Paddling Skill #4: Site Your Purpose

One rainy night long ago, I was fleeing a PTA meeting in my minivan when I drove into a puddle that turned out to be four feet deep. The motor went eerily silent just as the vehicle became waterborne and began floating sideways. In the quiet, I heard a still, small voice within me. It said, "I hate PTA meetings, and I hate this %@&ing minivan."

In that moment, I was steering my life. By articulating what I hated, I began articulating what I loved—not the train-station life of a PTA mom but a kayaking life where I kept my kids home from school to watch YouTube. A life where adults would pay me to say, "Your true purpose is whatever makes you feel most joyful. Try steering toward that."

It's advice I've taken myself: During the months I was obsessed with computers, I felt very much "in the flow." The obsession vanished as inexplicably as it arrived, but it left me tech savvy enough to do research that informs my work—and manage a team that trains life coaches all over the world. Who knew the current would carry me there? I didn't. But I must say: Mama like.

I'm certainly not the only middle-aged mom to use current innovations for career development. Paula, a teacher, thought she'd never get to travel—until she did a deep dive online and discovered something called "location independent lifestyle." She's found jobs all over the world doing teacher-training workshops.

I've just come across another interesting story: Gina is—I kid you not—a massage therapist for dogs. I know this because (a) it says so on her Web site and (b) she's currently in my living room with our golden retriever, Bjorn, who's recovering from knee surgery. I can hear the strains of Enya from Gina's portable CD player, smell the aromatic ointments that have put Bjorn into a bliss-coma. A ridiculous luxury? I thought so, too, until I learned that a massaged dog heals faster. Gina saves money I'd otherwise spend on more vet appointments. I'm thrilled she paddled her kayak toward what gives her joy (though not as thrilled as Bjorn).

Right now, as best you can, write a statement of purpose for your life. If this feels impossible, there are Web sites created specifically to guide you through the process. I'm sure your minister will be glad to help you find them. If you need an example, my purpose statement today (I revise it often) is "To remain in continuous conscious awareness of the one Life in which all singular lives exist." Yesterday it was "To survive until bedtime." Your purpose statement can be grand or silly, as long as it rings true. It is to your kayak life what tracks were to trains: It determines your direction.

This column can't begin to describe the infinite opportunities you'll find as you navigate today's vast seas of possibility. If you learn basic paddling skills and steer by your inner purpose instead of predetermined social tracks, you'll have a joyful voyage. Maybe you'll meet your soul mate online, earn a degree at a distance, start a virtual business, or do something no one's even named yet.

These days, I'm not trying to read the future. I'm just paddling along my own trajectory as a coach, so I can pay BFFs to run my Web site (I'm now the site's FOF). I'm paddling by downloading instructions to help me call my daughter in Japan, on a cell phone that can play a thousand songs and show me satellite photos of almost anyplace on Earth.

Where will this white-water change take us next? My imagination doesn't stretch that far. I'm content to ride the tide. My own little kayak of a life can take me anywhere I need to go.

Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).

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