Have you ever picked up a book because of a few quick social clips you see? I have, and the latest one resonated within the prairies of my mind. When Breath Becomes Air is the story of a neurosurgeon who often thought about what career would deliver the most meaning with his life. Although he became a physician, he wasn’t certain. Being a writer was also calling him, as he felt the impact of literature on his life. As his story unfolds, it is disrupted by lung cancer. Now, the physician becomes the patient, and the person struggles with the question of what to do with his remaining time.

Dr. Paul Kalanithi delivers his story with a mix of extreme clarity and uncertainty. Although these two ideas seem to be at odds, life encompasses both. Too often, we only spend time as captains of our uncertainty, navigating without a clear sense of direction.

Entangled Life Work Paths

For older generations, think about your past career path. What were the questions you struggled with in creating a life work of meaning?

For younger generations, think ahead. What purpose-filled questions are you wrestling with, and what are the resulting choices you are making?

During my youth, I thought about many different careers. I thought about being a ranger, pastor, farmer, teacher, and politician. I wasn’t thinking in terms of purpose, although I wanted to do something that had an impact in some way or another. My Soul Spark moment was participating with many other 17-year-olds from around South Dakota in setting up a fictitious state government (Boys State). I was hooked.

College took my interest in politics to another level, and it eventually unfolded into a seven-plus year career in Washington, DC. All good. I had a solid career there, but moments bumped into me where I questioned whether I was on the right track. Although I went to church now and then, I wasn’t a regular. I seemed to go when I was trying to think more clearly about what I wanted to do next or solve a particular career or life challenge. In hindsight, I should have had a more robust spiritual practice.

When I wanted more control over my career direction, I decided to return to school and get my MBA. Going back to college at almost thirty was a new experience. The environment was engaging, and it built a good business foundation for me. Developing a purpose or meaning in our careers after graduate school wasn’t discussed much. One class spent a few sessions on this topic. Over two years, purpose wasn’t used much.

I am unsure if having an engaging experience on the topic of meaning in our careers or purpose in our lives would have made a significant difference. Part of the reason I went back to school was to assert more control over my career and construct a more robust financial longevity for my family and me. Purpose beyond a financial foundation did not cross my mind too much.

Being a farmer’s son set an experience of scarcity. We always had food to eat and clothes to wear, but there were years where we all felt the tightness in our financial belts. Our scarcity created a work ethic and a strong desire to create an even better opportunity for ourselves and our kids down the road. No different than most families, wanting to improve on what we experienced.

My business career was productive. Various times were merry-go-rounds where progress seemed more circular than linear. Other times were rollercoasters, wondering if anything would ever get better. Family seeps into a larger portion of where my time was spent, as it should. My focus was more on my kids than on myself or purpose beyond family. My role was (and is) one of provider, but a lot more than just that. Being a loving father, husband, and partner while also providing the boundaries of what is acceptable for our sons is challenging.

With my experience of scarcity, we gave abundance to our kids. They weren’t spoiled. They just had a lot more than I did as a kid. More than stuff, it was more diverse experiences, too. Our pendulum swings too far at times when we are trying to offer a better future for the next generation.

My goal is not to write my biography here. With this glimpse, I see how career, life, and meaning get entangled. Until we begin unraveling each, a cloudiness covers what impact we should have or want to have. We just trip forward and try to do our best. However, our path becomes filled with curves and may end in a meaningless destination.

Changing the World on Purpose

If I could change the world right now, I would:

  • Require a high school semester of conversations and exploration of building a meaningful college experience and career direction
  • Require an undergraduate class on defining what will deliver the most meaning in career, life, and community interactions. There also would be an emphasis personal leadership, defining philosophy, values, and accountability factors.
  • Require a graduate class to explore what was defined in undergrad, understanding the changes and renewed focus areas. With time, a sanity check needs to be done as our experiences enhance our viewpoints, philosophies, and ideas.
  • Require organizations to have all team members think about their purpose within what they do at work and how life impacts their work and vice versa. Purpose and meaning need to be a part of development plans and ongoing conversations and opportunities.

Personal responsibility is not absent in any of this. In fact, none of this can happen without personal responsibility. Corporate responsibility cannot be absent either. After all, our work life is entangled with our overall life.

And, yes, this is another reason the old mentoring models need to be replaced with The Centering Model™. Self-awareness is an essential component of learning and becoming the best team member and human being we can be.

A Purposeful Generation Shift

As I see what Millennials want regarding purpose, I am encouraged. As I see some of the grumpiness of older generations regarding the new generation, I am discouraged. No generation is perfect, so we need to determine how we can share our experiences to create a better future.

Dr. Kalanithi’s words resonate once again:

“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

Change needs to continue to happen in the providing the place and platforms to have these deeper conversations about creating meaning in our life work.

Some final thoughts:

  • Think sooner rather than later about life work meaning and purpose
  • Be conscious in your choices
  • Act with empathy and meaning
  • Be unafraid to shift when purpose calls for greater clarity