Life as Art: Purpose

Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. Victor Frankl

I wrote about vision in Life as Art: Vision and about values in Life as Art: Values. During the two years I prepared myself to leave the corporate world, I thought and studied much about vision and values. I also pondered deeply my purpose for my life.

Purpose is our deepest reason for existence. Our purpose is our most profound expression of our most basic intent as spiritual beings. Purpose reflects our deepest essence and provides a consistency of intention as our lives unfold.

Purpose goes beyond the call to the right livelihood. Purpose guides the spiritual journey of the hero, and the return of the hero to serve humanity—self affirmation AND commitments beyond the self. When we live our purpose we make our unique contribution to humanity and our lives have meaning. I don’t know whether purpose is genetic, learned, God-given, or a mix of all three. I just know that purpose exists. We make the choice to live or refuse our purpose.

I experienced the might of ethics, excellence, and commitment as a young Secret Service Agent. I felt the power of love, connection, and authenticity as a lost soul at St. Mary’s Hospital. I discovered the energy of the human spirit and human potential in the change effort I led at the Star Tribune newspaper.

Melded with these awakenings, I felt beckoned to be more. I was curious and felt attracted to see and experience something more encompassing — a grander dimension of life. Feeling called to leave the corporate world, I wanted to learn how to live well in a world in constant flux and to live from an organic worldview that superseded and encompassed the mechanistic view of life I had grown up with. I wanted to live with more authenticity in all areas of my life, and I wanted to take the “hero’s journey” Joseph Campbell wrote about in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I wanted to see if the dynamics Campbell wrote about were real, and I wanted to see what I might become. I wanted to feel alive and to learn how to experience aliveness more of the time. I wanted to share my experiences with others. I would be my own learning laboratory. I was not a wealthy man with a flush wallet seeking a safe adventure into trendy spirituality. This was serious work about the nature of life itself—with my life as the experiment.  What an exciting and frightening prospect that was.

I worked hard and thought deeply on my fundamental purpose in life and came up with this:

To live my life as a series of mental, spiritual, and emotional adventures, and to share what I learn with others.

The two years of deliberate preparation was important because the sense of purpose gained, the values clarified, and the vision created replaced my fear with the hope, courage, and commitment to go forward on a new path for my life.

I did my study and work on vision, values, and purpose in the early 1990’s and I revisit my inner orientation often. I recommend the experience to all.

Life as Art: Vision

After leading a transformational change process at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota that opened my eyes to the vast untapped human potential in our organizations, I felt called to a new life.

Such calls are scary propositions, so I worked for two years with consultants Diane Olson and John Johnson to develop a new vision for the years ahead. Our vision for our lives is our picture of the life we want to create for ourselves.

The tremendous losses I anticipated  —  of my work (my art), of old dreams, of my income, of my relationships  —  sent me deep within myself. For a long time before I left, I explored my spiritual life as I grieved the losses before me: I read, I studied, I thought, I dreamed, I imagined, I reflected. My photography and photo trips provided solitude and a connection with nature. My conversations with Diane and John made my studies real.

The stories my parents told of my childhood were of my adventures. I wanted to reclaim the aliveness of my youth. Many fires burned inside of me. I would turn the flames of those fires into passion for my vision.

The vision I created for the next few years moved from thoughts of a value-driven, spiritual, and more authentic life with greater freedom for self-expression than the organizational world allows to four specific goals:

• To complete a Ph.D. in Leadership with a focus on transformational leadership,

• To begin to write about life and leadership,

• To try out consulting for transformation, and

• To go on a photo safari to Kenya and Tanzania with my brother.

Two years earlier those goals would have seemed like pipe dreams to me.

The thought of leaving the Star Tribune scared me. But more frightening than leaving was the thought of staying at the newspaper. I had learned and become aware of much in organizational life that I did not want to be a part of. I wanted to create and perform at a level not understood and, therefore, not tolerated by the organization. I saw many hollow men in their 40s around me, and I didn’t want to be like them.  To feel alive, I would have to leave.

“How do I deal with the fear I feel?” I asked Diane Olson.

“You go through it,” she replied.

My vision was my source of courage and inspiration.

I went to Africa and took 4,000 nature and wildlife photos. I completed my Ph.D. 3 ½ years later at age 52. I’ve been a prolific writer about life and leadership since 1996. I consulted for 13 years. As I moved along in my life, I set new goals and created new visions for my life. I’ve learned how to renew my life intentionally.

A courageous journey of evolving our humanity is no quick-fix and, therefore, not a popular course of change.

We may have to walk away from empty marriages to find intimacy, and leave destructive relationships. We may need to abandon the insanity and mediocrity of our organizations to find our right livelihood. We may be marginalized by those who benefit from the craziness of the times and have to stand alone courageously.

In The Death of Ivan IIllych a man on his deathbed reflects on his life, how he had done everything right, obeyed the rules, became a judge, married, had children, and was looked on as a success. Yet, in his last hours, he wondered why he felt a failure.

Philosopher and author Peter Koestenbaum said courage begins with the decision to face the ultimate truth about existence: we live free to define ourselves at every moment. We become what we choose to be from the depth of our souls. I am mature when I am the author of my own life. It is not enough to simply obey all the rules of other people.

Our lives are our greatest creations. What do you want?

Vision in Organizations

As the business unit I led at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, MN (and especially our Customer Service Center) began transformational change, people asked often about “vision”. They wanted a detailed description of what things would be like when the organization “got there.” We wanted to become faster moving, more creative, value driven, and engage employees. We wanted to enhance customer satisfaction and improve financials. I could paint a word picture of those ideas for them, but I could not be specific about details that would emerge far into the future.

I talked with them about the first settlers crossing eastern Colorado by covered wagon and seeing the outline of the Rocky Mountains in front of them. What can people know of the pioneers as they pursued their vision? They were searching for a better life, they were courageous, they believed in themselves, and they had confidence in their ability to overcome unknown obstacles. They understood that life had risk and uncertainty. Their dream was powerful, and they would not quit.

They were cooperative. Had these settlers been competitive with one another, they would not have survived. The pioneers were afraid a good part of the time and felt overwhelmed and inadequate frequently. They knew there were no guarantees of success. They made mistakes, and they suffered. Less hardy souls ridiculed them. Sometimes their leaders were selfish, cowardly, and incompetent.

The pioneers found their way as they proceeded. They planned as best they could; they took bold action; they reflected on what happened; and they adapted as they went. Some of the wagon trains succumbed to the elements and people perished. These first pioneers knew they might not have a better life for themselves; they were paving the way for future generations. Like all ventures into the unknown, the settler’s journey began with a few. Soon, more people followed. Those who went first inspired those who came later.

As our vision at the Star Tribune crystallized, not all, but enough, maybe most of our business unit employees embraced the goals of value driven leadership, self-managed work teams, skill based pay, one-stop shopping for customers, and partnership with the unions because they helped create them and did the work necessary to bring about deep change. We worked hard to create conditions where employees felt valued, involved, and informed. The vision was for all of us and future employees, for people in other organizations and industries as well as for the Star Tribune newspaper. The desire to create a better workplace for ourselves and others inspired the strongest believers and called on each person to be their best. We everyday people would help to make the world a better place. For those most engaged, our experiences together were a powerful, visceral journey.

Within 15 months of those first days when we had little but a vague sense of possibility, our work became a nationally recognized success story. Business guru Tom Peters wrote about our work, people from a variety of industries visited to observe our self-managed work teams, and we were invited to speak about self-managed teams, partnership with organized labor, and culture change at conferences around the country.

A vision is a powerful picture of the future we want to create. Few organizations create visions that involve and inspire people, bring forth courage, and evolve the status quo. Sustainable organizations create visions over and over again because the enterprise is a dynamic living system that evolves constantly. Absent continual renewal, the organization will decline and die.

LIfe as Art: What Do I Want?

I’ve coached many unfulfilled people over the years.

I always asked, “What do you want?”

They often responded, “I don’t know what I want.”

We then began a journey for them to discover what they wanted for their lives, to create a vision of their future, and to develop a plan to move from the life they had to the life they wanted.

I’m not surprised that people don’t know what they want in their lives. Asking ourselves what we want is a creative act. But we live in a reactive culture; we solve problems: we fix broken stuff, make things that hurt go away, and we want the remedy to be fast, cheap, and painless. We don’t create our lives from scratch; we try to fix the lives we often stumbled mindlessly into. We follow the paths of least resistance. But creating a life requires us to walk into resistance.  And when we do know what we want, we often give up our pursuit of it quickly because we feel stressed by the gap between the life we have and the life we want. Instead of learning to manage the tension we feel, we lower the vision–wrong thing to do. We should learn to deal with our inner tension and rarely, if ever, lower our goals.

I wanted to leave the corporate world at age 47 and go back to school and get a Ph.D. I was afraid to quit my job. I was good at the work, and I made a good living. But my spirit wanted something different and something more. I worked with two consultants and spent two years thinking about my purpose in life, my core values, and creating a vision for my life for the next few years. I set four goals: 1) Get a Ph.D., 2) Begin to write, 3) Try out consulting, and 4) go to Africa to photograph wildlife. I could not have imagined those goals six months earlier: we must go through the struggle of our own unique creative process.

I completed the Ph.D. 3 1/2 years later. I’ve been writing ever since. I made a living consulting for 13 years, and I went to Africa and took more than 4,000 wildlife photos. And along the way, unexpectedly, I got divorced, lived on the side of a mountain in Colorado for 14 months, moved to Fargo, North Dakota, and married Melanie. I lived in Moorhead, Minnesota for seven years and when a record flood of the Red River forced us from our home, we renewed our lives and ended up in Plymouth, Minnesota with a new job for Melanie and new adventures for me.

Sound easy?

Well, let me tell you: I was scared stiff more times than I can remember. I did battle with my internal resistance and the opposition of others. I suffered the anxiety of possibility along the way. I had little idea of what I was getting into or how hard it would be.  How could I have known? I had stepped into the unknown. I adapted as I went. I suffered the “humiliations of the novice” as I learned. Life was messy and inefficient. I never lowered my goals. I stayed true to the values and the purpose I had defined for myself. I battled the forces of conformity. I learned to manage the difficult growing pains. Only charlatans tell you that deep personal change is easy.  I’ve renewed my vision for my life many times since then, and I’ve learned how to manage feeling inadequate much of the time. I live by a simple model: plan what I can, take action, reflect on what happens, and adapt accordingly. I feel alive.

What do you want?