer. We can research, implement an answer, usually a simple answer, and fix the problem. 

The challenge with that, of course, is that, you know, not all problems are technical problems. Not all of our questions are technical in nature, and so our answers aren't always going to be technical answers.  

Many of the issues we face are, in fact, adaptive in nature, which means they don't have that kind of straightforward, simple answer. We have to engage in a different kind of process to address adaptive questions. 

If a technical issue means that there is a specific answer, an adaptive issue means that there are a range of possibilities. That we have to figure it out. And that's going to take us awhile. We're not just going to be able to look the answer up someplace and simply apply it. 

We're going to have to do deep thinking, deep reflection, creative work, to address adaptive issues. 

An example of an adaptive question is the kind of question you might ask Siri, and she would respond sarcastically. Test that out. Ask her what the meaning of life is. We can't Google those kinds of questions. We can't Google adaptive answers. These are the kinds of questions in life that we have to figure out. You can't ask Google to answer the question, what am I going to do with my life? 

We're still pretty much stuck with this technical way of thinking, so if you try to answer the question, for instance, what am I going to do with my life, in a technical kind of way--based on the voices that you would be hearing in the culture and the expectations of our culture--if you did try to answer that question, what am I gonna do with my life, technically, the answer would probably mean you should work hard and make a lot of money. That's probably what you're going to hear from the culture. 

Work hard and make a lot of money. 

So how are you going to do that? If you're following a technical approach, it's really important that you do all the steps right. It's important that you get into the right school, so you can make the right grades, so you can get the right degree, so you can start the right job, so you can advance in the right career, so you can get that money. And then you do all of those technical things correctly. You work hard, and you do all of that right. 

And then realize you're not happy. 

Now that's an adaptive challenge. 

You've done all these technical things that you thought you were supposed to do, and you're not happy. 

You are pushing the button. You're pushing the button harder. You're working harder and harder and harder but feel like you're getting less and less and less out of it, because maybe what you're really wanting in life is a sense of meaning and fulfillment. What you're really wanting in life is a sense that you're making a positive difference, that your life is counting for something. What you're really wanting in life is longterm wellbeing. You really want to be happy.  

Happy is not a technical question. 

Life itself is continually throwing up obstacles in our pursuit of happiness. These are adaptive questions to overcome those obstacles. 

The questions that we're really asking in life aren't technical questions, and we can't answer them in technical ways. They are adaptive, which means they have no simple answer. We have to engage in a different kind of process to figure them out. 

And to figure that out we have to be able to step back to give ourselves room to breathe, to give ourselves room to think new thoughts, to evaluate. Is the path that I'm on right now really the path that I need to be on? Is what I'm spending my energy on right now really the important thing that I need to be focusing on?

We have to be able to step back from all the busy-ness and all the constant striving for more and more before we can answer those kinds of questions. And that's not a one time step back. We're not going to solve these kinds of questions with a one time weekend retreat someplace. Yeah, I'm all a fan for a retreat, don't get me wrong. 

What I'm talking about, though, is an ongoing process that's folded into our normal living behaviors, a kind of constant rhythmic stepping back from the busy-ness of things, the striving for things, so that we can reflect on these big, important life questions, so that we can give ourselves room to grow inside, so that we can, in fact, discover new ways to move forward. 

Adaptive challenges happen when we realize that our technical ways of thinking are no longer working. Adaptive challenges come when we realize that just pushing the button harder is not getting us the kind of results that we wanted. So now, what am I going to do? Things aren't working the way I expected them to work. Now, what? 

At Purposely, our mission is cultivating the purpose-grounded life which is fostering ongoing renewal, life direction, and longterm wellbeing. The purpose-grounded life is about creating that space so that we can truly do this work, so that we can, in fact, see new ways of being, and we can discover new ways to move forward. 

An absolutely essential part of that process of discovering new ways forward is being able to step back, so we can see the big picture, so we can see life itself from a different perspective, so that we can give ourselves the space to take a break, to reflect more deeply, to experience genuine re-creation and renewal. 

When we go with our instinct to think that working harder is always going to be the answer, that we can do the things that we've always done but then somehow magically get different results, it robs us of our opportunities to genuinely grow. When we're always just pushing the button harder, we make it impossible to actually think things through in different ways, so that we might come up with different answers. 

Adaptive challenges are difficult because they absolutely require us to change, and again, that's the hardest thing any of us can do. It's always going to be easier to keep doing the things that we know how to do. It's always going to be easier to just keep doing what we've always done. It's always going to be easier to do what we're familiar with. 

This process of stepping back and reflecting and refocusing on what's truly important, the same process that cultivates the purpose-grounded life, is also cultivating our own sense of agency. Agency refers to our capacity to take actions that lead to desirable outcomes. All of us have this capacity for agency. All of us can take action to change. All of us have the capacity to implement new decisions in new ways that leads to new and better outcomes. 

The problem that we face is the gap between all those things that we say we want to do, the goals, the dreams we have, the things we tell ourselves that are really important, and our ability to actually follow through and act on them. The problem we face is the gap between our good intentions and our ability to act intentionally. 

Agency is about our capacity to act intentionally. The purpose-grounded life is focused on cultivating that, cultivating that capacity that we have to act intentionally. 

So in that sense, the purpose-grounded life is a process where we take charge of our own longterm outcomes. We step back so that we can see ourselves from a new perspective. We can identify for ourselves those things that we need to address, those issues that we need to work on. And then we can work on those. We can change. We can discover new ways forward. 

When we engage in this process that is deeply reflective, that is creative, that is encouraging deep change, then new pathways can emerge. 

Now, when we're talking about purpose, we're not talking about something that hits us like a bolt of lightning where everything suddenly magically makes sense and everything comes into clear focus. 

I think it's more helpful that we think of purpose as emergent, which means it grows over time. And we can cultivate that growth. 

So I think it's more helpful to think that purpose emerges as a byproduct of our values, our vision, and our vitality. By values, we mean the kind of person that we are, the kind of person that we want to become. By vision, I mean a picture of where we want to be, a picture of how things could be different or new. And by vitality, I mean the energy that we need to actually take these kinds of purposeful actions that helps us to make things happen.  

Now let's be honest, the things that I'm talking about are not easy to do in our culture. The voices that we're hearing from our culture are telling us very different things. I'm talking about creating intentional space for renewal. Our culture values busy-ness and constant striving for things. I'm talking about stepping back and experiencing genuine re-creation, the sense that we can be new inside, that we can change and things can be better. Our culture values recreation as constant entertainment, as escapism. I'm talking about stepping back to refocus on the things that are most important, the big picture. Our culture values instant gratification. How do we have time to step back and refocus on important things when everything we're hearing from the culture is telling us that we need to be instantly gratified, happy in every moment? Do we even really know the difference between instant gratification and longterm happiness?

This is why we're talking about the importance of creating an intentional space where we can rhythmically step back and work on these very important and essential questions, because we're not getting that reinforced from the culture. We need to create a different kind of space, a protected space, a different kind of culture for ourselves to reinforce a different kind of values.  

It's not that we can't do this by ourselves. It's just, we don't seem to be able to do these kinds of things very well for ourselves over a long period of time. Frankly, if left to ourselves we're probably still just hitting the button. And when we run into trouble, we just hit the button harder. If left to ourselves, we tend to do the things we've always done. 

So if we want to do something different, if we want to be in a different place or in a different path, we have to create a space so that we might do something different. 

Working with others helps us to do that. Working with other people in a crafted, intentional space, can free us and help us to think in new ways and can help keep us open to moving forward in new ways. 

At purposely.org, we foster a peer group process where we help you create a culture of support so that you can step back and move forward in new ways. So I'd like to invite you to visit us there to learn more about our peer group process. In an upcoming episode of our Purposely Podcast, we'll have a follow-up discussion with members of our team about some of the issues that I've raised here in this episode. So I hope you'll subscribe and join us in this conversation as we go forward.  

Our brand is the silhouette of a compass with a person (blue) pointing up toward his/her life direction (lime). We find our purpose in bringing people together for true collaboration that cultivates a purpose-grounded path.
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