Posted by Kyle Baker, Program Coordinator at the Institute for Excellence & Ethics.
Last week, I was sitting in one of my favorite Syracuse haunts, Recess Coffee House, when a group of four nestled into the plush chairs across the room. It quickly became apparent that the group was comprised of three freshman college students and a “mentor.” By the content of their conversation (so maybe sometimes I can actually hear through my earbuds…so?) and the body language of the students, it appeared that they were assigned to meet with this mentor through some type of academic support program (in other words, they didn’t seem too thrilled to be there).
After some brief small-talk, the mentor quickly moved to what must have been the topic for the day’s discussion by posing the following question to the group:
“So, where do you see yourself heading after you graduate from college?”
Needless to say, he didn’t gather much of a response from such a bold prompt.
As I sat there responding to emails and checking calendar dates, I had to laugh. Only minutes before I had been with Matt Davidson discussing a similar question: “What will our work at IEE look like in 2012?”
In everything from grandiose life ambitions to more typical daily decisions, it can often feel as if we’re constantly seeking clarity of direction and purpose. This certainly is true for me; I’ve often joked that I stick to water, coffee, and espresso because a decision like what kind of Gatorade to purchase can cause my knees to buckle…(anyone who’s ever made a road trip with me can attest that the process isn’t pretty).
But developing our sense of passion, purpose, and mission is much more important than deciding on a drink flavor. In fact, an emerging collection of cross-disciplinary research is teaching us that having a clear sense of what drives you as an individual and/or organization is essential for health, happiness, productivity, and social change. (See the January/February issue of the always excellent Harvard Business Review for an insightful analysis of current research in this area).
Recently I was blessed with the opportunity to lead a retreat for college students where we focused on a line that St. Ignatius of Loyola, a prolific thinker and writer, often included at the bottom of the letters he would pen to his friends and colleagues around the world:
“Go forth, and set the world on fire.”
The question that stems from this line is a big one: “How do I do that?”
The answer waits for us in reflection on what helps us light the unique fire within each of us, or as Howard Thurman put it, “what makes us come fully alive.” This reflection includes thinking about our dreams, openly and honestly identifying what can help us achieve them as well as what may prevent us from doing so, and learning to articulate who we are and who we want to become.
Following the retreat (you can view the slides that were used during the retreat here) I received feedback from students indicating that for many of them the retreat represented the first time they’ve reflected deeply upon these themes.
Perhaps just as interesting (and deeply moving) were the emails I received from those that were on the retreat in supporting roles along different points in their journey: A person preparing to retire later in the month from a job that by his own accord had “defined his identity” for several decades; a person who shared that he was “at the theoretical midpoint of life this year” and beginning to reflect upon “what my epitaph will say (which is the sentence carved in stone),” and a person just beginning her career who summarized the experience by saying “the issue of where is my life headed is a BIG anxiety button for this generation of so many options and possibilities.”
These are big questions whose answers are constantly evolving, but even though they can be scary and complex, working to discover our passion, purpose, and mission through exercises such as the Blueprint for Life, the Character SWOT Analysis (both featured in Power2Achieve Unit 8.1), and writing (then living) “Your Sentence,” (presented in Daniel Pink’s bestseller Drive and featured in Power2Achieve Unit 5.1) is essential, as is creating opportunities for our students and members of our organizations to do so. (As you’ll see in the retreat slides, these served as the pillar exercises for our retreat…and the sentences the participants came up with filled me with a great sense of hope for our future.)
So “Go forth, and set the world on fire”…but before you set out to do so, be sure to spend some time thinking about what lights your own fire.