Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Finding Purpose: The Flower Among The Weeds

Sometimes the difficulty in being clear about your life purpose or calling stems from abundance rather than scarcity: so many things that you are interested in, and are capable of doing. Purpose is one of what I call The 7 Dimensions of wisdom, which are competencies and skills that are essential for a fulfilling life.

Here is a place to start in clarifying your purpose. Looking back over your own history, what constructive activities have you consistently engaged in, gotten satisfaction from, and been competent in; that you would continue to do without being paid? These activities could be work or career related, or part of your personal or family life; but should probably also provide some real benefit to others. Since most people have to work to make a living, it is certainly a plus if your purpose also happens to be something that can help earn your living. In that way, you don’t have to spend 40 plus hours per week doing something that is disconnected from your purpose. But it is very possible to work a job just for income and to pursue your calling outside of your work.

To use myself as an example, there are two activities that fall into that category of purpose as I reflect back on my life. These are 1) writing, usually essays or journal entries that are reflections and observations about the inner life and outer experiences, mine and other people’s; and 2) playing music on the flute. The first is connected to my career as a psychologist, business consultant, and professor; while the second has been a consistent extracurricular activity. I am repeatedly drawn to these two activities even when no other person is involved. They give me pleasure, and they clear my head, giving me a heightened sense of being in the present. But both of them have also become well developed social activities that provide for an exchange of satisfaction and value between me and other people within the context of organizations.

Of course, even when you identify that your purpose falls within a general area, such as writing essays about human behavior or gardening, there is still plenty of room within that to lose focus. So it becomes a daily discipline to rediscover what is truly meaningful to you and what you should be doing today to meet that purpose, amid all the other demands in your life. It is helpful to have a theme or model as a reference point. The model that is helping me right now is SOPPHIA – The 7 Dimensions of Wisdom. For example, today’s topic (Purpose) is the first ‘P’ in the acronym SOPPHIA. You can learn about the other six from my previous essays or on my website (www.sopphia.com).

So find a theme, idea or model that has value for you, and can help you focus on your purpose. If you are a gardener, perhaps there is a particular species of flower that speaks to you (not literally). Remember though that a theme, model or a theory is only a useful metaphor for reality. Don’t take it too seriously. Keep it as long as it continues to serve that purpose of guiding and stimulating creative thinking and action; separating the flowers from the weeds.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Purpose: The Dream or Vision Lives

Purpose, the pursuit of a dream or vision of excellence in whatever field, requires courage. The struggle for purpose is fought in mainly within ourselves; for that is where fear and other demons masquerading as common sense seek to convince us that our dream is worthless, or that the risk is too great. In this battle, we also need assurance or faith; the ability to persevere when reason suggests it is best to give up. These, self-awareness (and self-management), purpose, and assurance (faith) are three of the 7 Dimensions of Wisdom; skills that are necessary for a fulfilling life.

I was thinking of purpose as I watched a movie based on the life of major league pitcher Jim Morris last night. Morris (played in the movie by Dennis Quaid) dreamt all his life of being a major league pitcher. He made it to the minor leagues but retired after several years because of injuries, without realizing his dream. Later in his mid thirties, as a high school baseball coach and physical science teacher, he was challenged by his baseball team members to try out for the major leagues again; if the team was successful in winning a district championship. The high school team had won only one game each year for the past several years. But thus motivated, the team won the district and Morris went to the tryout. Most unexpectedly, he was able to throw 12 consecutive pitches at 98 miles per hour. In his earlier career, his fast ball was only about 85 mph. The climax of the story is that Morris was recruited into the minor leagues, performed well, and soon realized his dream and pitched for the Orlando Rays for two seasons. This comeback also changed his career in the long term by making him famous, and a well paid motivational speaker.

Your dream and challenge may not be quite so dramatic, but a dream and the struggle against disillusionment play major roles in the life development of many people. Daniel Levinson’s long term studies of the career and life development of men and women from various and diverse occupations showed that in his books: Seasons of a Man’s Life and Seasons of a Woman’s Life. The nature of a dream or vision is that you can’t determine ahead of time whether or not it can be made real; thus the need for courage. While planning and other tools can and should be used. There will always be a gap between what such management tools can do to minimize risk and the amount of uncertainty that is involved in pursuing a dream. Hand-to-hand combat with our internal adversaries cannot be avoided if the dream or vision is to live.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Wisdom of Being Present

We value the experience of being fully present. We may experience it alone in a reflective moment, in the intimacy of lovemaking or conversation, or in a large gathering such as a religious service, a concert, a sports event, or a movie. The ability to be present, and to have presence, is one of the 7 Dimensions of Wisdom.

I play the flute in church services. On my way to church today, I blew on the head of my flute to warm up my lips. As I did this, I thought about the difference in the sound of the flute when I am present. At such times, it is almost as if I can hear and feel the individual sound waves of each note flowing around and embracing me, as opposed to hearing the note as a single sound in the distance. In addition to the vibrations being granular, they also seem to be directly connected to parts of my brain and nervous system that tap into emotions and meanings. The result is that even a single note feels significant. Therefore, when playing a song that the congregation, choir and musicians all know and love, we are able to create such a powerful sense of presence; that it is almost as if time stops.

What I have learned from music is that while I cannot exactly control the experience of being present, I can induce it by practice and discipline. With practice, my lips, ears, fingers and brain become tuned, usually after a few minutes. I have noticed that if I haven’t played the flute for a couple of days, it usually takes longer to get back to that place.

I have also experienced a similar pattern with physical exercise. With practice, I can get to a place where I am moving fluidly and am energized, rather than just being tired. In addition, during such time of positive exercise, creative ideas will occur to me. So, being present also connects us to the source of creativity. Creativity when developed and socialized becomes innovation, another of the 7 Dimensions of Wisdom.

To be present is to be fully alive, to be part of something wonderful, and to experience a sense of endless possibilities. We may experience it alone in a reflective moment, in the intimacy of lovemaking or conversation, or in a large gathering such as a religious service, a concert, a sports event, or a movie. The ability to be present, and to have presence, is one of the 7 Dimensions of Wisdom. Being present is also a skill that we can each continue to develop with attention and practice.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wisdom and Stages of Life

Psychologist Erik Erikson's last stage of life is called Wisdom - Ego Integrity vs. Despair. In that stage, people must made sense of all the disparate strands of experience that made up their lives, or else be condemned to despair and a sense of failure.

The strands of our experiences include all those that we actually chose, the ones that were the result of decisions by others, and the ones that were apparently the work of chance, fate, or divine intervention. In each of these categories, there are experiences that we consider good or favorable, and those that we view as the opposite. Our challenge is in resolving the intense feelings that we have about these different experiences, and in reaching an understanding of how they fit together.

This is why I think that the essence of wisdom is the ability to be fully present in your life; to resolve the struggle of regret and longing and to accept your life as valid, meaningful, and joyful as it is up to this point; even with the inevitable pain and suffering that are part of it. It helps to have a framework to integrate the pieces and the feelings they generate.

What has helped me tremendously is this idea of bringing together the ancient concept of wisdom with the social scientific concept of competencies or life skills. I call it SOPPHIA- The 7 Dimensions of Wisdom. 'S' is for self-awareness and self-management. 'O' is for understanding of others and managing relationships. 'P' is for purpose. The other 'P' is for presence; the importance of being present. 'H' is for health in mind, body an spirit. 'I' is for innovation, the ability to use creativity to generate value or wealth. 'A' is for assurance for faith; the ability to persevere beyond reason in the face of obstacles. Sophia, spelled with one 'p' is the Greek word for wisdom.

So does this mean that you can't be wise until you get past middle age? Of course not. We all know of wise children and old fools. It has something to do with statistics and with the immeasurable. Older people may have a higher probability of being wise; assuming that they are still mentally intact. But the Book of Isaiah says that a little child shall lead them.