Do kind, helpful things
Searching for purpose in our work and life
Today would have been my mom’s 68th birthday. Instead, my family lost her four years ago to brain cancer.
Near the end of her life, my parents were preparing to retire and downsize to a smaller home. As an apartment dweller ever since I graduated from college nearly 20 years ago, I had more than a handful of boxes containing my belongings still stashed in their basement all these years later. I began that rite of passage where one needs to reduce their entire pre-adult existence into a small box that will fit in the back of a small closet inside of a small New York City apartment.
Every report card from kindergarten through college. Nope. Baby teeth? Nope, yuck. Joe DiMaggio autographed baseball? Yes. Baseball from Baskin Robbins? Nope. It was while I was speed sorting memories long lost that I came across a small, yellowed piece of paper with a note that my mom wrote to me when I was five years old. She thought the message valuable enough to save by tucking the piece of paper into my belongings for me to find, over 30 years later.
We had two years with my mom from the time she was diagnosed with cancer until she passed away that July afternoon. We were fortunate to celebrate another few birthdays and Christmases, another few occasions when we were definitely, finally going to use the good dishes that my parents received as a wedding gift 43 years earlier. (We also broke one of those dishes but managed to keep that tidbit from my mom, so yeah, you should really listen to your mom and be careful when using the good dishes.) We had time to say those things that you want to tell loved ones before they go, and for them to say those things to you. And yet, when I found this note it was like one last reminder from my mom. One final reminder from her to not forget the things she and my dad taught me over the years.
Much of my day is spent thinking about how people align meaning and purpose in their work and life. In organizations, how can we align a sense of purpose to create positive, impact in the world? As I spend time trying to create innovative workplaces with a sense of shared purpose — and where people can do their best work and thrive — the concept of meaning in one’s work is an important component. What do people value? How can we align what people value with what people do? How can organizations have a purpose that changes the world while also doing kind, helpful things, like treating their employees well?
As employers, we hope that people find their work meaningful, and that their work aligns with their personal purpose. However, sometimes work simply affords people the opportunity to find meaning and purpose elsewhere in their lives. They can still be great at what they do, deliver value every day, but in the end, they could be doing the work with us, for our competitors, or in a completely different sector.
Conversely, finding our purpose starts with us, individually. One’s work doesn’t magically give a person’s life purpose. Meaning and our mission in life is important for us each to figure out. What’s my purpose and how can I align it with how I spend my days to make a positive impact in the world? If we wake up and don’t like what we’re doing, don’t feel like it makes a difference, or we’re constantly miserable, we might need to reflect a bit more on these questions and how we choose to spend our time and life.
“Time is a precious thing. Never waste it.”
— Gene Wilder
Obviously, purpose isn’t the same for each of us. Like a finely crafted cocktail, it’s bespoke to the individual. Some people adopt a purpose that’s specific and finite — save humanity by figuring out how to colonize Mars. Others choose things that are broader and don’t require rocket fuel. My mom fell into this latter category.
My mom worked in dentist offices for the last 20 years or so of her life. She enjoyed her work. She enjoyed working with her coworkers. And she enjoyed the patients and families she got to know over the years. The work my mom saw as her purpose, or her calling, was something else though. My mom sent greeting cards to everyone for every occasion. Birthdays. Anniversaries. New baby. New job. Sympathies. Welcome to town! Bon voyage! Get well. Holidays of every variety. And just good old, thinking of you. My mom had Rubbermaid bins chocked full of hundreds of cards at the ready for every conceivable occasion.
“None of us are getting out of here alive… Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There’s no time for anything else.”
— Christopher Walken
When my mom was in the hospital recovering from brain surgeries she was writing cards. When my mom couldn’t sleep after being diagnosed with cancer she was writing cards. When my mom was in hospice a day from dying she was writing cards. My sister put one final stack of cards in the mailbox on the way home from the hospital after my mom passed away. To this day, I think about how meaningful those cards must have been to the people who received them knowing she had died a few days earlier. That one of the last things my mom did in her life was to write them a card to say she cared. And for one person, that was the last card my mom ever wrote.
I still find cards my mom sent me over the years, often with her notes written in the clean cursive of a former grade school teacher. Notes about how much my parents were going to miss me at college but hoping I was being safe and having a good time. Notes about how proud my parents were about me with my new job in the “Big City,” and hoping I was being safe and having a good time. Notes about people I have no idea who they were but my mom felt it important to update me on their goings on… and hoping I was being safe and having a good time.
How we spend our time is how we spend our life and, in turn, it’s what we truly value, regardless of what we tell ourselves or others.
Searching for your purpose in life? Look outward. Finding a purpose isn’t the same as “following our dreams.” Purpose is externally focused — doing kind, helpful things for others. Following our dreams, is usually internally focused—I always wanted to be an astronaut, an archaeologist, or an artist. You can’t share dreams (except in the movie Inception, but that takes us off track here).
Finding our purpose takes looking at what we value, the impact we want to make to better the lives of others, and what we want to leave behind when we’re gone. It takes looking at how you spend your time, how you really spend your time, not how you hope to spend your time or how you occasionally spend your time. Once you’ve taken stock, if you’re struggling with how to align your personal purpose with how you spend your day, I invite you to check out the work of my friend Amy Wrzesniewski.
Sometimes purpose comes as a quest to colonize Mars. Sometimes it’s sending caring cards to hundreds of people each year. Sometimes, unbeknownst to you at the time, your mom hands you the basis for yours on a piece of paper when you’re five years old. Whatever your purpose might be, godspeed on your journey.
About Tim Cynova
Tim spends his time assisting teams and organizations with the things they need to create innovative workplaces where people thrive. He is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), a trained mediator, on faculty at Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and New York's The New School teaching courses in Strategic HR and Leadership & Team Building. He is a certified trainer of the Crucial Conversations and What Motivates Me frameworks, and is a firm believer that Work. Shouldn't. Suck. He currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Fractured Atlas (where he is a member of the organization’s four-person, non-hierarchical shared leadership team). Prior to that, Tim was the Executive Director of The Parsons Dance Company and of High 5 Tickets to the Arts, had a memorable stint with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was a one-time classical trombonist, musicologist, and for five years in his youth he delivered newspapers for the Evansville Courier-Press. Also, during a particularly slow summer, he bicycled across the United States.