This is a fancy term for figuring out the ‘meaning of life’. I’ve moved from a position of struggling to spell this, to believing it’s a critically important component in our happiness. The killer point here is that people who’ve figured out this question can be truly joyful. In order to make this clearer, let’s piggyback on the thinking of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He suggests that there are 3 levels of ‘ownership’ of our lives:
The notion here is of ‘going along’, of conforming to expectations. Doing what’s conventional and what’s expected. The dutiful son becomes the Steady-Eddie husband. Conventional norms set the bar-height of possibility and what can be achieved. Your life stays within boundaries (income, respectability etc).
Somehow, there is a growing awareness of a mismatch between the life you have and the life you want. This ‘creative tension’ can open possibilities – but it takes guts to ‘de-construct’ your current life and move onto something else. Many people are ‘wage slaves’ and find it hard to give up the 4-wheel-drive or the legal partnership to start a Hot-Yoga craze in County Clare. Some people find meaning outside of work in terms of hobbies or philanthropic activities. Some don’t. When very ill people are told to change their lifestyle – to go on a diet or to quit smoking – about 1 in 7 actually do this. In one study in the USA, they looked at the number of patients who stopped taking their post-stroke medication (57% of people stopped). This was in a scenario where there were no side effects and the entire costs of the medicine was covered by Medicaid and would prevent them getting a future stroke. So, if life versus death matters only provoke a response in 14% of people, is it any wonder that most of us find it hard to make profound shifts. The point: ask yourself “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy am I?’ If the answer is 6 (or less) it might indicate that you need to do something different (as we speak, I’m thinking of selling the kids, thereby solving several problems at once).
Under this heading, there is an awareness of what really matters. What makes life meaningful and purposeful? This is the basis for personal mastery (being in control) and for engaging with new possibilities. It’s the sense that you are not simply clocking in, punching a time card until you secure a bed near the window in a Hospice. There is only one exit in this gig.
I’ve told this story before but it’s worth repeating. Some years ago I was at a party and speaking with a woman at 2am. She was telling me about her partner’s project where he was restoring an old cottage in a country town. I said that I’d really like to do the same thing (after 5 glasses of red wine, small matters like the complete absence of DIY skills don’t count). When she asked why I don’t take on a similar project, I waffled on about how important my job is, how much I’m needed at home, how the music scene in Clontarf would evaporate with the loss of my ‘talent’ and so on (MSc. in Excuses). She said, as an observation rather than a put-down, “You don’t seem to have your life sorted, do you?” And, she was right. About 2 weeks later, I made a major life decision. That conversation was a ‘full stop’, a call-to-arms. Burn described coaching as: “A purposeful conversation that inspires you to create the life that you want” (2007:33). I’d just had a free coaching session, although I didn’t realise it at that time.
For the moment, I will assume that you have not been one of the lucky ones chosen by Maureen and have to paddle your own canoe. You are the CEO of your own life. The good news is that you’re in control. But, the bad news is also that you’re in control (you can’t outsource the blame on this one). Humans resemble sharks in this respect. In order to stay (fully) alive, we have to keep swimming forwards. When you figure it all out then you can jump up and down and shout Eureka! I finally know what I want to be when I Grow Up.