Resilient Leadership© Series

Your Relationship with Purpose

How to understand and navigate purpose to forge a vibrant path forward.

My friends, I’m ready to move forward into this New Year with you. Together we can hit “reset” and cross a threshold of opportunity, making 2023 the year to Live Your Truth. This is the year for you to access a new kind of ROI that not only reaps tangible rewards and expands your influence and impact, but most importantly, becomes the foundation for a sustainable, fulfilling and impactful life on your terms.

Experiencing life on your terms entails grappling with ‘the purpose question’. I’m not talking about “purpose” in a flippant, self-help, Hallmark card way, but purpose as a deeply catalyzing force. Read on to see what I mean and to begin to understand the difference between what I call “little p” purpose and “Big P” Purpose, and how navigating between the two can help you forge a vibrant path forward.

A New Kind of ROI:
Your Relationship with Purpose

Consider Gunther’s story.

In his 20’s and 30’s, Gunther was happily married, had two kids, he even found time to train for marathons. But at age 43, things started to change. The company he worked for nosedived, and finances became a real challenge. He struggled to stay positive as he realized the life he’d planned wasn’t the life he was living. Two years ago, he sent me this note:

“You know, Barb, when I was younger and newly married, my hopes and dreams were endless… [now] I find myself thinking my choices are limited; my story is written.”

We caught up by phone, and I learned his wife encouraged him to attend a pricey two-day retreat on “Finding Your Purpose.” Conflicted, he sought my advice.

“I’ve been so stuck for the past few years. I need to get back to work with an income, but I have a sense that I need to be doing something I care about…at least a little. Maybe I’d find my sense of purpose and get unstuck?”

My reply?

“Gunther, don’t get stuck on purpose.”

Purpose can be so big and lofty that it becomes paralyzing, obstructing what’s right in front of us. The truth is that more often than not, our purpose finds us. It evolves when we live in sync with our values and grow to know ourselves more fully.

Together, Gunther and I uncovered parts of his life that he considered interesting but unimportant—like his love of cigars, golf, and designer glasses. Then, Gunther started to experiment. He created a cigar business while also having some more consistent income from—working in a golf pro shop.

For the first time in years, Gunther didn’t feel stuck. That lasted for a while. But, alas, this is a real story, so it doesn’t fit into a tidy package. He found that being an entrepreneur in California was expensive and stressful, plus some family obligations made his dream cumbersome. So he and his wife moved to North Carolina to be closer to their daughter and reduce financial strain.

Now in his 60’s he’s decided to drop the cigar business and enjoy the cadence of work at a golf club that better fits his little p purpose. He interacts with and feels he has a positive impact on his community and he is better for it.

The upshot: When we’re motivated by something greater than a paycheck, our lives become more meaningful, we’re happier, and we’re more likely to behave in ways that benefit ourselves, our families, and the world around us.

Here’s how you can put your Gunther-esque character arc into action:

Don't Get Stuck on Purpose

There’s a reason books like The Purpose-Driven Life have turned into a profit-making empire—we as a culture are obsessed with the concept of purpose. I have had countless clients come to me, people with tremendous wisdom, passion and courage, all befuddled by this quest to find their purpose. “I’m no Mother Teresa,” so many of them say. Well, Mother Teresa would be relieved to hear that. In fact, she best understood that “purpose” as a grand quest could be counterproductive. “Not all of us can do great things,” she said. “But we can do small things with great love.”

Don’t get me wrong. I know that a sense of meaning and purpose is foundational. It’s central to my work as a leadership coach. A recent global survey of over 26,000 LinkedIn members in 40 different countries found that having a sense of purpose at work is a tremendous motivator and predictor of things like higher job satisfaction and feelings of fulfillment. But obsessing over the importance of “Big P” Purpose—the grandiose, “save the world” kind—can miss the target. Few of us will change the world, much less save it, but we can do our small part as Mother Teresa suggests. It’s just as important to have ‘little p’ purpose as it is to find your “Big P” purpose.

Little p’s add up. Your little p’s can be whatever brings you joy—today it might be cleaning your closets; tomorrow, maybe it’s helping a friend. One day you might get wind of something larger happening in your community that feels like your passionate call to action, and then you’ll be ready.

Know When It's Time for "Big P" and "little p" Purpose

If there’s one thing I know about purpose—it’s not one-size-fits-all—our sense of purpose shifts throughout our lives. For young parents caring for infants and toddlers, purpose looks like a fresh stack of diapers and a nap—much different from what it is for those not in a caregiving stage. And it’s important to recognize that Middlescence can be a particularly challenging time to feel purposeful.

Too many of us have bought into an ageist, self-sabotaging narrative that associates midlife as the beginning of the end—a time of waning MOJO and awesomeness. Too many people come to me worried that it’s too late to rewrite their script.

The answer is NO!

There’s no “Sell By” date limiting your usefulness when you have decades of life and leadership in front of you. You don’t need a re-write, as that would erase your valuable past, but rather, an edit to the draft that gets muddled in your head. This will bring you closer to your purpose.

Too many of us have bought into an ageist, self-sabotaging narrative that associates midlife as the beginning of the end. You don't need a re-write, as that would erase your valuable past, but rather, an edit to the draft that gets muddled in your head. This will bring you closer to your purpose.

2023: The Year to Live Your Little P’s

As you move into 2023 and clarify your sense of “little p” and/or “Big P” purpose, consider the following questions:

New ROI: Your Relationship with Purpose Coach Barbara Waxman

As Frederick Buechner said, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” When you find that sweet spot, things shift. You’re in the flow. Tasks feel effortless. Big things begin to happen, like feeling joy.




The Future of Resilient Leadership

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