Originally published in GIFT Global MMW Magazine August 2018. Editor – Joel Brokaw. giftglobal.org
There are questions we don’t ask ourselves that can doom our dreams, sabotage our best intentions and leave us drifting in failure and purposelessness. Alison Fowler has asked herself some tough questions. In the process, she has come up with a way to inspire and help individuals and organizations cut through some of their self-limiting attitudes and make remarkable things happen.
Three times a day, an alarm goes off on my smartphone. Along with the buzzer, a three-word reminder appears on the screen: “Work Worth Doing.” It is based on a Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote — “Far and away, the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
This alarm is a very small and pragmatic but ultimately powerful mindfulness practice for me. It is a moment I can check in and ask if what I’m doing right now is in that minute truly “work worth doing.” And to be honest, I often catch myself going, “Well, maybe not.” “Maybe I should stop doing this particular thing,” I question. Or perhaps I had become distracted worrying about something that may never happen. I realize I’m not being present, and this comforting message brings me back to that space of being present. It is also a simple but instrumental doorway to cultivating a sense of fulfillment and happiness—making sure our head and our heart are aligned in the same place and with a heightened sense of focus and purpose.
Why I use this technique is a product of my life experience as well as a sobering reality so many of us face. The truth is that statistically so many of us in the developed world are pretty miserable in our jobs. We have bought into a formula for success, for doing the right thing and playing according to society’s rules and expectations, often to later be holding an empty bag of unhappiness, disappointment, missing connection and even depression. “I am more than my job title says I am”
First off, I’m an achiever. I like to make things happen.I’m somebody who has from a very early age needed a challenge. My grandmother told my mother back then that as long as I’ve got a challenge in front of me, I’ll be fine. “Make sure she keeps finding that,” she would say as she feverishly knitted our family mohair jumpers for our birthdays. So I have spent most of my time enjoying doing really diverse things, following many different paths in my life and career. It has been a good thing, even when the pill of human experience tasted bitter when first swallowed.
From the beginning, I set out with high intentions. I was first a teacher, and for the first couple of years, I really enjoyed it. But at that time in Australia, we had a lot of displaced families arriving by boats from Vietnam with very little English. As young inexperienced teachers, we were all very unprepared for supporting these new Australians. It was an incredibly challenging time, more crowd control and soccer games than advancing any meaningful education. Funny enough, I have gone full circle decades later, finding myself back in education working on a global project to incorporate mindfulness technologies into classrooms for more focused students and teachers and more productive learning environments.
Next up was a stint as a career advisor for the Australian Institute of Sport, helping athletes who didn’t get selected for the Olympic team to chart out what they would be doing afterward. I don’t know if you can plan life, but it kind of opened my eyes to the reality, “here’s somebody who has reached the peak of what they wanted to achieve and now what?” It is a real issue that almost all of us have to face some time or another: what to do when something you love doing is taken away from you. Little did I know that it would soon be a big issue for me as well.
Headhunted for my next challenge, I became an executive producer for live events for the Walt Disney Company Asia-Pacific overseeing events in many countries. I learned so much about the power of storytelling and all the creative genius that Disney is renowned for. I got to the top of my field and was thoroughly enjoying my time when I came back from a three-city show tour in India only to be told that my job no longer existed, along with some of my amazing team. It was a shock, to say the least. I remember feeling humiliated and embarrassed. “What are people saying? What will people think of me? Now, I’m an epic failure. No one will employ me!” All these feelings came up because my identity was all wrapped up in this job title. I soon came to the realization that my reaction boiled down to a coin toss — “heads” it’s liberating or “tails” it’s devastating.
In that moment I had to choose that it was going to be liberating to move on. I realized I needed another challenge. I regrouped myself and came into the world of business, working myself up to a senior management level at a multi-billion company in Australia. I loved my job so much and was doing well. It was a great challenge, great people, and a great culture— a perfect place to be in my early 40s. Then something started to shift. I had this whisper inside of me saying, “This is great but this isn’t it. Even though you’ve had great success, you’re not done yet.” I embarked on a search on what I was supposed to be doing but I spent two years getting very confused and stuck and as a result, started to resent my job. It didn’t help that I was not willing to make a leap to leave the job without having the next challenge all set up.
It was three months before my 50th birthday, and I remember sitting in my lounge at home thinking, “I know there is something bigger for me. I’ve been waiting for conditions to be right, for money to appear in my bank account to fund my dreams, waiting for all of that to show up before I made the leap. But the thing that is missing is I’m not showing up. I wasn’t owning it.” I decided I would write up my resignation letter and leave this big, well sought after job and walk away without a plan. I went to work the next day pulsing with adrenalin and nervously walked into my manager’s office. Before I could get my resignation letter out, she turned around and said to me, “I’ve got some really bad news for you. Your job no longer exists, but we are going to take care of you – here’s your payout.”
Sometimes, we have to learn the lesson twice. This second time was the happiest moment of my life. Twenty-four hours prior, I had fear around what I was supposed to do and how I was going to fund my dream—and the only thing I decided to do was to trust and show up! Needless to say, I’m very grateful for both of those moments of being told I was no longer required. They were quite profound.
I decided to take a gap year at 50, setting the intention to explore and discover truly what I was supposed to be doing for the next 20 years. I made a promise to myself that I would not make any decisions during the 12 months—and it turned out to be the most freeing 12 months I ever had. Nothing was off limits. I traveled a lot, dived into learning, attended some pretty cool entrepreneurial experiences in Costa Rica with Mindvalley, reading books and talking to people.
About 9 months in, I sought out old friends and colleagues to interview, asking them to tell me what they thought I was good at. What they played back to me, to be honest, was not at first what I wanted to hear. “You’re the project chick, the girl that has projects in her DNA.” I didn’t want that to be my superpower because it didn’t sound very sexy. I found myself having a bit of “purpose envy.” I had been hanging out with people who were building orphanages in Africa, campaigning for a change in elephant tourism, building schools, writing books, etc. These things sounded more exciting and purposeful than my humble talents. But then the light bulb went on.
I ended up deciding in one day—if that’s my purpose, if that’s what I’m on the planet to do, then let’s go make that happen. My mission became to make people’s projects simple and doable so they can go on and play their bigger game to make an impact. I realized I knew that project planning and delivery was no longer a specialist domain of people wearing zippered cardigans and beards. We’ve all got projects going on, whether they are personal, business, service, community or even legacy-building. But why is it that some people either can start things and then not finish them—or can’t get started in the first place? They have ideas in their heads and see other people execute on their ideas, but they can’t get off the couch. Why do they get stuck?
I found that the big motivators are the human needs of More, Better and Easier. How can I do more with what I’ve got in a shorter amount of time? How can I get a better result? And how can I do it easier? My work soon evolved to helping combat these three things. First and foremost, it was about helping people create a compelling reason and then a structure. This applies both for those who want to wing it and figure it out as they go (a legitimate project strategy), as well as those who want a concrete step-by-step process.
I’ve watched people change the way they approach life when they look at things through the lens of a project. If we make something a project, it gives it focus for a defined time. Projects have a start, a finish and a reason to live. Projects don’t go forever. That’s the anti-overwhelm strategy and the good news. If the project is going to the gym and getting in shape, then all of a sudden their attendance goes up because they are focused.
And there’s more than one speed on any project – sometimes we need to be more patient with ourselves. Like that great quote from Thict Nhat Hanh, “Just don’t do something – sit there,” we need to give ourselves the freedom to sit, ponder and do nothing, to let our ideas incubate. We can get more clear, centered and mindful about the choices we’re making, and where we need to put our attention.
In fact, I encourage people to have a mindfulness project in their lives and businesses, one that encourages us to practice being present, perhaps tap into that part of us that knows there’s we are more than our current environment. That, in turn, helps us to become better connected to something bigger than ourselves.
Sometimes it shows up as a side project – a passion or an interest. Side projects are seeds for bigger ideas. They are the things that keep the juices flowing, fueling spontaneity and creativity. Not everyone feels they can give up their day job and go live a life of purpose straight up or maybe ever. There are bills and commitments to figure out first. So I suggest, “Start something on the side and see where it takes you.”
I often find it way more interesting to find out about what someone is “doing on the side,” rather than often their full-time gig. We can learn a lot about humans when they are not under pressure to perform according to a job title, but rather are free to be a true expression of themselves. If finding your purpose arrives later in life, like it did for me, then it’s never too late to dust off those dreams and get them off the back burner and into play.
There’s no rule about how many chapters we can have in our life and many ways kinds of wonderful ways to serve. Always give yourself a second chance at living the life you desire. Your purpose plus the right project can change lives.
Ali Fowler feels very privileged to be serving GIFT by running the engine room for this global campaign from her home in Melbourne, Australia.
For more on Ali’s work as Founder & CEO of AliChook & World Project Partners, visit www.worldprojectpartners.com