My journey to purpose — Values & learning to improvise

“You have so many values that are very important to you, some which conflict, some that cause you to be hard on yourself. This is why you’re anxious”

If you could alter or mute your worst memories would you still remain yourself?

Imagine you’re the manager of a café. It stays open late and the neighbourhood has gone quiet by the time you lock the doors. You put the evening’s earnings into a bank bag, tuck that into your backpack, and head home. It’s a short walk through a poorly lit road. And there, next to the pond, you realise you’ve been hearing footsteps behind you. Before you can turn around, a man sprints up and stabs you in the stomach. When you fall to the ground, he kicks you, grabs your backpack, and runs off. Fortunately a bystander calls an ambulance which takes you, bleeding and shaken, to the nearest hospital.

The emergency room physician stitches you up and tells you that, aside from the pain and a bit of blood loss, you’re in good shape. Then she sits down and looks you in the eye. She tells you that people who live through a traumatic event like yours often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition can be debilitating, resulting in flashbacks that prompt you to relive the trauma over and over. It can cause irritation, anxiety, angry outbursts and a magnified fear response. But she has a pill you can take right now that will decrease your recall of the night’s events — and thus the fear and other emotions associated with it — and guard against the potential effects of PTSD without completely erasing the memory itself.

Would you like to try it?

Humans are driven by their stories. We create our own narratives based on the memories we retain and those we choose to discard. We use memories to build an understanding of self. We lean on them to make decisions and direct our lives. Our values are also projected in due course.

Values guide our interaction with the world and eventually our ultimate purpose. Our purpose is not discovered by searching within ourselves — this just causes us hopeless anxiety. It is more a gradual discovery of the outcome of the stories and lessons that shape our lives. Purpose unfolds with time and matures with experience. It isn’t a feel-good concept that is intended to boost our self-confidence. It should reflect the values that are the most important to us. Some values are inculcated during childhood, of which we have no control over. We can choose to discard or keep these values after we’ve become adults. Our values are closely tied to our experiences.

I became an empath with a knack for positive impact after I experienced a world where politicians & rulers are rats, and people are too busy trying to survive that they do not care about revolting. I became genuinely concerned about young girls & boys being abused when I felt the brokenness of loved ones who were victims. One might argue that this idea might cause our purpose to be emotion driven. The experiences do not have to be first-hand, or second-hand, but we do not ignore the fact that they are real. Humans will always be emotion driven, and a purpose that believes in what is right is a force to reckon with.

Discovering values is just a section of it all. If we really want to move ahead in our lives, engage with the world and feel energised about our purpose, we need to go beyond positive thinking and connect as well with the obstacles that stand in our way. By bringing our dreams into contact with reality, we can unleash our greatest energies and make the most progress in our lives.

Do not mistake purpose for dead-end expectations. Life is intrinsically changing, moving, disappointing and positively surprising. Meeting life with unbending expectations is a recipe for disaster. Those who expect the world to conform to their preset calculations and predictions are destined to be frustrated. They are uncomfortable with spontaneity, and rail against deviations. However, there is good and bad improvisation. Watching a football game, you can tell when a player or team is making smart adaptive moves — responsive to the immediate conditions — even when some bad luck or last-minute mistake derails an otherwise skillful trajectory. Even when they lose, we can still see good improv in process. It’s just that there is also bad luck and, sometimes, even better improvisers on the other side.

The bad improviser makes moves that are inadequate, maladaptive or faulty. And the single greatest predictor of quality improv is simply experience. But there’s nothing simple about experience. Good improv is mostly highly intuitive in a biological sense. Improv is also highly adaptive because it seeks to fit (adapt) to an environment, to fit a structure to a function, a part to a whole. Failure is a major aspect of improvisation. Failure is the thing we learn from, so it’s the cornerstone of productive experience.

Ultimately, improvising is a form of receptivity to experience, which takes us back to the importance of living the stories we want to tell.

What are your values?

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By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.