In 1916, Robert Frost published one of the most renowned poems of the 20th Century, “The Road Not Taken,” which begins: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” The metaphor of the “fork of the road,” upon which Frost’s seminal work is based, is so enduring because it is so universal. Every day, each one of us is confronted with choices, big and small, that determine the direction of our lives.
In most cases, particularly when it comes to the “big” choices in life, each path is distinctly marked. There is the easy, default path, and the hard, purposeful path. Too often, people look back on their lives and realize that many of the actions they took (or didn’t), choices they made (or didn’t), and priorities they set (or didn’t) happened by default; guided by the expectations of society and others, and not by their own inner compass. They travel the safe, smooth path, not the uneven, winding one, and ultimately reach a destination, but one they regret in the end.
We all grapple with regret stemming from the choices we make (or don’t) in our lives. Again, it’s a universal part of the human condition. What’s important to realize, however, is that at any point in life’s journey, if you can summon the courage, you can stop, assess, and change direction. The key to making positive change, to live a life free of regret and full of passion, is to open yourself up to what truly matters—to you, not others—and to embrace the risks involved in pursuing it. After all, isn’t the risk of living a life misaligned with your true values and desires the biggest one of all?
There’s no more significant moment in life than waking up to your true purpose. As Mark Twain once wrote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
Passion Follows Purpose
In my professional life outside of Life and Whim, I coach and consult with high-performing attorneys who are looking to take their practices to the next level. Most of my clients are, according to traditional notions of success, highly achieving. They have good jobs, earn high incomes, and do sophisticated, impactful work.
But most feel adrift. They don’t have a specific direction in which they’re headed. They don’t have a big picture view of what they want out of their lives and careers. They lack a mission. As a result, they’re afflicted with ambivalence—they aren’t passionate about the day-to-day work of being a lawyer.
They’re seeking to revive (or discover for the first time) their passion for work, as if it’s some flame that can be lit in order bring light back to their lives. What we come to realize, together, is what they’re really seeking is
Purpose to Impact
Think about the people in your life who you are most drawn to. The odds are that they are burning bright with the light of passion because they have a clear purpose for their lives. Their inner glow draws people to them. They’re confident because they are animated by purpose. They’re decisive because their purpose informs their actions. They don’t sleepwalk through life—they don’t even use the snooze button—and jump out of bed in the morning with a sense of purpose. They’re in control because they’re living life on their terms, not someone else’s.
Purpose is what keeps us motivated and gives us the energy to push forward. Purpose is what gives us direction and gets us reoriented when we get off-track. Purpose makes us resilient and enables us to embrace life’s challenges. Purpose gives us hope when things get tough. Purpose even allows us to live longer. Studies have found that those with a strong sense of purpose live longer than those who lack purpose in their lives.
So what is purpose, exactly? It’s not marked by what you do or what you have in your life. In other words, you don’t need to be a company CEO, celebrity, or politician—with a large amount of resources at your disposal—to lead a life of purpose. In fact, those who allocate their own resources toward such high levels of personal achievement often lack purpose in their lives. They push aside the pursuit of purpose for other priorities, such as high status and material symbols of success.
Put simply, purpose is a reflection of how you lead your life and why, irrespective of how seemingly insignificant your influence may be. Purpose is mission. Purpose allows you to make an impact. George Bernard Shaw describes it more elegantly, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a greater purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”
Think Big, Act Small
Living a purpose-driven life has many benefits, but it can be frustratingly hard to identify what your life’s purpose actually is. It’s not the type of thing that can be pinpointed by merely sitting down with a pen and a journal and ruminating. If it was easy, we’d all know exactly why we’re here and be living in accordance with a defined mission each and every day.
Part of the problem is that we are besieged by messages—from parents, friends, colleagues, advertising agencies, and others—exhorting us to live a certain way; quite possibly a way that is not of your own choosing.
To figure out who you are and what your purpose is in such a world, you must open yourself up to introspection and new experiences. In my experience, both in my personal life and in my work helping others discover their life and career purpose, I’ve found that flashes of inspiration and insight come when you least expect them.
Take Blake MyCoskie, for example. While traveling in Argentina in 2006, MyCoskie witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. Inspired to do something about the problem, MyCoskie founded a small, for-profit company for the purpose of donating one pair of shoes to the poor children of Argentina for every pair of shoes he sold in the United States. Out of this small idea, born out of a seemingly unrelated travel experience, the multi-billion dollar TOMS shoes empire began.
For an example that hits a little closer to my hometown, consider the experience of Ty and Joanna Schmidt in Traverse City, Michigan. After moving to this community in 2006, they noticed things that bothered them: long car lines at school drop-off and pick-up, empty bike racks, and few kids walking to school. They set out to do something about this.
They began by inviting neighborhood families to drop their kids off at their house before school, and Ty would lead a “bike train” of kids to the local elementary school. At first, just a few kids participated, then it took off. Fast forward to 2019, and the Schmidt’s Norte non-profit organization is a community force, leading a thriving movement in our community and beyond that gets kids outside, active, and on bikes so that they can lead healthy, happy lives.
Notice the parallels between these two examples. MyCoskie and Schmidt weren’t on missions to find purpose, but they opened their eyes to issues impacting those in their communities, and around the world, and purpose found them. This happened not by focusing on themselves, but by focusing on others. In addition, they didn’t fixate on big, grandiose goals immediately. MyCoskie merely set out to sell a few hundred pairs of shoes so he could donate a few hundred pairs to hundreds of kids in need. The Schmidts didn’t set out to create a movement. They just wanted to get a few more kids riding bikes. They started very small, discovered their purpose in the process, and they are now doing very big things.
On a smaller scale, we have had the chance to witness the manifestation of our purpose as a business, and as business owners, through Life and Whim. Our purpose is to empower children and families to actively and creatively engage in new experiences in the great outdoors. Every spring, we host a “Fairy Fest” event in Traverse City. In our first year, a couple hundred people showed up. Last spring more than 1,500 people gathered to celebrate the opening of the Traverse City Fairy Trails for the season, and kids spent an afternoon outside exploring and discovering nearly 50 artist-built fairy houses placed on a local hiking trail. Thousands more visit throughout the year.
In the grand scheme of things, the Traverse City Fairy Trails is insignificant. But to many in our community, especially kids whose imaginations run wild while on frolicking on the trails, it’s a magical place. For us, it’s an important reminder: You may never be able to make a significant impact on the world, but if you take the time to define your purpose, then take actions aligned with your purpose, you can still make a big difference to those around you.
No matter how big your ambitions, start small. Take a step, then another. You never know where the path will take you. But one thing is certain: If you never take the time to figure out where you want to go, and you come to a fork in the road, you’ll almost always take the default, easy path. And in most cases, that’s a road to nowhere.