When Your Purpose is Out to Kill You


"Our world is going to hell in a hand-basket and I'm afraid there won't be enough time to save it," said the speaker. She'd hit on something that had been brewing in the back of my mind for quite a while: the awareness of urgency, of not having enough time -- not for saving the world, but personally: enough lifetime to fulfill one's own core purpose -- an awareness that can both inspire and paralyze us.

I'd always been vaguely aware of my own sense of urgency since my father's early death at age 52, and as I approach that age, it's been getting stronger. After that "Aha! moment" listening to the speaker, I began discussing it with others. While I'd long considered my father's death as the significant life event that had given rise to my urgency, I now encountered many others who hadn't experienced the early death of a parent or even a similarly traumatic event, but nevertheless described feeling the same perception of not enough time. Why!?

At first I thought that the renowned "mid-life crisis" might have something to do with it; but no, it turns out that the sensation of urgency isn't confined to those of a "certain age." I've met many young entrepreneurs and activists who also tell of feeling the pressure of "do it now." What is it, then, that we have in common?

For many, the answer seems to be that once you connect deeply with your core purpose -- the most meaningful work you could be doing -- it can get hold of you with such force that you end up setting your own self-care aside. By "self-care" I mean something much broader than skipping the gym and not eating properly: many purpose-pulled entrepreneurs find themselves working crazy long hours, under more stress than ever. At a point in life when they'd thought they'd be slowing down -- they're instead driven by a desire to serve so great that they're being pulled and stretched to their limits.

But not everyone is so overwhelmed! What about those dynamic, successful individuals who cheerfully rise above it all? I became aware of an interesting paradox: a strong pull to live life to the fullest and accomplish something deeply meaningful seems to come from, oddly enough, a healthy awareness of one's mortality. Yes, being aware of death can inspire you to live more fully; we know this from people who've faced life-threatening situations. But does it have to take a life-threatening situation to get in touch with living a life of meaning and purposeful work AND valuing the time you have? Apparently not. Those with a healthy relationship to time have an awareness of mortality which motivates them to make the greatest use of their time while also maintaining a relaxed "there's enough time" attitude, thus avoiding a potentially destructive urgency.

Unless you manage to develop a healthy relationship with time and resolve the "time is limited/there's enough time" paradox, your purpose can actually be out to kill you. The urgency of running out of time before you make a great impact can be so powerful that the stress itself can not only harm your health, it can prevent you from working at your most productive and creative best. This potential conflict must be managed so that while you have a healthy awareness of your mortality, you can still respond to the strong desire of your purpose, and do so at a pace that is effective, productive, joyful and healthy.

Establishing healthy boundaries may be, hands down, the single most important step toward reaching this goal. The feeling of working harder than ever often comes from pecking away at previously established boundaries. Little by little, we squeeze just one more task in at a point where we previously wouldn't have allowed it: just a few emails returned on a Sunday morning, or filling every smallest speck of available time by checking phone messages.

Another essential step toward establishing a healthy relationship to time: be clear about what your best contribution is, and create habits to protect it. For example, if your creativity is your greatest asset, then it's important to set aside time to refuel so that you can produce your best work. If getting your perspective and thoughts out into the world is what's most valuable, then some dedicated time for writing and social media is mandatory. If you're running a business, making sure there is time for strategy and planning is essential to success.

Having daily practices can be critically important too -- not only for the outcome of better health and clarity, but for the discipline itself. Having the discipline to stick to a routine may in fact be the greatest benefit of daily practices by supporting your commitment to boundaries, self-care and persistence.

We deserve to set boundaries and not return emails while on the toilet or brushing our teeth! We must put our best work out into the world and enjoy the journey. We have to commit to the simple proposition that what needs to get done gets done -- within the appropriate amount of time in a day and in our remaining years -- and accomplished within healthy boundaries.

Otherwise, your purpose is out to kill you.