“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
— Howard Thurman – author, philosopher, educator
When I shared the above quote with a client, his reaction was: “It’s a nice thought, but a bit Pollyannaish for the real world. Some of us have tough situations and tough work to do.”
Fair enough. I get it. At first glance the quote does have a certain rainbows-and-unicorns feel. And I’ll be the first to admit that much of the “follow your passion” advice out there is banal and naive.
But I think Thurman is suggesting something different here. He isn’t saying that it’s merely nice to feel alive. He’s saying that it’s necessary in order to make the world work. When we feel inspired and engaged we give off a powerful energy. That energy is vital—not only to ourselves—but to our organizations, our communities, our families, and everyone else around us too. So it’s incumbent upon each of us to figure out what makes us come alive—and go do it. Far from self-indulgent, it’s a critical act of service in a challenging world.
Admittedly it isn’t easy to pursue what makes us feel alive. Many of us feel trapped by circumstances. We think our only options are to muddle through and cope. Feeling alive seems too wishful. How do you actually get there?
I wish I had an easy answer. I don’t. And even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be useful. Formulaic answers in this arena are always too simplistic. It takes guts to make the choices needed to feel alive. Everyone has to find his or her own path.
What I do have is a few hard-won insights. Habits of mind I’ve picked up over the past two decades as I’ve kicked and flailed in my exploration of what it takes to feel alive, helping clients do the same:
The signals are always there. You have to listen for them. The signals pointing to what makes you feel alive are all around you. However, they don’t grab you by the lapels, look you in the eye, and shake you. Rather they whisper softly in your ear, easily drowned out by all the other noise in your life demanding attention. If you don’t actively listen for your signals, you won’t hear them. What’s more, the whispers are usually telling you to take a risk. So it’s easier to ignore them. Quick tip: Carve out 15 minutes a week to answer this question – what should I be doing more of? We tend to answer this question with what makes us feel alive. Within a month you’ll see patterns. Those patterns point to where you should be placing your bets.
You have to hear a whisper about fifty times before you take action. The lag between when we first hear a whisper and when we take action can be months or even years. While potentially frustrating, it’s an important gap. It keeps us from doing stupid things. If we followed every whisper, we’d go insane. Take this different path. Go out on this limb. Ignore this person’s advice. Push back here. Taking the right set of consistent actions takes time. Often the only reason we finally take action is because the whisper becomes so loud that it’s more painful to ignore it than it is to pursue it. Quick tip: Go easy on yourself. But don’t let yourself off the hook. You need to keep experimenting as you sense the signals.
The journey to aliveness becomes easier when you let go of “shoulds.” Many of us don’t realize how overwhelmed we are by shoulds. This is what I should be doing. This is how it should look. This is where I should be right now. He should be doing this. She should be doing that. They should be supporting me more. Shoulds weigh us down so much that they hamstring our creativity and energy. Let go of the shoulds. They rob you of precious time exploring what really matters to you. Fashion designer Coco Chanel said, “How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.” It’s a wise observation. Quick tip: Spend time with people outside of your regular spheres—people who energize you. See the world they see. These people are not encumbered by the same shoulds. They show you options you didn’t realize you had. Paradoxically, the more time you spend with people who are different from you, the better you understand yourself.
The struggle to feel alive is worth it. Pursuing what makes us feel alive often gets wrongly labeled as self-centered. It’s anything but. Think about the people who’ve inspired you the most. Are they self-centered? Rarely. Are they doing something that makes them feel alive? Almost always. Have they followed a beaten path to get there? Almost never. Would it be good to have more people in the world like them? You bet. Quick tip: Feeling alive is a noble pursuit. Keep exploring to better understand the circumstances in which you feel most alive. Your journey is one of the most important gifts you can give yourself.
Feeling alive is at the heart of great leadership and great companies. A leader’s energy matters. The leader who feels alive is infectious. Unfortunately, so is the leader who doesn’t. You can’t fake genuine energy. You can’t wrap a bunch of best practices around an uninspired leader and hope to produce inspired results. With no countervailing energy to push it back, mediocrity eventually sets in and spreads. When leaders don’t feel alive, followers don’t either. Teams don’t feel alive. The culture doesn’t feel alive. Products and services are uninspired. Ultimately work doesn’t feel meaningful.
And isn’t that what we all really want—meaningful work? Work doesn’t have to be easy. And it doesn’t have to be interesting all the time. But it does have to feel meaningful in the long run—like we’re doing something that matters, that will make a positive difference, and that brings us and others to life.
If you aren’t doing that, what are you doing?