Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finding Purpose: The Five P's

This blog entry was originally posted on March 19, 2007.  I had just returned from Botswana when I wrote it.  I recently chatted with Bonnie Orton, the then 70-year old Peace Corps volunteer who hosted me while I was there.  She called me from JFK on her way home to Chicago from another trip to Africa.  One of these days we plan to go back together. 

We are born to dream.

Think about it. Where would we be, who would we be, without our dreams? Most of the great inventions of the world, much of the forward movement of human civilization, has been fueled by dreams. So it should come as no surprise that for many of us, finding purpose means putting our dreams into action.

For the past seven years I’ve been interviewing people who later in life did just that, and in writing a book about the experience, I realized a dream of my own. Analyzing what I've learned in the process and how it might apply to people of all ages, I've come up with what I call "The Five P’s of Finding Purpose."

Last month I spoke about these five principles to a variety of groups in Botswana and discovered that they pertain to all sorts of other endeavors. They could just as easily be called “The Five P’s of Becoming a Leader” or “The Five P’s of Achieving Success.” Although they're not sophisticated concepts, each presents its own set of challenges.

P #1 = Possibility

Embrace it. Almost anything is possible if we’re willing to let go of our limiting ideas of ourselves. (Ah, there’s the rub!) Leaders and late bloomers alike begin their journeys by envisioning a future where their dreams have taken shape. Take Susan B. Anthony, who imagined women one day having the right to vote and spent her life championing that cause. Today we have a woman who is the Speaker of the House and another who is running for President. Or consider Linda Bach, who believed it was still possible at age 46 to become a doctor and graduated from the University of Miami Medical School four years later.

P #2 = Presence

Pay attention. To discover a passion and figure out how to pursue it, watch for the opportunities and signs that present themselves in the here and now. Listen to your body and recognize that a wrenching gut is often a warning cry. Most of us spend too much time in our heads thinking about the past and theorizing about the future. We forget to breathe in the beauty of life. In doing so, we often miss the gifts that are right in front of us.

P #3 = Passion

Explore it.  Ask yourself what gives you joy. Our passions not only lead to our purpose, they’re the propellant that allows us to surmount the obstacles that inevitably come between us and our goals. I recently saw Kelly Clarkson on a re-run of American Idol. Prior to being on the show, she wasn't able to support herself with her music. She kept singing anyway. The night I saw Clarkson on Idol, she performed Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman for the audience and judges. She sang with her whole being--not just belting out the tune, but taking risk after risk with her interpretation. She looked like she was born to be on stage. All of her competitors had talent. They wouldn’t have made it to the finals if they hadn’t. But Clarkson exuded more heart than anyone else there. No wonder she’s gone on to win two Grammy awards.

P #4 = Practice

Do it! Whether you long to be a marathon runner, a writer, or a political activist, the pay-off comes with practice. Here in the States we tend to think that talent trumps all. But a study of musicians conducted by British psychologist John Sloboda suggests otherwise. To his amazement, Sloboda discovered that the performers who scored best were practicing 800 percent more than the ones at the bottom. “People have this idea that there are those who…can get further on less effort,” Sloboda says. “On average, our data refuted that.”

(For the full story, go to and read Malcolm Gladwell’s December 17,2001 New Yorker column, from which these quotes are excerpted.)

P #5 = Persistence

Keep at it. Most people give up on their dreams too soon. Not mountaineer Ed Viesturs. (The photo above is from Viestur's website.) Determined to climb Everest, Viesturs was forced to turn back twice just short of his goal. The third time he made it to the top, becoming the first American to summit the 14 tallest peaks in the world. You may have no desire to climb mountains, but whatever your goals are, the way to achieve them is to keep moving forward. If you’re not progressing as fast as you’d like or experiencing the results you’ve imagined, take an honest look at yourself and re-evaluate.

Everyone makes mistakes. Chances are, the more successful you are, the more you’ve made. After all, you’ve probably taken more risks. The key is to learn from your blunders and move on. Detours are often part of the journey. But as Viesturs says, “There are no shortcuts to the top.”

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