When Will You Die?

Thoughts on Meaning, Mid-life and Money

By Brian Gast

I turn fifty this week. The abstract concepts of time and age combined with the increasingly unavoidable reality of my mortality, have disoriented me these last few months. This being fifty years old is surreal. To ground myself, two weeks ago, I drew a horizontal line on a page of my journal. On the left end, I wrote “birth.” On the right, I wrote “death.” As I looked at the line I wondered, “How far along this line am I?” Thinking optimistically, I marked the line with an “X” at just about the center point of the line. Indeed, time is not standing still. Where would you mark your “X”? What emotions arise as you do this?

How Old Would You Say You Were if You Didn’t Know Your Age?

I haven’t felt the aging process. But I sure am starting to think more about it. Perhaps I don’t feel it because I’ve been blessed with good health. I’m active and can still do all the things I enjoy. Maybe I don’t feel the aging process because I believe that who I am is not physical but spiritual—intangible and timeless. Regardless of my physical state, the prospect of turning fifty has me stirred up.

It All Comes Down to One Thing

I think the unrest has to do with meaning. What’s the meaning of my life? Is my work meaningful? Am I deeply engaged with the people and activities in which I find the most meaning?

Not so coincidently, meaning has been the theme of a lot of my recent client work. It used to be these existential questions were on the minds of my mid-life individual coaching clients. Now I find it in my work with corporate teams. Leaders are coming to the unavoidable conclusion that too many employees are tired of doing work that is not meaningful to them.

Leaders keep throwing money, clever messages, and subtle threats at employees with the hope they’ll become more motivated or responsible. Of course they’re frustrated. People are inspired only when they find meaning in what they do—not when they get more of what they don’t really need.

A lot of the work I am doing these days is helping teams engage with their shared core values and clearly articulate their purpose. This work is the foundation of a broader visioning process I facilitate and it aligns a team around something more meaningful and interesting than making money, increasing shareholder value, and winning. The farther you move down the organizational ladder, the more irrelevant are things like money, stock price, and winning.

When leaders discover the values (the how) and purpose (the why) of their work and embody the discipline required to stay true to these principles, they are inspired. Inspired enough to excite employees instead of scare or curse them.

Answering Some of Life’s Big Questions

If you seek to be an inspirational leader, know why you do what you do. Align what you do and how you do it you with what matters most to you. Take two minutes and write down your three to five core values (a phrase or sentence for each value); then do this for your team, organization, or family. Values are non-negotiable qualities, attitudes, experiences, or behaviors. They are what bring you to life and sustain you.

Take another two minutes and write down your purpose in one or two sentences. Why do you think you were given another day on this earth? Don’t mistake this as a goal-setting exercise. Your purpose is never completed. Your purpose reflects your reason for being. When you look at the way we live, you’d think our purpose was to make money, retire early, or have more nice stuff. Yet when you read your purpose statement, none of that matters.

Living and Leading on Purpose

I wrote my purpose down and the stirring stopped. I have greater clarity of the fleeting nature of time these days. I’m less anxious and ready to celebrate and feel grateful for what I have.

Live with meaning and you will lead with meaning. Leaders who know their purpose and align their actions with their values give the gift of meaning to those for whom they are a steward.

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Please join the conversation. I’d love to hear your reflections on the topics of meaning, mid-life, and leadership.