How do you define purpose?
Once Eileen realised that her quest to ‘be the best’ had become narrowly defined, she stepped back to reflect. This began a process whereby she started to create purposeful goals that went beyond promotion and generating value for the firm. She had affection for many of her colleagues, and felt she was needed in her role as an advocate for younger and female co-workers. But she had lost a sense of purpose, and made the dramatic decision to step away from the corporate environment to take time to define what success really meant for her.
John was pursuing a similar path, but his exploration of the meaning of success was a team effort. To develop the concept of their lifework project, John and his wife Anne-Marie spent many hours talking together, and these discussions culminated in a drawing exercise.
In late 2009 the two sat together with a large sheet of paper and co-created a hand-drawn picture of what success really meant. Their sketches revealed a wider definition of success – they aspired to have a loving relationship and to live in a semi-urban environment in which their children could play and be free. John also dreamed of returning to elite-level competitive cycling.
How do you overcome fear?
When Eileen and John embarked on their respective journeys towards lifework they both recognised the need to confront deep-rooted fears. The first set of fears were personal, and for John these related primarily to financial security. Eileen had a fear that if she stepped away from her linear career, then she could never go back. But the more she thought about this and talked about it with others, the more she realised that the value of her qualifications and experience would not perish within a year or two.
The second set of fears related to social and professional environments: what of a family who values education and career success? What about possible reactions of bosses, peers and colleagues?
In the end John and Eileen realised they needed to accept that not everyone will understand the decision of a non-linear career path choice. The people who matter the most are close friends and family – as they are the ones who will live with the consequences, and need to have their own fears addressed.
Anyone who pursues the path of lifework needs to acknowledge that certain givens are no longer valid. Embarking on a non-linear career adventure often requires investment in time and money as new skills are developed: the further away from core expertise, the greater the investment.
John let go of his academic titles, no longer conducted applied academic research, discontinued attending academic conferences, and reduced long-haul business trips. He did not step away from academia completely – he worked as a free agent with a number of institutions, including his previous employer.
John also established himself as an international keynote speaker. He raced regularly and, four years after embarking on his lifework project, won a bronze medal at a world-level Masters cycling championship in Italy.
When Eileen left her corporate job she joined a small startup, but after a few months realised that she needed to take time off to focus on her health and wellness and reflect and reprioritise her needs. Eileen wrote her first book, and started to build her brand as an expert on the future of work and creating 21st-century organisations, giving herself the title of ‘Chief Instigator’. Now, she has written her second book, and is building her reputation as an international speaker and advisor.
The lifeworking approach meshes life and work into an integrated existence, but most importantly it is a way of living in which the individual and not the organisation defines the meaning of success.
Do you have the courage to redefine success? The authors of this article did – we are ‘John’ and ‘Eileen’.