Purpose and living a meaningful life are recurring themes at VAWAA. As a community of creative travelers who value intentional living, we aim to make the most of our experiences.
VAWAA founder Geetika Agrawal spoke with Michael Ventura, a writer, facilitator, and educator whose work spanning two decades has been widely regarded for its ability to embolden others to feel, think, and act with greater curiosity, and a willingness to deepen their understanding of the different perspectives that influence our inner and outer worlds.
He recently launched an immersive program for self-discovery. Read more about it below, but first, let's delve into the topic of purpose and our pursuit of it with Michael –
Geetika: How do you even define Purpose? It's a big word especially when you start thinking about life, work, family, gifts, passions, impact. How does it all fit into purpose?
Michael: So I think about purpose as what you're called to do. And that sometimes gets daunting for people because they think it has to be enormous. It has to be something like… I'm called to solve world hunger. I'm called to do some big society changing thing. If you've been called to raise a beautiful family, that is a meaningful and equally valuable purpose.
Geetika: Can someone have multiple life purposes?
Michael: I think that they will often show up in different parts of our life, but if we zoom out far enough, there’s probably a theme. If we zoom out from being a mom or being an executive or being a fill in the blank and we zoom out far enough that maybe we'd see these different things as one thing, perhaps we’d find that “caretaking” in all facets of your life is what you’re here to do. There’s something that drives the engine inside of you to do all of those things which superficially may look different but fundamentally come from the same place. I’m interested in helping people figure out what that is.
Geetika: What is driving the current emphasis on prioritizing purpose? Have there been any notable changes or developments that are contributing to this shift?
Michael: It's very easy to fill a day being distracted. And so I started to focus on this concept from an individual standpoint because if we can learn what we're here to do and then learn how to say no to the shiny objects that distract us from our path, we can use these short amount of years we get on this planet more thoughtfully.
At a more societal level, there have also been shifts in the last few years that have made pursuing purpose timely. The Great Resignation after the pandemic is a perfect example of people realizing life is short. The resignation trend talked about in the news is often discussed from the perspective of the employer.
But for the employee, I think it’s more like The Great Realization. “There's something else I could be doing. This isn't what it's all cracked up to be.” There's been a great amount of research done over the last few years about how at this moment in time, people are more and more interested in finding a sense of purpose through their job. And this trend gets larger and larger as new generations enter the workforce.
The Boomer generation took jobs because it was a job and put money in the bank. As generations have followed, as we look at the expectations from Millennials and Gen Z and now Alpha, these generations increasingly look to their employer to help them realize a sense of purpose much more significantly than their parents' generations did.
Geetika: Are there other aspects of life, both personal and social, besides changes in our relationship with work, that are driving a need to prioritize purpose?
Michael: There are other societal changes that are causing people to think and realize their sense of agency and a desire to live life more fully. One indicator we can look at is the decline of new families choosing to have children. For a couple decades ago, it was unheard of to get married and to consciously choose to not have children. But now we're seeing a conscious choice by more and more people to live their life differently.
I think another interesting bellwether is when we see what's happening with the rise of the non-alcohol movement or the increase in legalization or decrim of psychedelics.
All of these changes are indicative of people wanting to have a clearer channel to understand themselves better. So, I look at those as indicators saying people want more meaning, they want more self-understanding, more self-empathy, more sense of purpose, more of an understanding of what their purpose might even be. These trends imply that there's a zeitgeist shift occurring beneath our feet.
Geetika: Is it essential to constantly strive for personal growth and transformation? Drawing upon the example of the fisherman who appears to be satisfied with his uncomplicated lifestyle, can you discuss the interplay between contentment and the pursuit of growth, transformation, and purpose?
Michael: Yeah the ability to be satisfied where you are is really important, and underappreciated in this internalized-capitalism-hustle-culture world that we all live in, where we think everything has to move up and to the right to be deemed successful. If the fisherman is happy and content and complete being a fisherman there’s no need to change.
The problem is that a lot of folks have gotten stuck in a career path or a life that is not as fulfilling as that fisherman feels everyday, rowing out into the ocean to go catch a fish. And so that’s when all the anxiety and depression and restlessness emerges.
The only way out of that discomfort is through the willingness to be vulnerable. And to grow into a place where comfort can occur. There’s this great video from a rabbi called Rabbi Twerski that I saw years ago where he talks about how lobsters grow.
He talks about how the lobster is expanding up against its shell, and ultimately, it’s their discomfort that becomes the motivator for the lobster to wriggle out. But the lobster knows when it wriggles out it’s going to be vulnerable, because it won’t have the shell to protect it from predators. It will need time to grow a new one.
But if it doesn’t take a risk, it’s gonna die in that shell. And so that’s the dance we’ve gotta do when we’re not satisfied. We’ve got to embrace discomfort and be willing to be vulnerable. But it doesn’t mean that our satisfactions have got to be bigger and better than the next person’s.
Some satisfactions can be as simple as the fisherman’s and quite frankly it’s a beautiful thing when they are.
Geetika: You’re saying “discomfort” can be a good indicator for when to seek growth. Knowing that, what are the common obstacles that hold people back from creating change?
Michael: External validation is a killer for many people. The ‘what will people think of me if…’ holds a lot of people back from doing what feels right to them. I love the old expression, “if you’re worried about what people are thinking about you, they aren’t”.
Geetika: So true! Are there other reasons we resist change?
Michael: Change. Human’s don’t like change. And inherent in all of this is some kind of change. Maybe it’s where you live or how much money you make or how you spend your day or where your kids go to school. There’s a lot of change that comes with beginning to take deeper looks into our lives and the choices we’ve made. But desire for change is often the motivator and driver of moving towards something new. We won’t move toward anything if we stay right where we are.
Geetika: And it doesn’t have to be a big change right away. One can take the first step by exploring and finding inspiration.
Michael: I’m a huge proponent of walking the buffet line. You gotta try a lot of stuff and you gotta see what works and doesn’t work. In my book I have a theory that I call the “tuba savant theory”. Which is that all of us probably have at least one savant gift lying dormant in all of us, but have you ever tried to play the tuba? Probably not. You might be excellent at playing the tuba, you’ve just never tried. So if we don’t try we’ll never know.
I have tried so many visual forms of art, trying to find a medium that I like working in, not necessarily that I’m good at but that I feel connected to. And then one day I realized after like the seventeenth shot at it is “Oh! It’s writing!”. I've just never seen writing as a personal artform in part because it has felt very natural and in part because it wasn’t inherently visual. But then I was like “Yeah of course that’s it for me”. It just seemed so natural that that couldn’t have been it, there must have been some other thing. It was a good lesson in remembering that the best answers are often the easy ones.
Geetika: I agree and hence why it is really important to develop curiosity. At VAWAA, we believe curiosity and creativity go hand in hand. Do you feel art and creativity play a role in living your purpose?
Michael: Make your life your piece of art. For me, so much of what I’ve tried to do with the work that I do is look at it as a body of work. A portfolio of glorious failures and humble successes. That’s part of the fun. Making, in whatever way you define it, is innately human. We as humans have wanted to understand and be understood since the dawn of time. There’s nobody you’ll ever meet who wants to be understood less. And the way we communicate and get to understand each other is through whatever art form or practice we find that works through us.
Geetika: To summarize, what are five easy ways or steps to living your purpose?
1. Knowing what you’re called to.
2. Knowing what actions feel like the next right step. You don’t need to know 100% of the plan, just know the next right step.
3. Build comfort with discomfort.
4. Learn to say no.
5. And trust the intuitive self, not the intellectual self, to lead you there.
Geetika: Brilliant. Love it. Tell us about your 3 month program ‘Prioritizing Purpose’. What can people expect?
Michael: The way I think about it is, what do you do once you sort of know what it is you’re here to do. And so this programme is not a ‘find your purpose’ program. I think there are lots of books, lots of practices, lots of literature, lots of frameworks to start that process. What I’m interested in is helping people understand what the array of possibilities are that lie before them. How to evaluate those in a way that feels practical, so that next right actions become more self evident. A way of thinking that helps people understand what feels most aligned and clear so that they can move forward.
And so the cohort will go through a three month program designed to help prioritize purpose. There will be two monthly calls as a group, there will also be individual work, and there will be peer work that happens off those calls to help progress everyone through the three months and get them where they need to go.
Geetika: Who should participate?
Michael: Demographically, it’s pretty wide. I’d say if you’re eighteen years old it might be a little early? Make sure you’ve already walked the “buffet line” for a little while, but hey, there are probably some eighteen year olds out there who are very clear about what they want to do and so I wouldn't say no just based on age.
I tend to find that people who are in transition find it very helpful. People who have contemplated leaving their job, who have just left their job, who have just got out of a relationship, who have just moved into a new big chapter of their life… all of that stuff where there’s chop in the water, this is a practice to help smooth those seas a little bit. And help make some sense about what to do next.
Geetika: Is there anything else people should know?
Michael: Only that I don’t have any answers. I try my best to be clear in the language that I use, that this is not about being anyone’s guru or having any kind of implication that I’ve got it right. I’m just a person figuring it out also, and in order to help myself I made this process for me. And it was helpful and because of that, I would like to share it with other people who may also find it helpful.
A big thank you to Michael for joining us for this conversation. There are so many nuggets of wisdom here that we have found helpful. If you're interested in learning more or if you're ready to get started on prioritizing your purpose, apply to Prioritizing Purpose here.
For over two decades, Michael Ventura has worked as a leader, facilitator, and educator. Concepts and tools from his first book, Applied Empathy (Simon & Schuster, 2018) have been embraced by influential, respected organizations from the ACLU, LVMH, Google, Goldman Sachs, IBM, Microsoft, and Nike to The United Nations and the Obama Administration. His work is focused on helping leaders and their teams to incite growth and catalyze change.