Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 7
By Dan Coughlin
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(Note from Dan: This article is not about your organization or your work team. This one is for you as an individual. Hope it helps.)
A few years after I graduated from college in 1985 there was a phrase going around that said, “Follow your bliss.”
We all thought it was brand new and very cool, but I found out recently it’s been around since at least the early 1950s. Joseph Campbell made the phrase famous. Here’s what he said: “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people and they open doors for you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
Looking back it seems to me that the definition of “follow your bliss” is “find your purpose and try to fulfill it.” I can honestly say that over the past 30 years I’ve tried to follow my bliss, and I have studied many other people who also followed their bliss. I would like to share some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Do Follow Your Bliss & Do Be Open to Different Paths
In my senior year in college I started writing my ideas into a journal. It’s a habit I’ve kept for the rest of my life. In 1985 I wrote that the purpose of my life’s work was to help other people to achieve whatever they wanted to achieve. My degree was in mechanical engineering, but I knew that was not the route for me. I did not have a specific way of fulfilling this purpose, just the concept. Then my college soccer coach, Dennis Grace, asked me what I wanted to do, and I blurted out, “I want to be a college head soccer coach.” I had no training in that field and no experience. I had been a benchwarmer all four years in college. The only reason I said that was because it would give me a mechanism to fulfill my purpose.
What’s your purpose that you want to fulfill in your life? Are you doing that right now? Is there a better path for you?
Eventually I became a high school teacher because I thought that would allow me to focus more on developing the students and not be so consumed with having to recruit the next year’s class of college soccer players.
Are you open to fulfilling your purpose in multiple ways? If your purpose remains constant, you may very well see that there are many paths to fulfilling it.
About 20 years ago I decided that for me to fulfill my purpose I was going to have to start my own business where I could study the topics that meant the most to me and explain the ideas that I thought could help other people the most.
Take out a blank sheet of paper. Start writing down ways that you do fulfill your purpose right now and ways that you can fulfill your purpose in the future. Let your mind wander into new possibilities without the filter of “logic” or “common sense” ruling any of them out. Just see what’s possible for you to follow your bliss.
Don’t Make Your Bliss Having to “Have” Someone or Something
As I looked back over the past 30 years I realize now that I often went off the tracks of following my bliss and landed in the place of misplaced self-esteem. I started placing my self-esteem in labels: NCAA Division I Head Soccer Coach of DePaul University, teacher at a well-known high school in St. Louis, and consultant for Fortune 500 companies. The labels in and of themselves didn’t mean anything. They didn’t have anything to do with following my bliss. Instead I was focusing on trying to feel good about myself by my “labels.”
Are your labels becoming a greater source of your self-esteem than actually fulfilling your purpose in life? If they are, then step back and ask yourself again, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?”
Another way I tried to create happiness in my life when I was in my twenties was always having to “have” a woman in my life. My bliss wasn’t coming from fulfilling my purpose as much as it was from having a girlfriend whom I could introduce to other people. This is another example of misplaced self-esteem. Instead of focusing on her dreams and hopes and values, I selfishly focused on making sure I “had” her in my life. This led to being obsessive, self-absorbed and suffocating. And to the point where she wanted to get the heck out of my life.
Is your bliss wrapped up in having to have certain people in your life? If so, are you subconsciously becoming selfish, self-absorbed, obsessive, or suffocating in those relationships? This can happen at work as much as it can happen in your personal life. See if you’ve strayed away from really following your bliss.
Don’t Bliss Until You Burnout or Explode
Following your bliss can be a truly exhilarating experience. It can also become dangerously addictive. If you really love what you do and you find it purposeful and fulfilling, you almost have to build in parameters for how much time and effort you are going to pour into it. Otherwise, you may find yourself breaking down in the middle of the day and trying to figure out where your life went. Or you might explode in an angry fit over a simple conversation with a friend or family member, and you might have no idea where the anger came from. Or you might turn to drugs or alcohol to escape from constantly doing the thing that actually makes you feel the most purposeful.
Are you allowing your bliss to turn into burnout? Do you allow yourself to take a break now and then in order to recharge your batteries in healthy ways?
Do Follow Your Bliss, Don’t Become a Financial Hardship
When I coached soccer at Tri-State University from 1985 – 1986 and at DePaul University from 1987 – 1989, I found it to be a great mechanism for fulfilling my purpose. I called it the “magic little box.” The idea was that I would recruit players from all over the country, and in some cases from all over the world, to play at those universities. I would teach ideas on teamwork and self-discipline and goal-setting and so on. And then the players would take the ideas and spread them to other people after they graduated from college. I suppose I was very idealistic in those days. The good news, at least to me, is that I still am.
My salary for coaching the DePaul soccer team was $4200 a year. To supplement my salary I was a full-time high school math teacher in Chicago. During my second year at the high school an alumnus of the school was caught selling cocaine. The story was on the nightly news in Chicago every night for six weeks. The enrollment dropped significantly and the newest teacher in every department was let go. That included me. Over the next six months I tried to pay my bills and stay as the soccer coach at DePaul, but I was quickly becoming a financial hardship on my credit cards. It was time to find a new path to follow my bliss.
Following your bliss is meaningful and purposeful. It allows you to make your unique contribution in the world. I encourage you to follow your bliss. However, there are some important parameters, and I suggest that one of them is that you’re able to pay your bills. You have to make it work financially at least to the point that you’re not always borrowing money from other people. Sometimes events happen beyond your control like the Great Recession of 2009. There’s no shame in borrowing money in the midst of a catastrophe. Just be careful that borrowing money doesn’t become a full-time aspect of following your bliss.
Do Run From Safety, Don’t Run From Responsibilities
About twenty years ago I read a book by an author who had always inspired me. He talked about running from safety. He explained that if we’re ever doing something that we don’t believe in and we’re staying just because it’s the “safe” thing to do, then we should challenge ourselves to leave the safety and find ways to fulfill our purpose in life. He talked about quitting his job to focus on being a writer. That thought really inspired me. I read several of his books and I liked them all very much.
Then I came across some information recently that I didn’t know about. He had been writing for many years in basic obscurity when suddenly one of his books became an international bestseller. Shortly after that he divorced his wife and left his six children and largely stayed out of their lives for the next few decades. Wow, that hit me hard.
Following your bliss doesn’t mean ignoring your day-to-day responsibilities. It doesn’t mean walking out on your commitments to your children or your spouse. If you feel that your marriage is not salvageable for some reason, that’s a different story. Perhaps the healthy thing to do for both of you is to get a divorce. However, just dumping your marriage to follow your bliss seems to me to be more selfish than purposeful.
Are you considering walking out on your commitments and responsibilities just to follow your bliss? Is this bliss the purpose of your life or is it just doing what makes you happy? There is a difference. Fulfilling your purpose is an act of integrity and requires integrity to do it consistently over the long term. If you walk away from your responsibilities, you may very well endanger your integrity and hurt your ability to fulfill your purpose.
Do Follow Your Bliss, Don’t Worry About Fame and Fortune
For every Steve Jobs who made millions, I mean billions, of dollars for following his bliss, there are 100,000 people who follow their bliss and never become rich or famous. Do I admire the 100,000 any less than I admire Steve Jobs? Not at all. Each of them found their purpose and tried to fulfill it. What more can any person ask of himself or herself?
The point is to find your purpose and fulfill it to the best of your ability. Joseph Campbell said, “Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
What’s your purpose? What’s your purpose in your work life and in your home life and in your community? Take some time to clarify that. Then move into action, into purposeful action. Blissful? Yes. Easy to do? No. Will you always be happy doing it? I doubt it. Don’t worry about always being happy or instantly pleasured. Knowing that your fulfilling your purpose in life creates more of a lasting satisfaction.
Seize This Moment
When I heard Robin Williams had passed away, my very first thought was of the movie Dead Poets Society. That film had a profound impact on my life. Early in the film, Robin Williams says, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” I’ve never forgotten that. Sometimes it seems that ideas are not that important. They are not an action or a result. They’re just ideas, just words. And then I remember the impact that certain words and certain ideas have had on my life, and then I remember their value. One idea from that film that has stood out for me over the 25 years since I first saw it is this comment that Robin Willams said: “Carpe diem. Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary.” That says follow your bliss, find your purpose and fulfill it, better than anything I’ve ever heard. Seize this moment, write down the date and the time, clarify your purpose, and move forward from here. Enjoy the journey.
Republishing ArticlesMy newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.