Creating a Meaningful Story for Your Life

Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True, interviewed Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond as part of her Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Rebecca and Lily are the authors of the newly published (January 2021) book, What’s Your Story? : A Journal for Everyday Evolution. The book provides deeply personal insights into what constitutes a meaningful life as a well as interactive, reflective questions designed to help the reader to revisit and rewrite the story of their own life.  Both authors are accomplished writers and activists with quite diverse backgrounds. Their collaborative writing over the past ten years to produce the book is a profound endeavour in its own right.  They share a common and very strong belief that in writing our own story with honesty, fearlessness, and persistence, we can rewrite our past and reshape our future so that we live a more meaningful life.

An opening reflective question

During the podcast interview, Tami asked Rebecca and Lily about the first question in their book which is, What is your first memory?  This question is penetrating in that it requires the reader to identify a memory that they really experienced and own.  It means unravelling the self-stories from what has been communicated by parents, society at large, national culture, workplace culture or formal education.  It means getting to the heart of what we actually believe and practice.  For Lily, the catalyst for the question was the experience of her mother dying from cancer; for Rebecca, the catalytic event was the divorce of her parents.  In both cases they were faced with the fundamental question of What story have I been telling myself about my life?  Which leads to the question, How limiting or empowering is my self-story?

A closing reflective question

The interview discussing the book – What’s My Story? – gravitated to the final reflective question How do I define a life well lived?  This question is designed to be proactive – to stimulate not only reflection but future action.  The question is intended to have us look back from our future deathbed and review how we have spent our life and how we had wished to spend it.  It means, in Rebecca’s terms, what would enable me to die peacefully when reviewing my life’s contribution and legacy?  The question for both authors revolved around, What is a meaningful life? How can I now live my life in a way that is congruent with what gives my life meaning, satisfaction and a sense of positive contribution to my relationships, my community, and the world at large?

Lily and Rebecca talked about how these questions and their personal responses are influencing the way they live now – even at the micro-level.  Throughout their book they ask the reader to reflect on what was meaningful in their past, what is meaningful in their present life and what would give meaning to the rest of their life – a potential catalyst for rewriting our own stories.  What could be useful in this personal pursuit of “a life well-lived” are the lessons from death and dying provided by Frank Ostaseski.

The science of a meaningful life

Several authors for the Greater Good Magazine collaborated on an article titled, The Top 10 Insights from “The Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2020.  The magazine itself is a production of the Greater Good Science Center, The University of California, Berkeley.  The authors drew on the work of multiple researchers in their network and  viewed the identified elements as a source of hope in these challenging times when the pandemic has led to many people experiencing conflict, loneliness, illness, and grief.

The authors draw on the concept of a “psychologically rich life” as a framework for their suggestions for a meaningful life:

  • Collaborating in learning with others
  • Connecting with other people by phone rather than text or social media
  • Expressing kindness and gratitude to others (which are contagious)
  • Being more extroverted in engagement with others (especially beneficial for introverts)
  • Engaging with diverse cultures that can serve to challenge our stereotypes
  • Seeking out challenging and varied experiences
  • Working in organisations that consciously pursue social justice both within and without
  • Exploring ways to be more motivated to express empathy.

Reflection

It is a sobering exercise to ask ourselves these reflective questions that represent the lived experiences of the authors.  What is also relevant to this reflection are the lessons from death and dying advanced by Frank Ostaseski.  The challenge is to work out how we define a “life well lived”.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can gain greater clarity about what a meaningful life is for us and have the courage and resilience to pursue it in our chosen field of endeavour.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Domestic Violence: A Catalyst for Pursuing Life Purpose

The challenge we are confronted with during various stages of our life is to decide what is our purpose in life.  Finding that unique purpose can lead to a singular focus, total commitment and “unified action”, where your contribution to community – utilising your unique knowledge, skills, experiences, insights, and connections – becomes your unifying focus.  Trent Dalton, journalist and author of  All Our Shimmering Skies, tells the story of how domestic and family violence became the catalyst for Nicolle Edwards and husband Gareth to identify and pursue their life purpose in the form of RizeUp Australia, a registered charity providing concrete support to women and families fleeing domestic violence.

Trent’s story, Hands & Hearts in the Australian Weekend Magazine (12-13 December 2020), describes the practical help that RizeUp provides in terms of furnishing a house for domestic and family violence refugees.  With the help of a large social media following and a very large group of volunteers, Nicolle and Gareth provide home-making support for DV refugees when they move out of a Women’s Shelter to often-unfurnished, emergency  accommodation.  The list of furniture and accessories provided at no cost (or fuss), including bedding and basic appliances, is extensive and very impressive – all provided and set up for free through donations of goods and money and the donation of time and effort by volunteers in the RizeUp network.  Nicolle comments in the article that the “sigh of relief” of the recipient mother is motivation enough for her to dedicate herself to this life purpose.

Nicole realised that she could help domestic violence refugees and their children when she turned to social media to provide help to a DV refugee very early on (before RizeUp was created in 2015).  She was amazed at the response and with Gareth created the RizeUp network, which has now set up more than 980 homes for DV refugees and their families.  The RizeUp Facebook page provides many photos showing volunteers at work and the kind of practical home support provided by the network.   Nicole and Gareth demonstrate the strength and sensitivity required to pursue your life purpose.

My story – my experience of domestic and family violence

I experienced domestic and family violence as a child because my father, who was suffering from PTSD, had become an alcoholic. I heard the many shouting fights between my mother and father because he was spending so much of our income on alcohol.  I do recall our family at one stage living off food donations from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  I also recall the times when my mother ended up in hospital after particularly violent arguments.   

I left home immediately after Grade 12 to study in Victoria and when I returned five years later the situation had not improved.  So, one day when my father was at work, I helped my mother pack her things and moved the both of us to a small house at the back of a shop.  The strangely happy part of the story is that after my parents divorced, my father remarried, gave up alcohol and walked every day for an hour for his physical and mental health.  He also used to drive my mother to church each Sunday after the separation.

It is only as I grew older that I realised how little support there was for my father whose nerves were shattered after serving in the Australian Army in Singapore in the Second World War.  He had been a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for 18 months following the capture of Singapore by the Japanese.  Stephen Wynn describes life after The Surrender of Singapore as “three years of hell”.  Not long after my father’s release from Changi, he was deployed as part of the Allied Occupation Forces in Japan.

On reflecting on these early life experiences of domestic violence, I believe that they have unconsciously motivated me to work towards developing mentally healthy workplaces and communities both in my consulting and writing.  In my organisational consulting work, I have particularly worked with managers to build managerial mindfulness – consciousness about the impact that their words and actions have on the development of a productive and mentally healthy workplace.  In writing this blog, I have focused on mindfulness, mental health, trauma, and leadership as my contribution to providing individuals in the community and managers with resources, practices, and processes to create a mentally healthy life.

What is your story?

Recently, Tami Simon from Sounds True introduced a new publication written by Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond who took ten years to develop and refine the reflective processes incorporated in their book.  The transformative and interactive journal, titled  What’s Your Story: A Journal for Everyday Evolution, provides a series of strategic questions to help you reflect on your life story (by theme and/or area of your life).  The deeply penetrating questions are designed to challenge self-limiting beliefs and throw light on a possible path forward.  The authors hope to enable you “to begin living your most authentic, creative, and meaningful life”.

Reflection

Sometimes the search for our life purpose is confounding and confusing – it seems to go around in circles before achieving some degree of clarity.  Our life purpose might prove illusive because it can be changing over time. As we gain greater personal insight and experience different catalytic events, we may find that what was truly purposeful and meaningful at one point in our life, is no longer adequate or energizing. As we grow in mindfulness through journalling, meditation and reflection, we can develop an expanded view of what we are capable of, build the courage to pursue our unique purpose, and positively impact others and ourselves. It is in achieving alignment with our life purpose that we find meaning and happiness.

Another useful resource is an eight-week course, Your True Calling, which is available online at Sounds True.  The author Stephen Cope, wrote the book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Framework for Reflection for Organisation Leaders

Chip Conley, author and hospitality entrepreneur, emphasised the importance of reflection, wisdom and lifelong learning for leaders.  He created the Modern Elder Academy to further that end.  He was especially interested in making the workplace a place for fullment, inspiration and self-actualization for employees – which he maintained was the means to achieve a sustainably successful organisation.  Chip acknowledged that his leadership philosophy was heavily influenced by the writing of two men Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow.

Viktor Frankl through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, impressed on Chip the importance and power of a meaningful life for leaders and the critical role of leaders in providing an environment that is conducive to employees developing a “sense of purpose and meaning”.   Research has confirmed that a meaningful life is foundational to a person’s health, happiness and overall well-being.

Abraham Maslow and his work on developing a Hierarchy of Needs had a very profound effect on Chip and his approach to leadership, both as an owner/entrepreneur and a mentor to other leaders, especially the young founders of Airbnb.  Maslow’s work gave Chip an insight into how to develop a reflective framework to guide his own role as a leader and to assist other leaders to create meaningful work for employees.

A framework for reflection for organisational leaders – the transformative pyramid

Chip explained his reflection framework in a TED Talk© given in 2010 titled, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile.  He elaborated further on the evolution of the framework and how to put it into practice in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True.  He was particularly concerned about the challenge of applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to business and the management of employees.

What Chip realised is that, for employees, meaning provided inspiration which in turn developed intrinsic motivation.  He came up with the idea of a framework which he called the “transformative pyramid” – built on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which was illustrated as a five-level pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom of the pyramid and self-actualization at the top.

To simplify things and make his framework easy to implement, Chip developed his transformative pyramid as a three-level pyramid with “survival” at the bottom, “success” in the middle and “transformation” at the top.  He pointed out that many leaders focus only on the bottom of the pyramid, the survival needs, by using all their energy to create non-sustainable, extrinsic motivation in the form of pay, bonuses and financial rewards while ignoring what truly influences and shapes employee motivation.

In Chip’s model, “success” relates to recognition that an employee is achieving their role and contributing to the organisation.  He understood that positive feedback was a powerful motivator and that people often left their jobs because of the way they were treated, including feeling a sense that they had been “taken for granted” and their efforts were unrecognised.   Chip explained, by way of example, that during the dot-com crash, he introduced a process of recognition at his weekly managers’ meetings that not only provided some positive element to what was a relatively sober discussion but also helped to spread recognition and positivity throughout the organisation. 

The initiating process for giving recognition was simple – he introduced a ten-minute period at the end of each meeting where a manager would mention someone in one of the teams who “deserved recognition” for something they had done in the workplace or in the field.  This recognition was communicated personally to the individual involved who felt that they were “noticed” and respected, and their contribution was appreciated.  Chip suggested that great companies are differentiated by the fact that they are “first-class noticers”.

At the highest level of the transformation pyramid is personal reframing of work from “just a job” to something that is meaningful and worthwhile.  Chip suggested that this can be achieved by helping employees to understand the higher purpose of the organisation – the inspirational “why”,  and to find meaning in what they do by understanding the connection between their daily work and something broader that makes a difference in people’s lives.  

Chip indicated that he learned this lesson from a maid who had worked for a  long time in one of his hotels.  When he asked her why she seemed so happy doing mundane work every day (such as cleaning the toilets), she said that she was able “to create joy” for people who stayed in their hotel away from their home and often without their family or partner.  She was able to mentally connect what she did every day to a “noble purpose”.  This realisation and reframing were “transformative” for her – putting her mundane work in a totally different light and acting as a source of intrinsic motivation.

Chip encapsulated his “transformation pyramid” and its underlying principles in his book, PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.  He encouraged leaders to use his framework to reflect on their relationships with their employees, customers and investors.  Since the first edition of the book, many organisations worldwide in different industries have used his framework to transform their businesses. In particular, they have found innovative ways to recognise the contribution of their employees.

Reflection

It is often the simplest ideas that have the greatest impact.  Chip demonstrated that focusing on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation was the way forward to transform companies and he proved this through his own roles as founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre and as mentor to the founders of Airbnb.  In the process, he addressed one of the key underlying problems associated with the growth of depression – the loss of connection to meaningful work.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can increase our understanding of leadership and what is meaningful in life for us and others, and notice, appreciate and provide recognition to people we encounter who contribute in whatever way to our own welfare and that of our organisations.  Noticing, appreciating and giving recognition require us to be present in the moment – a key aspect of mindfulness.  Being present builds awareness of our self and others.

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness – A Pathway to Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David in her 2017 TEDWomen’s Talk, spoke about the gift and power of emotional courage – the willingness to face our emotions in all their diversity and strength.  She stated that research demonstrates that denying or suppressing emotions leads to strengthening emotions and can make people aggressive. Other research shows that such denial or suppression induces unhealthy coping behaviours and contributes to serious mental and physical health problems. Sometimes we suppress emotions because we think that this is what we should do – we take our cues from social norms or established unwritten rules operating in the workplace.   

In her book, Emotional Agility, Susan argues that radical acceptance of our emotions, however difficult, is essential to be able to bounce back from setbacks and lead a productive, happy life.  Her main premise is that denial of emotions develops personal rigidity – the inability to be flexible and move with the ups and downs of life.  She maintains that, on the other hand, radical acceptance of emotions builds resilience and “emotional agility” – the capacity to deal with the complexity of an uncertain and ever-changing world. 

Susan warns us about the “tyranny of positive” – the social expectation that we do not express what is viewed as negative emotions – such as anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment or envy.  We are expected in many situations “to put on a brave face” and deny how we really feel.  She discusses the “destructive power of denial” not only in terms of being injurious to health and well-being but also in disabling us and preventing us from developing effective or creative responses to our situation. 

How to overcome rigidity and build emotional agility

In her presentation and book, Susan offers several suggestions that can assist us to develop emotional agility:

  • Stop labelling emotions as “good” or bad” – they are just feelings that we experience as a result of our perceptions and are a part of normal, daily living
  • Change your mindset to accept that “discomfort is the price of a meaningful life” – a way of living that is designed to make a difference for ourselves and others. This is a part of accepting “what is”.
  • Name your feelings but do so accurately and specifically – so instead of saying “I’m stressed” (a generic state), identify the real feeling in all it’s intensity and contours, e.g. “I’m bitterly disappointed because I missed out on that promotion” or “I am continually very resentful that Joe caused me so much work and embarrassment by his words and actions”.  We tend to fudge the emotion to take some of the heat and negativity out of it.  Accurate description and radical acceptance of our emotions lead to a genuine release and frees us to explore productive ways of thinking and acting.  This may entail a progressive realisation of the true nature of our feelings as we reflect or meditate, e.g. by undertaking the R.A.I.N. meditation
  • Recall Susan’s statement that “emotions are data, not directives” – we can establish control over our emotions through meditation and by developing self-regulation.  The starting point is naming and accepting them. 
  • Ask yourself, “What is my emotion telling me about my current situation” – e.g. “Is it informing me that my current job is destroying my motivation and/or deskilling me?

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the true nature of our feelings, name them accurately and accept them as part of trying to live a life aligned with our values and what is meaningful for us.  It sometimes takes time to unearth the real nature and intensity of our feelings because we so often disown them.  Persistence in our self-exploration and self-compassion opens the way for us to be more emotionally agile and more open to life’s experiences, including the potentially challenging aspects of moving outside our comfort zone.                      

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Image by Holger Langmaier from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Pillars of a Meaningful Life

In the previous post, I discussed how making meaning in our daily lives contributes to well-being. I also drew on what Dr. Paul Wong stated in terms of the need to align our lives with what we consider to be meaningful – in other words, to achieve congruence. Paul is the author of the book , The Human Quest for Meaning: Theories, Research, and Applications. Through his research, writings and presentations, he has developed the concept of the pillars of a meaningful life. He has identified seven of these pillars which I will discuss below.

The seven pillars of a meaningful life

  1. Believing that human life is inherently meaningful – this is foundational, because once you acknowledge that your life has meaning, you can pursue the realisation of meaning in your own life. You can begin to value your work, be grateful for the many things that you have and can do and explore meaningful relationships with people who are like-minded. This can lead to life-time friendships and collaboration. This fundamental belief also enables you to accept that suffering and pain are part of human existence and have a meaning in your life.
  2. A profound self-awareness – understanding at a deep level who you are and where you fit into the greater scheme of things. This understanding and acceptance provides the basis for recognising your potential for contributing positively to significant others in your life and those you interact with on an given day. This means avoiding delusion and being open to your potential.
  3. Exploring what is unique about your passion and mission – discovering your unique purpose. This involves capturing what inspires and energises you and becoming conscious of the challenges and responsibilities that flow from your personal pool of knowledge, skills and experiences.
  4. Pursuing your best self so that you realise your potential – overcoming the negative thoughts and barriers that block your potential. If you are not consciously trying to improve yourself, you can find that you are going backwards. Even small steps towards fulfilling your potential will bring you closer to your best self. This is a life-long journey but leads to a sense of well-being when you have achieved a real breakthrough. It is important to approach this self-realisation task non-judgmentally, avoiding “beating up on yourself” for not progressing as fast as you “should”.
  5. Self-transcendence – contributing to something that is bigger than yourself and that will outlast you. Viktor Frankl suggests that self-transcendence is central to your well-being as it is part of your “spiritual nature”. This involves moving beyond self-centredness and self-absorption to being altruistic and compassionate – ultimately being other-centred, whether the other person is a neighbour, friend or casual contact. Happiness and well-being lie at the heart of self-transcendence.
  6. Relating well to the people who are closest to you – your life partner, your children and closest friends. This “intimacy” is a rich source of happiness and well-being. If you are in constant conflict in this arena, you need to explore the dynamics of the situation and your contribution to the conflict. Relating well entails reflective listening, being thoughtful and aware of others’ needs, and “going out of your way” to help the other person when they are not coping, are ill or saddened by some occurrence in their life.
  7. Having a sense of personal fulfillment when your life is productive – in line with human connectedness. This means, in part, having a sense that you are using the surplus in your life to contribute to the well-being of others. It also means using your knowledge, skills and experience to be a productive and positive contributor to your work team and your organisation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and small acts of gratitude, we can enjoy happiness and well-being, develop rich relationships and realise our potential through positive contributions to our work team and our community.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.