What is the purpose of life? Is it to survive? To pass on your genes? To raise great kids? To amass the most toys? Is it to be safe? To have total control? Total freedom? Is it to ensure that you will retire in comfort? Is it to give back? To have fun? Be happy?
For me, one purpose is to LIVE! To find the limits of what it means – given my personality, my body and my background – to be on this planet, during this lifetime. I have always loved Rilke’s poem, in which he encourages us to experience
e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Yes, the good and the bad. The darkness and the light. Expansion and contraction. Control and chaos. He writes that no feeling is too small or too big. Speaking on behalf of God, he says, “Make big shadows that I can move in.” Such an invitation!
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Burrows in The Book of Hours
When I try new things, when I learn new skills, when I work up the courage to have an honest conversation about a difficult topic, I feel so alive! For me, feeling alive means extra energy tingling in my body, an extra openness in my chest, a psychological and physical sense of spaciousness. It means feeling excited, with perhaps a dash of fear thrown in. “How will this go? Will I be able to do it?” It is the land of uncertainty. The land of not knowing. The land of less control.
I love taking on challenges with groups of people where I don’t know exactly how, let alone if, we are going to succeed. My mind doesn’t wander to my to-do list as the task of doing that-which-has-never-been-done-before demands that I pay full attention. I love (though sometimes dread) having a difficult conversation with someone about a challenging issue. Yes, even the kind that makes me sweat. My mind does not wander. I am fully present. My senses are heightened, as if I were an animal tracking the movements of a potential predator.
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to experiencing everything, which includes difficult feelings and experiences, I often I resist – when it shows up – my sadness, my self-doubt and my anger. I have to remind myself that fully experiencing these feelings will transform them from dirt into gold, allowing me to mine the gifts of those feelings. Experiencing them also creates contrast, so that the lighter feelings are even sweeter, having known their opposite.
In spite of this intellectual understanding, not to mention lived experience, there are still times when I resist uncertainty and instead go into fear and action so that I can feel like I am doing something. While action gives me the soothing sense of control, it is usually, in fact, the illusion of control.
If I were to design my own life to be more fully alive, I would make sure that through out the day, I took 5-10 minute breaks outside, to move my body, feel sunshine on my skin, breath fresh air and give my mind a break. It would make me happier to remember I have a body and I am not just an extension of my laptop. And it would make me more productive, as I re-entered work feeling refreshed not only in body and spirit but also in mind.
It would also mean that I would take the time to reflect on what I am learning in this journey called Life. I would write down my theories of leadership, of relationship, of change, of parenting … of all the things I care about. And in writing them down, I would become more conscious of them and I would then explicitly test and evolve them.
It would mean that I would go on regular sabbaticals, to live in other countries and experience other ways living in and seeing the world. It would mean I take off at least 4 weeks in a row every year, for the same reasons. And I would work 6 hour days, so I had more time with my son, more time to engage in civic and volunteer activities, more time to learn new skills such as sculpture, a new language, a new dance form. Yes, that is 30 hours of work per week. Max. How’s that for balance?!
As an employee, it would mean that because I have such a strong interest in helping our world move away from consumerism, which causes us to use up the world’s resources faster than it can replenish them, I would help my company go green, help my company develop services over products, help my company connect with customers at a whole new level.
As a leader of a company, it would mean I focus on creating a culture of caring … about employees, customers and the planet. For real. Treating each other with respect. Treating the planet with respect. Wanting to bring out the best in one another. Wanting to help one another achieve our full potential.
This raises the question, “What if companies were designed around serving life?” Imagine companies asking employees to contribute that which brings them most fully alive. Companies asking employees to make decisions in the context of what would serve employees being more fully alive, customers being more fully alive, the communities within which they are located being more life supporting and the planet on which we all live in being more alive?
What would that look like? Creating inspiring corporate goals that call on companies to truly make a difference in the lives of their customers, communities, employees and partners. Creating a corporate culture that encourages people to be continually growing and stretching. Employees sharing feelings. Individuals, teams and organizations taking on the seemingly impossible. Challenging one another’s thinking. Challenging power. Challenging the status quo. Asking the tough questions, “Why” and “Why not?”
What if companies that made products were trying to create product that was beautiful, and would actually be a contribution to a person’s environment, instead of one more thing for them to tune out. What if these products could also be easily dismantled and re-used, so they wouldn’t end up in a dump somewhere? What if companies focused on how to turn their products into a service? Lease transportation from us instead of buying a car from us. Lease ease in cleaning your clothes instead of buying a washing machine from us. What if companies were to take on the challenge of bringing their products to the third world so that the products are completely re-imagined such that they enhance quality of life and do not draw more resources from the earth? And then they sold these break through products back to the West? What if companies were figuring out how to do local manufacturing and distribution?
What I have seen time and time again in my work is that when groups and companies take on breakthrough goals that really matter to them, but do it in such a way that people are being measured and rewarded on minimum goals, stretch goals and breakthrough goals, movement happens! We become more alive when we are working on something that matters to us, something that is bold and calls out to our higher selves – to the part of ourselves that wants to participate in something grand, something bigger than oneself. Breakthrough goals invite us to think out side of the box, to think creatively.
As I write this, I am aware of how idealistic or Pollyannaish this may sound. It is amazing that we have created a world in which wanting to care about one another, wanting to enable people and the planet to thrive is not the norm and is not considered practical. We are so used to it that we don’t even question it. We don’t question being focusing on the financial bottom line and ignoring the social bottom line and the environmental bottom line. We don’t question spending 40-60 hours a week with colleagues and 20 hours/week with family, in other words, making work a much higher priority. We don’t question choosing to lay off employees instead of reducing everyone’s salary, so everyone can stay employed.
What would the world look like if we all took the hiker’s oath to leave the planet better off than we found it? What if we extended this oath to all of our human contact, aspiring to leave each person we met better off than we found them? How do we make designing for people and the planet to thrive a top priority for ourselves personally, and for our businesses, our government, our non-profits and our places of worship? This is a long first blog. Calling it a manifesto would probably be more accurate. I hope to make subsequent ones shorter and more pithy! If you made it all the way here, thank you for listening. I’d love to hear your reflections. What brings you alive?