I was in the parking lot at my kids’ daycare when I got the notification. I looked down at my phone, and nausea returned.
The first word of the e-mail subject line read, “Canceled.” It was the latest in a string of messages that obliterated my false sense of stability, security, and purpose.
A big part of my work (and income) comes from sharing research through speaking to large groups. It’s not a very pandemic-resistant occupation. A few months of work was wiped out on a Friday afternoon.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck. I don’t face food insecurity. I don’t rely on a front-line service job for my family’s health benefits. (After you’re done reading this, do something to help those people).
Still, I felt empty. Why?
The true value of something in our lives is often revealed when we lose it.
Though I research purpose and meaning, the pandemic is revealing that I overvalue the things I do, my activity.
It’s always a risky bet to tie our identity to what we do. At some point – because of a pandemic or some other external inevitability – we won’t be able to do it.
Then what? When the “thing” disappears, our sense of self goes with it.
That’s why psychologists find people who set too many achievement-oriented goals are more likely to feel stressed, anxious, and depressed than those who set contribution-oriented goals.
For many of us over the next few weeks and months, the activities we thought gave our lives meaning will change or vanish.
Parents won’t have the bustle of bringing kids to and from school, rehearsals, and practices. We won’t be able to go to our regular church service, to our weekly happy hour with friends, or take our favorite workout class. Remote workers won’t get to see their co-workers or their customers every day, and many artists and athletes won’t get to practice craft they’ve spent their whole lives honing.
We’ve been forced to pause, quarantined to reflect.
In this newfound vacuum of activity, we have an opportunity to move on to better questions, ones that we know result in longer-term thriving: Apart from what I do, achieve, or produce, who am I?
Why am I?
What is my purpose in the absence of all the doing?
Here are ways to start answering that question.
1. Realize that your purpose isn’t what you do
It’s first essential to realize that your purpose isn’t what you do, it’s the contribution you make through what you do.
School, a job, or a volunteer position are ways through which you make an impact, not the impact itself.
Realizing this difference is powerful because as soon as you can separate what you do with the impact you want to make, new possibilities emerge that aren’t confined to a role or activity (that you may not be able to do anymore).
Purposeful people tend to focus more on the contribution they can make where they are, and not on the things they do.
Research finds the result is more energy, increased mood, better health, and ultimately more resilience.
2. Learn to see purpose in the mundane by crafting a purposeful mindset
A few years ago, my 97-year-old grandfather sent me a card for my birthday. In it, he asked one question: “How do you improve the moment?”
That is the question for this moment. The one constant on even our worst day is the opportunity to contribute.
Now, more than ever, our lives may be comprised of more ordinary moments.
In my research on how people come to experience meaningfulness in their work, I’ve come to one conclusion: The most extraordinary people do ordinary things with an extraordinary perspective.
Studies show that your approach and your mindset about what you do have more influence on a sense of meaningfulness than the task itself.
And, you can learn a purposeful mindset.
Before each day during these trying times, ask yourself: How is what I’m going to do today going to affect others? Who is relying on me today?
As you think about the tasks you need to do, ask: How does this impact another person? What will be possible because I am doing this? How will this help me make an impact in the future?
At the end of your day, ask: What mattered today? When did I feel a sense of purpose today?
What we pay attention to is what we think about. What we think about is who we are.
3. Redefine success
After reading that cancellation e-mail, I finally got out of my car and walked in to pick up my kids. My first stop was my two-year old’s classroom.
As soon as I got to the door and he saw my face, he dropped the toy he was playing with and toddler-sprinted to me. He latched on to me and gave me what I noticed or just hoped was an extra-long hug.
He wasn’t disappointed that my 2020 revenue was down. He was glad I was there so he could tell me about the mouse he finger-painted.
I then went to pick up my 5-year old. He, too, ran up to me and hugged me. He wasn’t frustrated that another keynote got canceled, he was glad I was there and took me by the hand and showed me a Lego tower he was “proud of.”
Then, he turned to me and said, “Daddy, I want to go home.”
“Me too,” I said.
Someone needs you right now, too. Being there is success. Being there is purpose.
Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., is a purposeful leadership and meaningful work researcher, adjunct professor, and the bestselling author of “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.”