“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I remember the day my life started.
I remember the day I decided to stand up and say something instead of sitting back and worrying about being wrong or getting judged.
I remember finally finding my voice and sharing my opinions.
I remember the reward that followed.
No, this is not an attempt at my own personal “I have a dream…” speech (although I was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for today’s post). It’s the description of a memory that marked the beginning of my life as I now know it. It’s a description of how I felt the day I discovered my true passion and purpose.
Dr. King, I think we all can agree, just had “a way” with words. And his ability to speak the mind of an entire movement allowed him to become the voice of his generation.
He stood up for what mattered. He spoke truth, even when it was unpopular. He lived according to higher ideals and loftier ambitions than those of the world that surrounded him. He truly had clarity of vision and absoluteness of purpose.
In most ways, that amount of certainty and confidence can create an incredibly inspirational figure.
In other ways, it can be a total buzz kill.
Hear me out. I have an example.
Remember that kid from elementary school who wanted nothing more than to be a pilot? I do. All he talked about were planes and jets and engines. He dressed up in aviation gear for Halloween. He occasionally (ahem, daily) wore goggles to school.
And as you grew older, his resolution only grew clearer. He was planning for flight school or the Air Force Academy while you were just trying to pass calculus. He was having conversations with mentors and spending his free time learning about his “future craft” while you were struggling to put two sentences together in front of the boy you liked and praying for inspiration about what college to attend.
It almost seemed like an equal but inverse relationship: the more confused and uncertain about your future career you became, the more resolute he got.
Not to mention more annoying…
Chances are you were probably not the airplane kid. Chances are, like me, you were the confused, tongue-tied, unconfident teenager, who—day by day—became increasingly sure that you’d never have a job you liked and never amount to anything in life.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
And while it can be amazing to witness someone who is so sure of his passion and purpose, it can also be an all-too-unwelcome reminder that YOU don’t have YOUR shit figured out yet. The majority of my life I’ve identified more with the latter camp than the former. Instead of getting inspired by others who were living their dreams, I was despondent that I hadn’t yet found mine and worried that I never would.
Maybe you’ve been there, too?
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But one day, in the not too distant past, all of that changed for me.
One small interaction changed the way I look at my future and the way I think about the vision for my life. All it took was finding my voice, choosing to speak instead of remaining silent, and doing the small things as though they were great.
It was the fall of 2009, and I was in my senior year of college.
That semester, I had the pleasure (as a psychology major) to work as a research assistant for a woman who was completing her Ph.D. dissertation in the psych department. I not-so-secretly signed up for this opportunity because it was a way to earn full class credit without any exams or homework. I also thought it might be fun to “mix it up a little” and find out what psychology in the field could really do.
Part lazy. Part nerdy. 100% Tracy approved.
The dissertation study ended up being INSANELY interesting, so I was hooked from Day One.
Ali, our Ph.D. candidate (who has gone on to do a post-bac at Columbia and teach at Stanford) was studying the mind-body connection as it relates to stress. Specifically, she wanted to see if certain mindsets about stress changed the body’s release of stress hormones, thereby making it easier to deal with stressful situations.
So, we tried it out.
We studied professionals working at UBS (formerly the Union Bank of Switzerland) who were undoubtedly stressed. It was 2009, the financial world had just gone to hell, and these people were certainly not “experiencing stress as additive” to their performance. Many of them were burnt out and ready for a change.
During the study, we “primed” our subjects into certain stress mindsets—positive or negative—and then we measured their hormone levels after they experienced a stressful event to see if our intervention provided the outcome for which we had hoped. The study was a success and showed that, in fact, your mindset about anything in life, including stress, can dictate how your body experiences that feeling. I had the honor of being included in the by-lines of the published study, and thought my contribution to the annals of journalistic psychological science was complete.
But, I was wrong.
We also had to DEBRIEF these studies with the participants.
So, for 3 (very boring) days, we trudged to all the local locations of UBS to explain our findings to a group of people who were more concerned with the content of their BlackBerrys than the conclusions of our study. I was certain that no one in the room was listening, much less cared, about anything we had to say. By “we” I mean the 3 research assistants who had to sit in the back, taking notes, and pretty much stay out of the way.
Again, I was wrong.
During the question and answer portion one afternoon, one of the participants did something very out of character. He turned around, faced the back of the room, and addressed his question to us—the three, very bored, very tired research assistants who (as yet) had said nothing and added no value other than increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the room.
“What about you guys?” he said, gruffly. “What about you? Do you buy this stuff? Is it helping you? How has working with these researchers changed the way you look at stress?”
The three of us looked at each other, baffled. We weren’t supposed to be talking or interacting with the participants. We had strict orders to keep notes and not interfere. It wasn’t like we were lepers; we just knew our job was behind the scenes.
And now, we were being called to the plate.
I looked up at the front of the room at Ali and again to my co-assistants. No one moved. No one peeped. No one seemed to make the slightest indication that she was going to answer the question…
Until I did.
You know that scene in The Hunger Games where Katniss volunteers as tribute?
Same actions. Different stakes.
I felt myself stand up. I felt myself smile and nod toward Ali and ask if I could answer the question. I felt myself speaking. I felt myself not again and sit down.
It was as though I had exited my body and was able to watch, without sound, all of the actions and faces throughout the room. I don’t remember what I said. I don’t remember how I said it. I just remember sitting down and feeling relatively safe and satisfied.
It wasn’t until later that I realized what I had done.
Ali was working with a research guide on her project who is now very well known for his best-selling books, successful speaking and courses, and even his time spent on Oprah. His name is Shawn Achor, and to this day, he has one of the top 10 TED talks of all time. He’s amazing, and I’m lucky to say, a personal friend and mentor, largely because of what happened that day.
After the debrief was over, Shawn found me and pulled me aside.
“Do you remember what you said?” he asked.
“Kinda!” I lied. “Why?”
“It… was… spectacular…”
He then went on to ask if I had planned my remarks to which I (snorted) laughed and said no. Again, he was astounded. I… was bemused, to say the least. What was going on, here?
It turns out that Shawn had pulled me aside to say what a great job I had done during my impromptu speech. He said my command of the audience was great. My speech and diction were excellent. My descriptions and answers were thorough but understandable. He was amazed I hadn’t prepared them earlier. They were that good.
I was floored. But not as floored as when he said this:
“You have a future in this—speaking. You could really do something great.”
Me? A future? Let alone a GREAT one?
I spent that whole day amazed, and I have never looked back.
That day I realized that something I did naturally and enjoyed doing could be something central to my future career. All it took was one enlightened conversation after one daring move.
The same can happen for you.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I had spent my whole life up to then complaining about how other people had found their voice and their passion, yet I was still without mine. During that time, I had wasted valuable opportunities to discover my purpose by not simply doing the small things as though they were great. I was living in self-pity and expecting that to lead to an epiphany.
But just as it takes light to drown out darkness, it takes courage to drown out confusion and self-pity.
If you want to find your voice and create some clarity about your purpose and your career, then you have to stand up when the moment arrives. You have to do the small things as though they were great until the great things come along. And you have to be willing to change your mindset to one of love and abundance rather than fear and self-loathing.
If that little kid from my elementary school were standing in front of me today, I’d want to give him a high-five and ask him how he figured it all out. I’d want to applaud his passion and encourage him to follow his dream in order to inspire others to be the best that they can be. I’d want him living his genuine purpose so that he can give his maximum impact to a world that is so in need.
We need to find our voice and start pursuing work with a purpose.
We need it. Our companies need it. Our schools need it. Our world needs it.
And if Martin Luther King Jr. were still here, I think he would agree.
Now, I want to hear from you!
- Have you struggled to find your own purpose or passion?
- How has your mindset changed, and what are you doing now to "find your voice"?
Leave your answer in the comments below!