Viktor Frankl, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” tells about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Throughout the book, Frankl quotes Nietzsche’s words: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” Frankl’s powerful story of survival poignantly shows how having purpose and meaning in life–a “why” to live for–was the difference between those who lost all hope and died, and those who continued to live. (Read our post on “Man’s Search for Meaning.”)
Dr. Ben Michaelis, psychologist, author and speaker, echoes the importance of having a purpose and how that purpose is an essential driving force in our lives. In his book, “Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy,” he compares purpose to a guide, a “North Star that will lead you, follow you, and carry you when the days are dark and all seems lost” (Chapter 4: Discovering Your Purpose). Man’s need for purpose is universal. Without purpose we cannot move forward, yet few people actually take the time to define and write down their dreams, values, and priorities.
Dr. Michaelis suggests three exercises that will help you begin to define what is most important to you and then create a Statement of Personal Purpose.
The first exercise is a series of four questions meant to stimulate your mind, expand your thinking, and unearth the things that are meaningful to you:
- If you were wealthy beyond reason and no longer had to work for a living but instead could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?
- If you were given the opportunity to create your own sixty-second spot during the Super Bowl, where you could say whatever you wanted to say or show whatever you wanted the world to see, what would you do? would you make something entertaining, funny, sad, challenging, thought provoking?
- If you found that you could make one lasting change in the world that would be guaranteed to affect people long after you are gone, what would you make?
- If you could create an organization or company that could make or do something and you were guaranteed of its phenomenal success, what would that company do? How would it affect people’s lives? Would it make life easier, healthier, or more enjoyable?
The second exercise involves thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave behind. Dr. Michaelis has his patients envision their future and imagine the life of their descendant many years from now, for example a great-great-granddaughter. First, think about her name, where she lives, the kind of world she lives in, her relationships and daily routine. Once you’ve imagined your great-great-granddaughter, imagine her thinking about you: What does she know about you? Why is she lucky or proud to be your great-great-granddaughter? What have you contributed to her and her world? Was it something you built, wrote, or created?
I find this exercise to be very thought-provoking. It allows you to consider what your contribution will be. What kind of footprint do you want to leave behind when you are gone?
Dr. Michaelis suggests a final exercise to help narrow down your values: Imagine you had one more year to live before you disappear from the Earth. Write down a list of twenty things that you will do during that year. Do you want to go somewhere? See something? Do or make something? Meet someone?
Reflecting on these exercises will help you find what brings joy to your life, narrow down your core values, and reveal what you would prioritize and do if you had no financial or time limits.
Now take time to write them down! Start with your name and listing two to three things that are important to you. Then write a few sentences of concrete actions that will allow you to live these things in your daily life. The very action of writing down your goals significantly increases your chances of achieving them.1
As a clinical Psychologist, Dr. Michaelis helps his patients explore purpose by guiding them through a series of carefully crafted values-based exercises.
As a financial educator and advisor, my approach is quite similar . By keeping Values at the center of our financial conversations, rather than specific financial products such as ETF’s, mutual funds, and life insurance, clients are encouraged to focus on what really matters which is as unique as the stars in the sky. For some it may be family, faith and giving. For others it may be helping others, work, social justice. The selection of specific products are merely a way to implement one’s purpose.
Because money touches every part of our life, aligning money with one’s personal values may not always make you the wealthiest person in the world, but it will help you live a life with more joy, certainty and meaning; for many, this trumps dollar values.
1 “Why You Should Be Writing Down Your Goals” by Ashley Feinstein. Forbes Magazine 4/08/14