When's the last time you cried at work?
For some, this question will trigger mild horror. (Cry at work? Are you kidding me?!) For others, it will trigger an association of being under extreme pressure - unrelenting deadlines, demanding clients, a difficult relationship with a manager or colleague, or even personal issues infusing their way into the workplace. For others still, crying at work is a regular occurrence (please talk to someone if this is the case).
But what if your tears were joyful?
Some years ago, I read an article entitled How to Discover Your Life Purpose in About 20 Minutes. The author's instructions were simple: just write down what you think your life purpose is and keep repeating that step until you cry. Whatever makes you cry is your life purpose.
Now the stoic among you might not agree with this. But I recently witnessed a group of young Indonesian students demonstrate the power of this process.
I was running a Leadership Skills workshop in Sydney for a group of 24 university students from all over Indonesia. The trip and the training were sponsored by Indonesia’s largest telco provider, Telkomsel, and it's probably fair to say that the students were from modest backgrounds.
After a somewhat chaotic two days building some foundational skills in self-awareness, communication and relationship-building, we had made it to the final half-day. Given that the students were fairly worn out after two days of training and various tourist activities, I decided to start the final day with something relatively simple: purpose. The students were asked to write and/or draw their purpose on a sheet of butcher’s paper.
What followed was one of the most inspiring and emotional sessions I’ve ever experienced as a facilitator. As each of the students shared their purpose with the group, it didn’t take long for the tears to start flowing as the students tapped into the raw energy of their hopes, their dreams and the impact they want to have in the world. Some of the students shared their personal circumstances – broken homes, financial hardship and so on – and how these circumstances were motivating them to further their education and achieve professional success. Invariably, this was so they could help support their families and communities.
We heard from a law student who wants to reduce political corruption in Indonesia. We heard from a health sciences student who wants to win a scholarship to Harvard or Oxford in order to become a professor and "make people healthy". We heard from an English literature student who wants to influence people through her writing. There was an aspiring rockstar, a few photographers, and plenty of "independent businesswomen" (which I found especially exciting!).
About half of the students shared their purpose in the Bahasa Indonesian language – and, even though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, it was impossible not to feel what they meant.
This is what I learned:
- The power of stating your purpose: I’ve long believed that purpose gives us energy – and not just the manufactured motivation that comes from using our willpower, but the undeniable, inexhaustible inspiration only a genuine sense of purpose can provide. Linguistically*, a statement of purpose is also a declaration - a statement that generates a new or changed reality; a statement about how things will be from now on. Leaders set the course by using declarations frequently and following through with action so that the integrity of the declaration is maintained.
- The power of emotion: Sadly, in some respects, the students will probably forget much of what they learned during the first two days of the training. But they won’t easily forget what happened in the final session due to the power of the emotion they experienced and shared with each other. Educators have long known that emotions create longer-lasting memories, and leaders can also use emotion to generate energy and commitment to challenging goals.
- The power of hope: Most significantly, I was inspired by the amount of hope these young people hold for the future. Some would say that it’s been a difficult year with some notable political upheaval, the deaths of some iconic individuals, and no doubt our own personal challenges in work, family, and life generally. Too often, it’s easy to dwell in negativity, to ignore possibilities and resign ourselves to the status quo. It’s often easier to complain than to take action. But there’s always hope. Ultimately, a leader's currency is the ability to inspire hope in his or her followers.
Life is a series of choices. While I don’t necessarily believe that there are winners and losers in life, I do believe that the people who live more fruitful lives are the ones who choose hope. As leaders, our role is to tap into the possibility of our own purpose and our emotional connection to that purpose, and to cultivate hope in our hearts. And if you also lead a team, then your responsibility is to enable others to do the same.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops - at all.” (Emily Dickinson)
*based on the field of ontological coaching