Back in school, we read “the classics” and then had to discover the theme of the story and write a paper on it. As a teenager, this was more of a task than a discovery mission. In college, uncovering the theme and then seeing how various elements of the story really connected the dots was energizing. Something within our minds clicked with excitement and, in many ways, stirred our spirits. There was a connection and a meaning.
What Is Life Theme?
Theme is defined as the “main idea or underlying meaning.” Simple yet themes get tangled, off track, and even undefined. Themes can simply just work, too. They develop, connect, and inspire.
I have touted the importance of having a leadership philosophy and I do believe it is vital. Having a philosophy sets a direction in how to lead. The same applies to life itself. However, a philosophy without a theme may be as incomplete as a theme without a philosophy.
A life without a theme seems like an unfulfilled life. What it may be is a disconnected, meandering one. At the ceremony concluding your life, people pick stories trying to connect your life to meaning. What makes it challenging is that while we are living we get easily distracted.
- We focus on the moment.
- We focus on material things.
- We jump around to each greener pasture.
- We chase things that get displayed and eventually sent to eBay.
When Do You Need a Life Theme?
Wouldn’t it be better to determine a theme early on and then work on it each day? It would be more enlivening.
I am guilty. I wish someone would have slapped me into life’s reality and told me to develop a theme to my life and then live it with gusto. Do I have meaning to my life? In many ways, I do. In other ways, at 50+, I am trying to define my main idea and underlying meaning. I am working to gather all of my life dots and connect them to really make sense.
Just like mediocre stories, there may be a residual theme present but we forget it as soon as we dispose of the book. Don’t live a mediocre life!
Developing a Life Theme
Developing our life themes is important to do. Defining them during our 20-something years fosters momentum of meaning. A few points about developing life themes.
- We likely need several themes, for instance – life, leadership, family, community. Not too many, maybe just enough to make our main life theme really take hold and develop in a purpose-filled way.
- Life themes don’t happen overnight, and they shouldn’t. Themes develop over time. Even though stories end, momentum unfolds with each page. In life, we don’t know how many pages we have but it is worthwhile to make each page the best we can make it.
- Understanding our life theme keeps us engaged and questioning storylines to embrace or ignore. Knowing our life theme isn’t meant as a discipline forcing us to march in a straight line. A theme creates our life thread to craft and weave a colorful story. Our life thread engages joyfully, creating positive impact and crescendo moments for others as they join in.
What a life theme isn’t is a step-by-step career or family plan. Although both support and provide space for us to have big, lasting imprints, a theme is our main life idea lived out as often and as early as possible. A life theme isn’t beginning with an end in mind. A life theme is a beginning to live each day full of meaning without worrying about how your end will be interpreted. Your strong theme will be easily discovered by your life lived.
Writers struggle with theme development so maybe it isn’t surprising we do too. After all, life gets messy and we need to improvise. In the messiness and improvisation, a strong theme delivers the lifeline back to our intended purpose. Know your main idea. Know the underlying meaning you want to live. Do this as early as you can and then live it as often as you can.
Have you defined your life theme? How did you discover it and keep it from getting too distracted?
Join the Conversation
What Is Your Life Theme?
Life theme. That’s a powerful concept. Something that can be the context that helps to anchor your actions in life
I love the idea of having a life theme. This post is very timely for me. I’m doing work with my MBA students on building their leadership philosophies… they’re assignments are due on Saturday. The idea of a theme will be an excellent discussion to weave into the conversation.
Great on both points, Karin — spending time with student to develop their leadership philosophy and adding in the theme aspect. Wonderful things you are doing! Thank you. Jon
Once again you make me pause to consider the personal implications of your post. Theme, purpose, mission, philosophy…they all complement each other and weave together in the tapestry of life, yet each has a different perspective and function.
It seems to me that continually gaining clarity and self awareness around those elements in our life can only be a benefit. The result is a life lived more fully and intentionally.
Randy, I agree. We don’t have clarity immediately on how our life theme would unfold. But having an early focus on it sets a more intentional path forward and potentially more momentum around our theme. Very grateful for your comment and perspective. Thank you! Jon
Wonderful and thought-provoking post Jon!
Life themes are essential for each of us in both our personal and professional lives. They often overlap in both and when that happens we are usually the happiest.
For me, I have learned to be open to an evolving theme that allows me to welcome and engage change. I remain the same authentic person just with an eye to integrating new ideas and perspectives.
A great addition, Terri. Even with a life theme, we need to be open to ideas and insights to take it to the next level and evolve it over time. Being static may mean we lose meaning and impact. Thanks for adding your perspective. Very valuable! Jon
Good article. The concept of developing and understanding our life “themes” reminded me of Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. In one of the habits, Covey proposed the idea of writing down all of your roles at the beginning of the week (Father, Husband, Leader, Mentor, Coach), and then proactively writing down some goals related to those roles — things that you would work on that week.
Your notion of Themes and Covey’s Roles seem interchangeable to me: in order to really develop your life themes, you need to reflect on them, on a regular (weekly!) basis, and figure out how you are going to nurture them, expand on them, and develop them so that they more clearly define you — not only to your own eyes, but to those around you, as well.
Thanks for the reminder of this “habit” that I’ve fallen out of practice with!
JP, Those are great points. Writing down our goals for the roles we play has a way of focusing us as well as spending our time where things matter most. Themes and Roles may be interchangeable. As you point out, taking the time to reflect on them, define them, and then use them enable a incredibly effective life! Thank you for jumping in with your insights. Jon
Another excellent post from you, Jon! It’s interesting, in my writing, which is usually a reflection of my life events, I try to share specific lessons. Recently, I’ve had a mentor point out a theme that I’ve been ignoring and resisting. When we embrace the themes in our lives, energy does soar because we are living full lives with more ease and purpose.
I’m learning that sometimes the first step to embracing a new theme is to accept what’s already present but has been hiding underneath everything we think we know…
Alli, Your experience adds such an important element to the conversation. When we embrace a life theme, our energy does soar. And, at times, we get too wrapped up in things we don’t embrace the real theme from within.
Writing has a way of fleshing out our themes, I believe. Mixed in with a community to challenge you and raise questions will make our themes even more evident and empowering.
Thank you for wonderful insights! Jon
Great read, Jon! Agreed that life themes do not happen overnight. And they reveal themselves in an organic way if we focus on our passion.
Great point, Danny. Themes will reveal themselves over time. Starting the process during your twenties, I believe, delivers more meaningful momentum around it. Thanks so much for adding into the conversation! Jon
I think my theme is balance. I’m learning it’s the only way I can be successful. Making sure to improve my body, mind, relationships, finances, children’s lives, career, etc. in turn to ensure I’m able to make the most out of life.
Thanks for sharing your theme and insights, Rachel. Keep those elements in balance can produce great meaning and purpose. Thanks again! Jon
Great post Jon! I too wish that I would have worked on my theme earlier on but then again I may not have had the same experiences and those experiences have shaped who I am today. I agree that having a theme helps us focus on what is important in life. The things that matter most are not found in material things. Thanks for making me reflect on my theme. 🙂
Chantal, Our experiences do shape us and starting earlier on theme development may help position us for even more powerful experiences. Sharing our lessons learned and experiences is what makes conversations between generations even more fruitful. So very grateful for your insights! Jon
I think my life theme is overcoming obstacles. Anyone else have a life theme?
Thanks for jumping in and some themes being shared here!