A daily discipline
by Laurence Shorter
I don’t know if I am naturally suited to being self-employed. Structure does not come easily or naturally to me – as it does for some writers, consultants and artists. I often wonder if I was made to be idle, like some 18th century gentleman with a small but debilitatingly independent income. Or simply to have a job.
But my character lends itself to helping people, and that calls for an open structure and freedom to go where I’m most needed. I’m also obsessive about writing.
As a result I have had to learn some solid tricks for staying in flow, for participating in the world in a practical way – and it turns out these tricks are useful for less chaotic people, too (people like you, maybe).
I do this by zooming out.
The fish never get to see this – (Picture above: the Sundarbans river delta from space.)
Zooming out means asking myself: ‘what am I doing? what’s my purpose here?’ Usually I do this lying down or putting my feet up on a chair (I don’t know if grown up business people do this but it changes my brain patterns in a helpful way).
Marcus Aurelius probably wrote upright on a hard wooden stool, but he too was a fan of zooming out, as noted in his Meditations: “About what am I now employing my own soul? On every occasion I must ask myself this question, and inquire…”
You will have your own answers to this question, but for me the reply is always a version of the same: I’m helping people move towards more creative and effective expressions of themselves, and this is happening in the context of a global shift from transactional to creative relationships.
In that sense it’s a ‘meta-purpose’ – an overarching life theme that I notice showing up everywhere: in organisations, teams, relationships, the economy… as well as inside me. It is a sort of positive confirmation bias (positive in the sense that it tends to lead to positive outcomes). Regardless of whether I am on holiday or at my desk, that’s the game I’m playing.
The game is also an inquiry. One of my life’s goals is to find out whether it’s true that there is a more creative version of myself, and to what extent it’s possible to give it more space (not necessarily a given). So my purpose is also my question.
This question (or quest) forms an underlying purpose that’s different from – and sometimes even at odds with – my stated or conscious goals. It’s a bit like the old Hollywood storytelling principle: the hero may be trying to achieve something, but the real story is always their own personal transformation.
So when I coach people, the task is usually to help them move closer to an understanding of that meta-purpose – why they’re really here – and to empower the part of them that’s more interested in that journey than in the setbacks along the way.
I have a few different questions I ask when I’m doing this kind of zooming out. My first and favourite is simply: “What am I doing? I mean, what am I really doing?” along with “What’s the single most important thing I could be doing today?”
Then there’s a category of inquiries that look to tune into the emerging future. These are less aggressive as questions than ‘what’s my purpose?’ or ‘who am I?’ which tend to leave one paralysed and clueless (I guess because they’re essentially meaningless). The approach instead is more about aligning with something that’s already happening, right under our noses:
- What’s working at the moment that I can amplify? What am I enjoying?
- What’s not working that I can let fall away? What’s frustrating?
- What do I notice is emerging naturally as a focus or approach?
- What do I notice is fading or losing effectiveness?
- What would I really like?
Finally, of course, there are questions that remind you why you came here in the first place:
- What do I love doing?
- What am I naturally good at?
- What’s a pointless waste of my time because other people can do it quicker, better and enjoy it more?
Taken together, questions like this are like a toolkit for zooming out.
There are other questions too, of course, and other practices that support them (walking, meditation, exercise etc). But, basically, when you zoom out you spot patterns, and patterns are the stuff that strategy is made of.
What should happen is that, over time, you start to notice some themes that don’t go away. These themes then become the raw material for your meta-purpose, which can then feed into your goals (if you’re that kind of a person).
You could call this approach to narrating your work life Taoist or non-dualist, in the sense that it is not imposing a will on the order of events, but seeking to notice and follow a natural flow.
You may or may not relate to any of this. The pattern of your way of setting goals might feel totally sustainable. Your purpose might be clear and ever present. But if I’ve learned one thing from coaching, it’s that no one is really very good at structure: people tend to either lack discipline, or they attach to rigid habits and processes that are a cover for a messy lack of clarity underneath.
Plus, generally, the part of us that’s curious and interested about what is going on in this life of ours – rather than driven and anxious – is the creative and affirming one, the one likely to nurture better outcomes.
And that’s worth investing some time into.
I wonder what your meta-purpose might be?
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