Management Matters
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Management Matters

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This is How to Clearly Define Your Values and Connect with Your Purpose

Five questions that helped me find my way.

It’s a tough question, though it doesn’t seem so at first. What are your values? Easy, right? Family, faith, a chance to make a difference in the world. Those might jump to mind. But on further reflection, are those things really the most important values in your life? How do you know? Where’s the evidence?

What’s your purpose? An even tougher question. Tougher indeed. Many — dare I say most — lives are spent trying to answer this question with no good conclusion. Some lives are even taken for want of being able to answer this question.

Values and purpose. Easy to talk about in the general, difficult to determine in the particular. But the simple truth is that we’re most fulfilled when we know the answers to these questions, and when our daily lives are in alignment with them.

God whispers to us. Insert a different word there if you’d like. Life whispers to us. The Universe whispers to us.

Our values and purpose whisper to us. Here are five questions that have helped me hear those whispers.

1. What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?

“Chris is the most involved dad I know.” It was a comment I wasn’t intended to hear, made almost in passing. We were sharing a vacation rental on the beach with friends of 15 years. I walked into the kitchen while Matt and Leigh were in mid-conversation, washing dishes, their backs to me.

I stopped in my tracks. Tears welled up in my eyes. Matt had grown up without a father. He pays attention to these things.

I’ll never forget that moment. It isn’t just the best compliment I’ve ever received, it’s the best compliment I will ever receive.

This resonates so clearly because being an involved, engaged father is incredibly important to me. It’s a value. A much more specific value than the generic “family.” Now that I’ve identified it, it becomes a guiding principle. It helps me make daily choices. Do I risk a look from my boss by leaving the meeting early to take my kids to soccer practice? Yes. I do.

What about you? What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received? Your answer is a clue to what might be a value.

2. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

In a college communications class, we gave speeches about the best advice we’d ever received.

My roommate Terance talked about his uncle. “Terry,” his uncle told him, “remember to do these two things, just not at once. Drive fast, and read the paper.” Terry interpreted this as imploring him to take risks and stay informed, advice which he took to heart. He recently sold the software company he started for more money than I’m likely to make in my entire career.

I can’t recall the source of the topic of my speech. “On their deathbed, nobody ever says they wished they’d spent more time at work.” Indicative of a value? Absolutely. Reinforces the best compliment I’ve ever been given. This must be really important to me.

3. Given a day to spend with any historical figure, who would you choose?

Why would you choose her? What is it about him that you’d like to learn from, or hope would rub off on you?

Perhaps Joan of Arc for her bravery, or Gandhi or MLK for their insistence on nonviolent opposition. Churchill for his role in saving Europe from tyranny.

I’d choose George Washington. Because he was the first president of the United States? Because of his battlefield leadership that helped gain US independence? Not really. More so because he did so reluctantly, out of a sense of duty and responsibility to something larger than himself.

Washington wanted nothing more than to retreat to his Mount Vernon estate, to spend time on his plantation and to start a distillery. But as the unanimous presidential election results were tallied, as written in the Smithsonian Magazine, “thus was greatness once again thrust upon George Washington.”

Greatness has certainly never been thrust upon me. But I’m much more drawn to the leader who has greatness thrust upon her than those who are driven by maniacal egos to achieve it for themselves.

That’s the kind of leader I’d like to be. Humble. Less confident in my abilities to lead than those I’m leading. Unassuming. Humility… hmm, starting to sound like a value.

4. If you could trade places with anyone for a short period of time, who would it be?

Given the chance to experience the world from a different angle, what perspective would you choose? A homeless person? Superstar athlete? Why?

Our youngest son is autistic. He’s 7. Despite having loving friends and family who tell us that we were given Gabe because whoever and whatever decides these things knew we’d give him the best chance of a fulfilled life, we know we could do better.

I know I could do better.

I’d like to say I always choose to indulge his fascination with elevators. Instead, I get frustrated when he realizes the building we’re in has more than one floor, because it’s either spend 20 minutes on the elevator or the next two hours helping him recover from not spending 20 minutes on the elevator.

I’d like to say I fully digest and respond to all of his questions about Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone — he’s read the book at least twice and seen the movie more times than we can count.

Intellectually, I know Harry Potter is a tool that he uses to help understand the world. Maybe he even identifies with Harry — strange. Hopefully the rest of us aren’t the Dursleys.

Emotionally, sometimes I just can’t take any more questions. “Gabe, Daddy’s ears need a break.” Yes, once in a while I say that to a kid with a 2–3 year language delay. Not exactly father-of-the-year behavior.

I’d trade places with Gabe. I think it’d make me a better dad.

Wow, this whole ‘good dad’ thing really is a big deal to me. Perhaps I could even start to call it a purpose.

5. Given a list of reasonable possibilities, how would you spend a free weekend?

Would you travel to a foreign land and experience a different culture? Spend the time hanging out with as many friends as you can gather? Climb a mountain?

My wife and I would spend the weekend in a creekside mountain cabin. Half the time cooking or walking along the creek together, maybe even talking about subjects other than the kids. The other half reading and writing. I yearn for quiet time to collect information and figure out how to package it with other information to create ideas and put them into writing.

That’s a perfect weekend. And another indicator of a value or two.

Generally, I value family, humility, and creativity. Specifically, my purpose is to take on responsibilities I don’t necessarily want or feel prepared for, to be the most engaged dad and loving husband I can be, and to create ideas that others might want to read about.

I have to admit, it’s pretty cool to have your own set of guiding principles. These questions have helped me figure that out.

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