Can You Answer a ‘Beautiful, Haunting’ Question?

Accountability Contribution Purpose


Key Point: The poet Mary Oliver asks this beautifully haunting question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I have written much about the importance of being purposeful, proactive and strategic about one’s (work) life. Too often the immediacy of our daily job consumes us. Before long one “looks up,” years zoom by and in a reflective moment we ask: What happened? How much have I created? How have I brought value to the world? Many people have asked for guidance about how to practically go about being more definitive in determining a strategic approach to work. The following process provided by Greg McKeown is one of best approaches I have found. Try it and/or pass it on to someone who might appreciate the insight.

Step 1: Sketch Your Career. Use this simple tool to get a broader perspective. You start on the left at the beginning of your career and end on the right hand side (today). You draw a single line up if you were enjoying the experience and down if it was unfulfilling for you. Write down where you were working, what you were working on, and any other factors that shaped your experience.

It ends up looking something like this:

Step 2: Connect the Dots. Use the sketch from Step One as a launch pad into being an anthropologist of your own life. Go somewhere quiet. You might think of it like a strategic offsite for your own life and career.

Ask: When was I truly happy and why? What activity or theme do I keep coming back to? What is my gravitational pull? When was work effortless for me? What isn’t working for me? When do I seem most like myself? When was it meaningless and why? When was work meaningful and why? Don’t rush the process. Pause long enough to listen. Write the answers down as they come so you can reflect on them later.

Step 3: Ask, “What Will I Create that Will Make the World Awesome?” That may sound like a bit of a wild question but an essential element of strategy is, to state the obvious, thinking about what we want to create in the future. (If “awesome” is too out there for you… Substitute “better”).

Ask: What would I do if I could do anything? What would I do if all jobs paid the same? If I could only achieve one thing in my career, what would it be? What do I really want? Again, these are big questions. But my experience is that people spend far more time worried about their job than in creating a vision for their career and how they can uniquely contribute to the world.

Character Moves:

  1. Go on a personal off-site meeting “retreat” with yourself. Regardless where you are in your career, this is worth doing. The literature is filled with stories about people who made their most significant contributions at every age, time and place. It is never too early or too late. Do not be fearful and choose inertia over addressing these questions. Set the date and time for your personal offsite today
  2. Treat yourself to something great after you do the hard work outlining the above. YOU ARE WORTH IT! Celebrate the fact that you learned something more about yourself.
  3. Commit to taking small steps in the direction you’ve established or reset. Sometime a retreat like this can result in a BIG change but often the most successful outcome is taking many incremental steps that collectively lead us to a more desirable and purposeful outcome. Before you know it those same years pass by but you are much closer to the vision you have set for yourself.

Note: PURPOSE is usually a combination between what you’re good at, like to do, and others find value in. VISION is usually a desired future state, often defined by some visible, measurable evidence of achieving a set of intentional outcomes. VALUES are a given set of principles that guide the way you act and think. The Character Triangle represents the values I try to live by. My purpose and vision are related but different.

One wild and precious life in The Triangle!