Getting up in the morning is seldom easy, but facing another day in this new world order is causing all sorts of additional angst. That’s especially true if no job awaits you anymore, or restless and hungry children await you in the kitchen, or frightened patients await you as you courageously step onto the front lines of hospitals and nursing homes. Thank you, all of you. I turn this week to a sage and upbeat practitioner of positive psychology who believes that it is precisely in times like these that we can gain valuable clarity and find our purpose. Richard Leider, coach, author of 10 books and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, shares his insights with us.
Q: With all due respect, pondering one’s purpose seems like a luxury in general and particularly now. I feel like everyone is locked into survival mode. Not true?
A: I’m going to push back on this. We’re wired for purpose. It is not a luxury. Purpose is not only fundamental, it’s universal. I’ve sat with the last remaining hunters and gatherers in Tanzania and found some of the most purposeful people in the world. They have nothing and share everything. I’ve worked with physicians and caregivers, business leaders, people in financial services, educators. Purpose is a powerful quest right now. In times of change, people want to figure out what matters.
Q: Got it. Let’s define purpose.
A: It’s an aim outside of yourself. It’s who you bring to what you’re doing; to parenting, caregiving, your job as a barista or cabdriver or clerk at Walgreens. No matter what you’re doing, the universal default of purpose is two things: Grow and give. Put that on a Post-it on your mirror. Grow and give. I cannot tell you how many times people come back and tell me how much of a difference that has made. Tapping into purpose improves health and healing and even increases longevity.
Q: Do moments like the one we’re in now clarify purpose for us?
A: People are really hungry for practical stuff right now. We’re tribal human beings. Isolation is fatal; going it alone is an incredibly bad idea. This gives people a reason to come outside of ourselves. Part of the ability to do this is that we have more time now. All of a sudden there’s this chance to think about purpose. Sometimes we’re pushed by pain, such as a health diagnosis or a divorce. Other times, we’re pulled by possibility. Now it’s both.
Q: How do we get so off track in life?
A: Often, we don’t get guidance. We’re told we’ve got to make a living so we go to law school and, at 35, wonder why we’re burned out and hate law. For so many people, work chose them. They didn’t choose it.
Q: But as you said, we’ve got to pay the bills.
A: I’m a proponent of work reimagined. I interview everybody everywhere I go. I was talking with a taxi cabdriver in Boston. I was preparing to give a speech called “Whistle While You Work.” He said, “Give me a break!” Eventually, though, he shared that his purpose comes at night when he coaches soccer. He completely came to life when he started talking about that. I asked him, “What if you brought who you are into your cab every day?” He said, “I guess I do have a choice.”
Q: And surveys show that people who think their purpose is to make a lot of money are often disappointed. Why is that?
A: When I was in my 20s, I attended a workshop with [Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor] Viktor Frankl. He taught me that you have a job, a career and, if you’re lucky, a calling. With the latter, there’s a sense of flow, vitality, aliveness. Maybe it’s not perfect, but you’re doing something that fits you, so there’s an energy. The most dangerous question to be asked is “What do you do?” That answer is on the front of your business card. I say, flip it over. That’s who you are. That’s the side where you dig an inch deeper and share what you love to do. When I was in Tanzania, a Hadza leader taught me that, in their culture, the two most important days are not birth and death. They are birth and the day the community helps a member determine what he or she has to share.
Q: How do we find our own Hadza guides?
A: I suggest everyone build a sounding board with four people: A wise elder to help you see the bigger purpose; a wise younger to give you a fresh perspective; a purpose partner who is a committed listener; and someone like a personal trainer who holds your feet to the fire and asks, “Why aren’t you doing this?”
Q: Are we ever too old for this?
A: I champion growing whole, not old. Life is a continual discovery process. It’s about aging on purpose with curiosity. When you lose your curiosity about yourself or the world, you lose your aliveness.
Q: What’s scarier: Making changes to get closer to our truer purpose or staying put and settling?
A: Everyone is an experiment of one. I don’t like to generalize. I think the scariest thing is someone wakes up because they have cancer and thinks, I’ve been living someone else’s vision. They stuck it out and compromised their health and happiness. This is why the purpose search is such a big thing.
Q: You like to ask people what gets them up in the morning. So, what gets you up in the morning?
A: My aim is to make a difference every day in one person’s life unsolicited — without being paid or having expectations around it. It’s the chance to do that.