Reading The Power of Story (by Jim Loehr) has made me think long and hard about the true purpose(s) by which I live my life, especially the chapter on finding my life’s “ultimate mission”. The premise of the book is that we all have some story about ourselves, and this story shapes our beliefs and guides our actions.
Depending on the story about your life that you tell yourself, you’ll meet “success” or you’ll meet “failure”. Not much of an insight, except that to Loehr success or failure isn’t so much an absolute standard, but is rather a relative standard, and unique to each individual. In other words, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.
In the “ultimate mission” chapter, he describes a conversation he had with a client. This client was a relatively successful professional tennis player whom used to rank pretty high up, but was of late playing below her standards and sliding down the rankings. She had consulted him in the hope that he might help her in getting back her old winning form:
“What’s your story?” I asked her when she sat down in my office. “Why do you play?”
I could see that wasn’t what she expected.
To her credit, she entertained my question. After a couple of moments, she said, “I guess…,” then paused to think some more. “I want to be a success.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“To be number one in the world,” she said, rather unconvincingly.
“Okay. So you become number one in the world. When it’s all over, your tombstone reads, ‘She Was Number One In The World.’ You’d be good with that?”
She looked terribly unsatisfied. She shook her head.
I asked her again, “Why do you play?”
She took a breath and thought some more. “I’d like to have a nice place to live. I like nice cars. I love cars. Oh, God. It sounds so terrible. I don’t want that on my tombstone, either. You’re just confusing me.”
Eventually she settled on “I want to be sunshine.” She wanted to create happiness in everyone through her tennis, whether she won or lost. Suffice to say her playing improved, and she starting really enjoying tennis once again.
I thought that including the part about her “loving cars” was a beautiful touch on the author’s part. I love cars too, but I most definitely wouldn’t want that on my tombstone, either. Yet, having money, lots of it, has always been one of my greatest dreams. The problem of why I would want so much money had never really occurred to me. My story had been always that I liked money for its own sake, like a hobby — but instead of collecting trading cards or old coins, I like collecting money. I certainly wouldn’t want to die with “He lived to die rich” etched on my tombstone.
I think that this exercise in thinking about how your epitaph will read really aligns you with your ultimate purpose. In my own experience I have found that getting what you think you want in life, if it is not aligned with what you really want, can be a very hollow experience; and the achievement of these misaligned goals may well leave you worse off than before. Regarding this point, the author describes another client who had won $200 million in the state lottery:
You can guess what happened next, which is what happens with so many lottery winners. He very quickly had to jettison his belief that money brought happiness. Soon, he was overwhelmed by the day-to-day stress of managing his money and trying to establish a meaningful life purpose. When I next talked to him, he admitted that his feeling about himself and his overall happiness were considerably better before his financial windfall. If he had known then what he knew now, he said, he would never have purchased the ticket. His story’s premise — that money corresponds to happiness — was completely faulty.
I couldn’t help but think I totally understand. I’ve accomplished plenty of the goals I’d set for myself in the past, only to realise that when these goals came to fruition, it never really gave me the sense of satisfaction I had thought it’d have given me. For example, there was one semester in university where I did really well academically. Though I cannot say that I did not appreciate having achieved those results (I certainly was happy for a while, and it still brings back happy memories) I realised that nothing in my life had really changed. Achieving my that goal didn’t make me as happy as I thought it’d make me, and for a while I was left thinking, is this it? So perhaps it was the same with the guy above. Winning the lottery didn’t make him happy because he had thought financial freedom was his ultimate mission, but achieving it made him realise it wasn’t.
I can’t imagine how many of us also think like that — that when we are finally rich will we be happy. The only thing is that many of us will never be as rich as we’d like, and so we’d never know that our whole lives had been lived on the foundations of this false premise. Now’s as good a time as ever to really think about the true purpose of your life, lest you spend it all chasing empty dreams, dreams that whether achieved or not make no difference in your life or the lives around you.