“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why” — Mark Twain
“I want to live a meaningful life” comes up so often as a goal amongst my coaching clients across different nationalities, age groups and professions. Perhaps, as often as “I want to be happy”.
The notion of a meaningful life seems to be held high up in the sky — one that is out of reach and only for the few who are privileged with the financial capacity, courage and/or insanity. [This is a personal anecdotal claim — most people would ask me if I have already made my millions to be able to do what I do, or they would regard me in cautious reverence ‘you are so brave to be different’, or hold my mental, and intellectual, capacity in suspicion by calling me a ‘flower child’!]
Living a meaningful life is often associated with living a life of purpose, the latter yet another esoteric concept assumed to be elusive to many. How often do we click on articles that seduce us with ‘how to find your purpose’ and we are then shown this now-viral Venn diagram with ‘Your Purpose’ in the intersection of ‘what you love doing’, ‘what you are good at’, ‘what you are paid for’, ‘what the world needs’.. which just make us even more convinced (and then disheartened) that we are never ever to get there? Even I am guilty of sharing this Venn diagram to some of my clients!
At this point, it may be sensible for a quick interlude to let me also qualify my stand on the difference between living a life of happiness and a life of meaning. Intuitively, I think the difference is that the former may be more of ‘taking’ whilst the latter veers toward more of ‘giving’. We all know that when our desires and needs are satisfied, we experience happiness but this does not necessarily translates into meaning. Viktor Frankl once said that “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.”
I am very grateful to now know and live what makes me dance out of bed every morning and hit slumberland with a big smile (almost) every night. I live each day with significance because the personal mission of service brings me to that intersection of the Venn diagram. Yet, the journey that brought me here wasn’t one that was planned as one could with a ‘career path’ or a ‘financial planning chart’. Like my coaching clients, I did know that I wanted to live a meaningful life when my colossal collapse happened 10 years ago. Barren with the catastrophic loss, the silence of grief and brokenness helped kickstart a different way of living for me (since the way I lived clearly didn’t serve me any more). Yet, it wasn’t as if the dramatic searchlight came on and the path was clearly lit to show me exactly where I was meant to go and what I was meant to do (not at all!).
Committing to and making small acts of giving daily with a generous dose of curiosity and courage gave me tiny pockets of meaning every day which then led me to the clarity of the big significance and purpose. It was an evolutionary process with delightful twists and turns that couldn’t have been planned for at all. Infusing every day with value through these small acts of giving was not just ordinary folk-possible and practical but, in my experience, very sustainable and effective in giving us the crumbs of meaning that will unsuspectingly add up to that big loaf of purpose, with no fanfare or white bright lights. They will just add up.
1. Giving to yourself every day
We can’t pour from an empty cup. Our first small daily act of giving, hence meaning, will have to start with ourselves. I am clearly not referring to gifting ourselves with a new dress or a different gourmet treat every day! For this giving to add meaning to you, it must be a gift of a deeper connection with your body, mind and spirit where you take care of yourself with kindness and tenderness. This can be taking a walk in the park, stopping to smell the flowers on the way to work, appreciating a cup of tea by yourself in silence, daily practice of yoga and meditation or tai-chi/qigong, writing about something that you are grateful for at the end of each day, painting (if you do paint), singing, dancing unreservedly behind drawn curtains, etc.
Taking time to slow down and carve out time for yourself creates space for meaningful choices to be made in daily living.
2. Giving to your loved ones every day
Connections to others give us meaning and happiness. Spending time with friends may increase happiness but may have little effect on meaning. Deepening our relationships with loved ones increase meaning for us. On a daily basis, we can make a conscious effort to do one small act of giving for our loved ones — having dinner together with family, reading that story with your child before he/she sleeps, checking in with your parents, going for a short stroll under the stars with your partner…. simply just doing something nice with or for your loved ones, with complete presence and attention.
3. Giving to your community every day
This might seem like a call for active volunteerism — and it is, if you are ready for it and can arrange with a local charity to have a meaningful engagement on a regular, if not daily, basis. This is a no-brainer quick fix to injecting significance and value into your life.
However, the daily act of giving to your community that I am referring to is way simpler — like giving a smile to your neighbour, or the same fellow commuter you see, or the janitor in your office, everyday. Even better if you could commit to a random act of kindness every day — to give up your seat in the train to the needy, to hold the door for someone, to let the elderly come ahead of you in the queue at the supermarket checkout etc.
These conscious acts of giving will transform you from inside out as you expand what you care about, beyond yourself and those you know. This expansion also brings about a deeper sense of place for you which gives meaning.
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” — Pablo Picasso
A coaching client recently shared how her gift of painting is nothing special so it can’t be her meaning or purpose. However, she later discovered, through our coaching conversation, that the gift is not necessarily in what she has/know/do — but in what it means to the person she’s gifting to. That’s what gives her meaning and purpose. What a beautiful realisation and articulation!
If the meaning of life is to find your gift, you have found it because you have the gift of kindness and love in you — we all do. And you can give this gift away every day — to yourself, to your loved ones and to your community — as your purpose, your meaning. And slowly but surely, this everyday living with significance and mindfulness will see you wake up one day — like it did for me — and know why you were born. Because life has no meaning, we bring meaning to life.
Anthea happily straddled between corporate leadership and active volunteerism/social entrepreneurship for years until Dec 2013 when she took the last corporate paycheck as managing director in a UK-listed company to fully embrace the calling of living out her multi-dimensional aspirations to serve through coaching, yoga/meditation, volunteerism and social entrepreneurship. She was ready to understand how little she needs, and how much she could give with all that she has been given and learned.
‘I am here to love and serve’ is her purpose. She is thankful to live a meaningful life wearing multiple hats as Life Coach, Social Entrepreneur, Non-Profit Board Member, Yoga Instructor and most importantly, an Intrepid Traveller.
Find out more about her on www.antheaong.com.
**I wrote this in May 2016 before I discovered Medium.com. :)