Living on Purpose: Life as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story

As a child, some of my favorite books to read were from the Give Yourself Goosebumps choose your own adventure series written by R.L. Stein. Throughout each book, there were several opportunities for the reader to exert some agency. If you wanted your character to walk through a door, you’d turn to page 78. And if you wanted the character to turn and run, you’d turn to page 52. Depending on the series of choices you made, the story could be slightly or drastically different every time you read it. I loved those books and others like them because it drew me into the process, begged me to be an active participant rather than just a consumer. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the choose your own adventure concept would be a perfect metaphor for navigating life. We can either be passive consumers of our experiences or we can actively shape the story.

Every day we make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny and massive decisions that shape our own story. Turn here, eat this, accept that job offer. Each one has the potential to lead us down a slightly different path. Here’s the catch….in life, we already know the end of our story. We all meet the same ending so the question becomes, what do we want to do along the journey? We cannot always control the outcome of our decisions, and much like the choose your own adventure books, sometimes life throws us an unexpected twist, but we can live with intention, with an idea of what we’d like to experience on the way, and we can control how we react to those unexpected twists.

Living with intention simply means doing big and small things on purpose, with purpose. Here are a few things I do to make sure my own adventure is lived with intention:

  • Every morning I try to meditate on a single word that I hope to carry into my day. Grace. Humility. Boldness. It’s amazing how thinking about that one simple concept for even just a few moments can shift how I interact with the world.

  • I am intensely curious about myself and carve out plenty of time for self reflection. If you don’t know what your hopes, fears, desires, motivations, pitfalls, hangups, etc are…how can you live with intention? You will spend your life in a reactionary state, motivated by things within you that you do not understand.

  • I have a vision for the legacy I want to leave. I periodically reflect on the statement “Because of me, my son will know __________________”. What am I teaching him about the world? What is most important for him to understand? What will he say about me when I am gone? Knowing how I want to fill in that blank gives me guidance on how I navigate relationships, how I spend my time/money/energy. It is a filter through which I can run every decision. How does this help build the legacy I hope to leave?

  • I know some areas where I want to have an impact, some social problems I want to draw attention to. I cannot do all of the things, so where can I be most effective? These questions have led me to my most exciting opportunities and have kept me from spending too much time and energy on perfectly fine things that would keep me from having the strongest impact possible in a few select areas. Your life is going to have an impact, but you get to decide whether that’s an intentional impact or a haphazard one.

  • Meditation. I can’t tell you how much meditation has changed my life and how much better my whole experience is when my meditation practice is healthy. Sitting still is hard. Quieting your mind is hard. There are so many lessons to be learned in that stillness that we carry into the chaos.

Are you living with intention, actively and purposefully shaping your own story?

Or are you just a consumer of it, turning the page to find out what comes next?

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Visioning & Setting Intention for 2018: Living My Best Life

Parker Palmer's A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward the Undivided Life begins with this story: "There was a time when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards". I worry that in a culture that constantly encourages us to do more, be more, and have more that we sometimes wander out into our own metaphorical backyards, chasing the things we think we need to be happy, or mindlessly moving with the wind, and lose sight of our way home, back to people and things that give us life. I am in the midst of my own reckoning. I am learning to let go of what it is I am "supposed to be", putting down the broken mirrors all around me that are giving me a distorted view of myself and my life, and trying to find my own way. I am slowly finding my way back in from the blizzard, from the do more/be more/have more hustle, and I am laying a rope for the times I will inevitably find myself out in the chaos. I hope you'll join me. 

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Living Defensively & All the Good I've Missed Along the Way

I have lived a significant portion of my life operating in "defense mode". In sports, the offense's objective is to score as many points as possible while the defense's job is to keep the other team from scoring. To do their job effectively, the defense has to always be vigilant, watching the other team like a hawk, anticipating where the opponent might try to deceive them or over-power them to score points. That's fine in a football game, but it's not the best way to approach life.

Operating from the defense comes from a place of fear- trying to prevent bad things from happening. In my own life, I have put up unnecessary boundaries in an effort to guard against potential threats. I have kept a vigilant watch for pitfalls. I have often expected the worst to happen and lived accordingly.  In many ways, this approach is a coping mechanism. If I expect the worst and then it happens, I am not surprised or caught off-guard, I am prepared. The problem is, we attract and notice the things we invest our energy and thoughts in. If we expect bad things to happen, if we are constantly waiting for others to let us down or hurt us, then guess what we will most often notice? Even tiny missteps may feel like a huge deal because we may see them as a sign of the inevitable horrible ending coming our way. And we are far less likely to participate in or notice all the wonderful things happening because we are so caught up in preparing for, avoiding, and expecting the worst. 

Why bother to challenge yourself in this area of your life? When you can move from the defense to the offense, you begin to operate from a place of hope and gratitude. You are more likely to take risks and build deeper relationships. You will feel happier and more successful because you are more readily able to see the good in life. You will not let tough moments define or defeat you because you know that those moments are temporary.

So how do we overcome this defensive approach, especially for those of us who seem to have defensiveness as our "default setting"?

The first step is to recognize when you are operating defensively. This may be the hardest part, learning to recognize when it's happening. My advice is any time you are feeling resistant, hesitant, or concerned, check in with yourself to see if those thoughts and feelings are valid or if you are projecting the "what ifs" onto your life. Ask yourself, what am I afraid of? Fear, the emotion at the heart of a defensive approach to life, is not always a bad thing. In fact, fear is an important emotion for keeping us safe. It becomes a problem when we allow it to run our life and keep us from all the good around us. For example, I don't really want to be in a car accident (who does?) so I drive with caution and that's a good thing because it keeps me safe. But what if I decided that I would just never drive or ride in a car ever again to avoid being in a wreck? That's not healthy and it would really limit where I was able to go and what I was able to do. Yet, so often that's exactly what we do in life. We completely avoid, or worse, we sabotage things that could result in hurt or failure, cutting ourselves off from the amazing world waiting right outside our little comfort zone. 

Once you are able to recognize your defensive stance, you must figure out why you are acting this way. All behavior serves a purpose and living in defense mode serves you in some way or you wouldn't be doing it. Get to the heart of that reason and then reframe it. For me, living defensively is about past hurts and guarding myself from getting hurt again. But you know what? Getting hurt is a part of life and no matter how much I prepare or avoid, I am going to get hurt sometimes. That's part of being human. The good news is, every painful thing I've encountered, I've been able to overcome. Humans are crazy resilient. So I can either learn to drop my over-the-top defensives and experience all the wonderful things life has to offer, and still get hurt sometimes...or, I can remain defensive, miss out on some great opportunities and relationships and yet...still get hurt. Hmmm, that doesn't seem like a tough choice. 

I know I've missed out on some really meaningful relationships, wonderful opportunities, and happiness because I expected to fail or get hurt and the easier thing was to just not participate at all or stay so closed off that I missed out on the richness of those experiences. I am tired of missing out and I don't want you to miss out either. So, let's keep doing to hard work of confronting these fears so we can live our best and brightest lives. 

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