Digging for Purpose

Sometimes when you dig where you are, something unexpected happens.

One of the questions I dreaded being asked when Dig Where You Are was first published was: How are you digging where you are? After all, I had written the book, certainly I must know how to do it. But even with all I had seen and learned, I hadn’t yet figured out how I could save a life, transform a community or make meaningful change in the world.  All I had done was write a book about people who had.

Among the reasons I undertook this project was a personal one: I wanted to know what it would feel like to have such a strong sense of purpose in life, to be able to answer the question: why am I here? I wasn’t diminishing the importance of the roles I was already playing including mother, daughter, wife, business owner, employer, and cycling coach.  I just wanted to know if there was something else I was supposed to do that might make a difference in the world.

When I asked the people in my book how they had discovered that what they were doing was what they were meant to do in life, their answers varied.

Lily Yeh, the artist who for thirty years has helped to transform broken communities around the world through art, said it happened when she was invited to create sculpture in a vacant lot in a rough neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

“I had a good job teaching as a university professor.  But I was not a scholar.  I did fine.  But it was not my calling.  When I went to North Philadelphia (to build the art park) I was scared as hell,” she said. “But I know now that you have to respond to the call when it comes and walk that path.  Sometimes you fall flat on your face.  But the light is there.” She reflects that what worried her most was that if she turned down the opportunity, the best in her would die and the rest would amount to nothing.   “For me, this is why I was born – to realize this.”  Lily believed that in connecting with others who needed her most, she discovered her purpose.

Mimi Silbert said that something always starts it off. Then at some point you realize you’re doing what you always wanted to do.  “I think the call comes but people are not always listening because they’ve got themselves entrapped in too many unnecessary things – shopping at Saks, shopping for an Audi.  If you’re not open, you can’t hear what’s calling you.”

While working as a professor and counselor to prison inmates, she decided to leave it all and start Delancey Street– an unconventional approach to criminal rehabilitation.  Almost a half a century later she is still successfully transforming one life at a time.

“It’s funny – there is something in your stomach that keeps telling you what you have to do,” she said. “People ask me what will Delancey Street do in the future and I say whatever comes and hits us next.”

Mechai Viravaidya who helped to curb the population explosion in Thailand, and revived its rural economy through entrepreneurship and education, said that he cannot recall the actual moment when he discovered his life’s purpose.

“I did not have a carefully laid plan, but bit by bit I found my way,” he said.  “I was never motivated by money.  That was my mother’s influence. She once said if people like you who are educated don’t help the poor, then who will.  I think you can lie to others about who you are and they won’t know the difference, but you cannot lie to yourself.”

As a young man, Mechai worked for a government development agency.  “I went up county and saw things.  One thing I noticed was the number of kids each family had – so many kids.”  He wondered how these families would ever make enough money to pull them out of poverty.  This inspired him to leave his job and become part of an effort to make birth control available to everyone in Thailand. That was the beginning.

While each of the people I met discovered their purpose in different ways by digging where they were, they all agreed that once revealed there was no question that this was the path they were meant to take. It was Dr. Thimappa Hegde, the Head of Neurosurgery at Narayana Health in Bangalore who said:  “In many cases when your destiny is revealed it looks unattractive at first.  This is because we are conditioned to think we must fit into a role that society expects of us.”

Despite this insight shared with me while I was researching this book,  I still wondered how I would recognize the role I was meant to play, or hear the call when it came.

It was a stranger at a book signing in the end who helped me to see that without my knowing it, I had been digging where I was all along.  She pointed out that by taking what I had seen in the world through my work at The International Forum and finding a way to share it with a larger audience I had done exactly what I had written about. It was already making a difference, she said. Through my book she had met people she would never have known and their stories made her believe that she too could do something meaningful with her life by just starting where she was.

As unremarkable as my own Dig Where You Are story still sounds to me, I can answer the question now when it comes.  I also know what it feels like to have purpose in what I do and at the same time not worry about what I must do next. Purpose, I realize, does not have to be a grand idea, a noble cause, or have the essence of goodness; rather it is something already in us that once realized, guides us, gives us courage, and sustains us.

It is what we find when we dig where we are.

What does it feel like when you find purpose in what you are doing?

  • It happens without you knowing.
  • You are energized by doing something you know how to do and things just start to flow.
  • You have courage to take chances because you are not tied to your old idea of “success.” It doesn’t matter if you fail because there are no expectations.
  • Every step forward is exciting and feels like progress, every step back feels like an opportunity to learn and try a different approach.
  • It is really hard sometimes and discouraging– but you know somehow, someway you will find a way.
  • Because what you are doing now is no longer about just you, you are not alone; if you are uncertain about what to do next, just reach out to the people around you and ask. There are many more on this journey with you than you realize.