Where is the gateway to the path that flows to our purpose, where we do only what supports that purpose, and the satisfying great work is done through the natural flow of our being?
In B. Kliban's cartoon, "Bach Sculpting", we see Johan Sebastian Bach awkwardly crafting his lumpy-dumpy statuette while his piano sits unused in the background. I've felt my own version of Bach Sculpting many times on the job as I'm working some task where I know there are many people that have the skills to do this better, more efficiently and expertly than I will ever be able to do this, and housing the feeling that the opportunity cost—what I might be able to accomplish with this time, attention, and energy—may range from regrettable to tragic, like Johan clumsily adding blobs of clay when he might be intricately weaving themes to the 5th Brandenburg Concerto.
Brings to mind a Richard Brautigan poem:
Finding Is Losing Something Else
Finding is losing something else.
I think about, perhaps even mourn,
what I lost to find this.
Ever found a job like that?
Entrepreneurs often feel the Bach Sculpting feeling—though they are metaphorically a composer, they also have to sculpt, dance, paint, write novels and poetry, act, direct, and market, sell, and do the accounting. It's the old E-Myth principle where businesses are started by technicians or specialists who haven't acquired the basic business skills or knowledge, or still assume that business acumen is a minor part of the new business equation. If you're a yoga instructor, do you really want to start a studio? As an engineer, is starting a company to develop, produce, and market your tech invention the way to go to serve your purpose?
For me, the process has been a series of refinements, involving an ongoing inquiry into "what is my purpose?", with many iterations of understanding what that might be. It began with an auto-pilot concept of something like: pick something you're good at, go to college to learn more about it and get the credentials so that someone will hire you to do that. Pretty rudimentary. And once I got that job I realized that I could do it well, and some of it was even fun and satisfying sometimes, but I quickly got the sense that I was directionless and that I wanted some sort of direction. For me, that involved taking a philosophical and spiritual hiatus in my mid-twenties to try to get a handle on this.
First I accepted the assumption that each person has a purpose—not as an a priori fact, but as a conjecture and belief that seemed more useful than believing there is no purpose. I developed a postulate that my purpose was related to what I was good at—what gifts I had, what I was interested in and fascinated by, and the thoughts and inspirations that arise unbidden when my mind as quiet.
During different phases of my life when I smelled change in the air, I would take an inventory of my talents, gifts, interests, and thoughts, and generate a question. Before I became an organizational consultant, the question was something like: "What work could I do that would use these things (from the inventory) in a powerful and creative way to help people?" Then I "held the question"—stayed present with it without attempting to answer it with my usual mental processes. Just keep the radar up and see what the world brings. The process has worked well for me, always bringing new people and ideas into my life that I never would have considered in my previous state.
When our work is aligned with our talents and our purpose, we experience the fulfillment of doing our "Great Work". In his book Do More Great Work, Michael Bungay Stanier, Senior Partner of the consulting group, Box of Crayons, breaks work down into Bad Work, Good Work, and Great Work. Bad work is a waste of time, energy, and life. Good work is vital and probably where most of us hang out most of the time; it's useful, productive, and familiar—the bread and butter of most organizations. Great work is the work that is meaningful to you, that inspires, stretches and provokes you. Great work is the work that matters—the work that delivers on your purpose.
JS Bach is doing bad work in the cartoon; he's not happy, looking frustrated, and not creating anything worthwhile. Perhaps his previous great work had turned into good work—that happens— "As great work becomes comfortable and familiar as you master it, it no longer provides the challenge, stretch, and rewards it once did." (Michael Bungay Stanier, Do More Great Work, p. 6)
Bach found a calling as a composer. Finding purpose can be like finding a vocation, from the Latin "a call, a summons," being called to do something meaningful and powerful. For some people it is a dream or idea that keeps coming back around no matter how many times they've ignored it or thrown it away.
Organizations that are purpose-driven perform many times better than their strictly profit-driven cousins. Employees at a purpose-driven organization can align their personal purpose behind the organization, and be more satisfied, committed, and engaged. People can be attracted to do great work at a place that they believe does good work. They can bring more of themselves to it, and play a game that matters to them. Studies show that burnout comes not from working too hard or too much, but from losing touch with meaning and purpose.
A client came up to me after a session once, and told me that he's doing the same job he was doing four years ago. Then it was exciting, new, challenging; now he's got it figured out and he's lost his mojo around it. Feel like you're Bach sculpting? Try thinking outside the box and inside the Bach.
Dreams and Flying Machines
by Judi Neal
I was teaching a class on organizational development to engineers at Sikorsky Aircraft and I asked the class members to name some of the things that they really liked and respected about the organization. Can you believe that they couldn't think of anything? They found lots of things to bitch and moan about, but I was trying to teach them about the power of Appreciative Inquiry – the art of asking positive questions – and I needed examples of things that were organizational strengths.
Finally, one of the engineers mentioned a lighted display board in the factory area that keeps track of the lives saved by Sikorsky helicopters. It is updated every time someone is air lifted from an accident or a war-torn area. He said it made him proud to be a part of a company that saves lives.
Igor Sikorsky was the founder of the company, and the inventor of the helicopter. The students said when Igor Sikorsky was alive, he would never allow guns to be placed on helicopters. He insisted helicopters were for saving lives, not taking lives. "Igor would be turning over in his grave if he could see what has happened to his helicopters," one said. The military is the primary customer for Sikorsky Aircraft, and almost all of the helicopters have guns on them now.
When they talked about the founder and the founding purpose of the company, their energy and enthusiasm was high. They had many stories about how unique and special Igor Sikorsky was, and one of them even took me to Igor's office. It has been left untouched, as a shrine to the founder, who died in 1972. When they talked about the current state of the organization, their energy dropped, except for bursts of frustration and anger. This organization had lost its soul because it lost its sense of purpose.
As a child, Igor loved to read Jules Verne, and became fascinated with the idea of flying machines, which did not exist in the 1890s. He designed a helicopter when he was twelve years old, using whalebone stays he stole from his sister's corset and rubber bands. James Hillman says that our life's purpose is embedded in our spiritual DNA, and he calls this our "Soul's Code." Igor listened to his soul's code – this dream to design flying machines – and was passionate about creating a company that had a deep sense of purpose.
How do you know what your soul's code is? According to Hillman, there are almost always hints from our childhood. What were you fascinated with as a kid? What made your heart sing? If you don't feel like you are living your purpose now, you can ask yourself, "What unlived dreams do I have that just won't go away?"
I saw an article in the Sunday paper when I was fifteen years old that captured my imagination. It was about the Volvo plant in Kalmar, Sweden and it described an innovative production system that was an alternative to the soul-deadening assembly line. Each car was made by a team of multi-skilled workers who worked on the car from top to bottom. The quality of the cars was high, and the workers had a great sense of job satisfaction. I can't explain why this story grabbed me, but it did. As an adult, I worked as a consultant in manufacturing organizations, helping teams to become more empowered. I learned that having a sense of purpose is extremely empowering – for me, as well as for the individuals, teams, and organizations I work with.
Each of us was put here on Earth for a reason. Each of us wants to make a difference. It takes courage to live your purpose, and others may call you crazy when you take the risks to step out and sing your own heart's song. Take that as a good sign that you are on your path. Tell the naysayers "Thank you," ask them gently if they would please move out of the way, and then step on stage, grab the microphone with gusto, and sing your heart's song with all of the soul you've got.