July 6, 2011

Let It Be

Isn’t it amazing when it feels like a song or a book was written just for you? Lyrics that cut straight to your heart, a poem whose every line uplifts your spirit, or a book that speaks exactly to your current circumstances. These particulars in the universal remind us just how connected we all are. 

For me, Pete Wilson’s Plan B is one of those books. From the moment I started the first chapter, I was immediately drawn in and I knew I would find just the encouragement I needed in my life right now. In this post, I’ll share some of my favourite insights from the book.

The basic theme of the book is that, in each person’s life, we all encounter times when things are not going according to plan. Moments of struggle, perhaps where nothing seems to be going right and we may feel that God has abandoned us. But as Wilson argues, it is precisely these times that we should trust in God the most. God works these situations for the good, to grow our faith and draw us closer to him and away from the things that distract us from being as close to God as we should.  

As Wilson notes, “Your dreams may not be happening, and things aren’t turning out the way you expected, but that doesn’t mean your life is spinning out of control. It just means you’re not in control. It’s in those moments you can learn to trust the only one who has ever had control in the first place.”

It’s all about surrendering our lives to God and realizing that, even if things don’t turn out the way we expect them to, our lives are still working for God’s glory. Giving up control gives God room to work in our lives. And if we want to see God work in our lives, we have to first take that risk of trusting him. This involves stepping out in faith, before we’re sure of where we’re going. 

These Plan B experiences can make us fearful and paralyzed with indecision, afraid of making any move. Yet, we are “fashioned for faith, not fear and worry.” The answer to this fear is to replace worry with a respect for God and his ways. To illustrate this point, Wilson includes this quote from Oswald Chambers: “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else.”

The key, then, is putting all fears in God’s hands and then moving forward in trust. “When you respond in your current circumstances as if you were confident that God is there, you will see God in your circumstances.” It might not happen right away, but eventually it will.

On the question of knowing God’s will for our lives, Wilson is refreshingly frank: it’s a matter of trial and error. “Sometimes we get it all wrong. And sometimes we have no clue whether we’re getting it right until much later.”

Part of the problem is that we’re asking the wrong questions:

Often in life, the what, when, and where are not going to turn out the way you want them to turn out. You don’t always get to choose those things, but you get to choose the why. [...] If you can focus on the why, the what, the when, and the where will come. Hang on to your central purpose, and one way or another, the other details will work themselves out.

Another key point is that it’s as much about the person we’re becoming as where we’re going. God may call you to something that doesn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean you missed his will for your life. These situations can teach us crucial lessons on our journey.

Remember that God knows what you are going through and he is with you every step of the way. “He knows what he’s doing with your life, even if you don’t.”

Some other salient quotes from the book:

“While life is uncertain, God is not. While our power is limited, God’s is limitless. While our hope may be fragile, God is hope himself.”

“God has a perspective on life we don’t have—and God is working in your situation right now, even if you can’t see it.”

Trusting in God, having confidence in him even when times are trying, will give you the hope you need to keep soldiering on. And hope makes all the difference.

May 18, 2011

Fun with a Purpose

I was lucky enough to have a subscription to Highlights when I was a kid. That magazine had it all: stories, hidden pictures, crafts. And who could forget the Goofus and Gallant cartoon, where that zany band of brothers showed us how to navigate family life and the social world at large with their contrasting good and bad behaviour? Those were the days, my friends.

I loved that magazine so much, that I kept most of the issues. I came across my collection recently and as I was scaling it down, took the chance to have a trip down memory lane, combing through the well-read pages.

The letters to the editor were always a favourite of mine and looking back now, I can see that it was like a child’s version of Ann Landers. A random sampling of back issues from the early 90s provides advice on such pressing issues as family feuds, moving away from friends, and how to deal with being too popular.

But I digress. You’re probably wondering what this all has to do with the focus of my blog here, which is all about life purpose. Well, as I was reading through the letters, I came across a couple that offered some advice that seems just as relevant now as it likely was to Danny T. and Marc B. all those years ago.

So here they are. Some illuminating thoughts, straight from the pages of Highlights magazine:

Career Choices

When I grow up, I want to be a writer, basketball player, and an environmentalist. My parents say I should be a lawyer or a doctor. I've tried to convince them I don't want to. What should I do?
- Danny T., Massachusetts

You still have a lot of time before you must choose a career. And you can always change careers if you get tired of one field.

When you enter high school [college/university/post-grad/life*] guidance counsellors will help you look at your interests and skills and explore career options.

Your parents may change their minds about wanting you to be a doctor or lawyer, or you may change your mind about your goals. Until then, read about many different careers. This will prepare you for whatever you do.

Making Decisions

Sometimes I have to make decisions. Why is it so hard?
-Marc B., Michigan

In making decisions, we have to sort out what we really want and imagine the possible results of our choices, both now and in the future. You may be unsure about what you really want, worry you'll regret your choice, or think you can't change your mind later.

It may help to list all the pros and cons for each possible decision. Include how you feel about each choice. Give yourself time to think things through. And talk about options with people you trust and respect.

Surprisingly insightful advice from a kid’s magazine. But Highlights wasn’t just any magazine. It was carefully crafted to be equally fun and educational, and that’s why it's beloved by parents and children alike.

I’m definitely glad I kept my favourite issues. And I can't help but wonder what Danny T. decided to be, after all.

*Aside added by me.

April 8, 2011

The Three A's of Awesome

I've been a fan of the 1000 Awesome Things blog since at least #805 The Smell of Crayons, but probably even before that. This counted down list of the everyday awesome things really makes me appreciate the little things around me and reminds me what a gift life is. Many posts are insightful, most are funny, and some are down right icky (like #989 Blowing Your Nose in the Shower). But they never fail to make me smile.

When I heard that the blog's author, Neil Pasricha, had given a talk at TED (a conference bringing together people from Technology, Education, and Design), I knew I had to see it. The talk was posted in January, but for whatever reason I just got around to watching it today. Maybe it took that long to prepare myself for the awesomeness of it all.

In his talk, Neil outlines the keys to a satisfying life, the "Three A's of Awesome": Attitude, Awareness, and Authenticity. So I just thought I'd share the points he made about these here, though I definitely suggest checking out the talk for yourself.

When bad news hits, you always have two choices: "You can swirl and twirl in gloom and doom forever or you can grieve and then face the future with newly sober eyes." You can choose to move forward and move on, taking baby steps into the future.

Appreciate the small wonders around you, as if you're seeing the world for the first time. Embrace your inner three-year-old, remembering that you saw everything you've seen for the first time too.

Be true to yourself. It's about "being you and being cool with that." When you're authentic, you put yourself in places, situations, and conversations that you love and that you enjoy. You meet people that you like talking to, you go places that you've dreamt about, and you end up following your heart and feeling very fulfilled.

While these points aren't revolutionary, they're important reminders of something we often forget. And they get to the heart of what living is all about.

April 7, 2011

Just Dance: What Makes Meaningful Work

As a follow up to my post yesterday, there's a lot more I could've written about Outliers. But I just want to highlight the discussion in the book about what makes work meaningful, because this is a large part of success: if you love the work you do, you'll be motivated to put the effort in that's needed to be really great at it.

According to Gladwell, satisfying work has three key qualities:
  • Autonomy;
  • Complexity; and
  • A clear connection between effort and reward
Autonomy is about having a certain level of independence in your work; it's the ability to make choices about your work and have a level of creative control. No one wants to feel like a cog in a wheel.

Complexity is feeling engaged with your work and having the chance to use your imagination. I've often heard that one of the best ways to find the work you love is to pay attention to those times when you were so involved with something, you lost all track of time. Meaningful work will really draw you in.

Seeing the connection between how much time and effort you put into something and how successful you are at it is also important. If you keep slaving away at something and it's getting you nowhere, chances are pretty good you're not loving your job. But if it's clear what the result is of your hard work isif there's a direct result that's important to youthen your work will be satisfying.

In combination, these three aspects are what makes work meaningful. Ultimately, it's not how much money you earn that's going to make you happy, but whether or not your work is fulfilling to you. This quote from Outliers sums it up perfectly:
"Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it become the kind of thing that makes you ... dance a jig."

So let's get out there and dance, shall we?

April 6, 2011

Success: When Preparation Meets Opportunity Meets the Family

I was first introduced to Malcolm Gladwell’s writing when I picked up a copy of Blink a couple years ago. I was hoping for a lesson in how to make quick decisions. But what I got was even better: a deeper appreciation for the intricacies of the human mind and its natural processes. With each new chapter, each new tidbit discussed, I was hooked, and I made a mental note to check out Gladwell’s other books in the future. That’s what brought me to Outliers: The Story of Success.

In Outliers, Gladwell challenges our taken for granted ideas about what success is. In a nutshell, the pervading message of the book is that success is not an accident, a lucky break, or merely someone overcoming the odds. Instead, success is the result of several predictable factors and circumstances and includes both extraordinary talent and extraordinary opportunities.

From the Beatles to Bill Gates, Gladwell shows us that those who are successful have several things in common. First, their stories reveal that excellence at a particular task requires a minimum level of practice: 10,000 hours, or about ten years.

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good,” Gladwell writes. “It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Practice really does make perfect.

These successful people were given an opportunity to work hard and they took it. But they also happened to be born at the right time, when “their extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society.” They won the demographic lottery. So success was not just of their own making, but a product of the world in which they grew up.

Another common belief is that the higher your IQ, the smarter you are, the more successful you will be. But Outliers suggests that IQ is not the whole story and really, after a certain range (about 120, while the average is 100), additional IQ points don’t offer any real advantage. Practical intelligence—knowing how to ask for and get what you want—is just as important, if not more so. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and work them to your advantage.

Gladwell notes that, while IQ is basically a measure of an innate ability, social savvy is something that's learned. For example, the attitude of “entitlement”—of not being afraid to question authority and ask for what you want—is a common middle to upper-class attitude. This attitude is also what it takes to succeed in the modern world. Success, then, not only depends on hard work and opportunity, but also relies on lessons learned from our families:

“Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.”

These cultural legacies are powerful, remaining throughout the generations. Gladwell’s discussion of the garment industry of the 1900s in New York city and rice farmers in Asia really brings this point home, illustrating how the ethic of hard work is passed on to future generations, and this attitude contributes to successful professionals.

“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard.”

Often when we hear stories of success, they typically include the theme of triumph over adversity. Gladwell addresses this belief head on, noting that time and again, “what started out as adversity ended up being an opportunity.” The key is to seize the opportunities that come your way.

Simply put, the Coles Notes version of all this is basically:

Success = a large dose of hard work and persistence + a generous amount of social intelligence and know-how (thanks to cultural legacy) + a dash of the right opportunities + a dollop of pluck to seize those opportunities

While challenging the common beliefs about what contributes to an individual’s success, then, Outliers demonstrates how several forces are at play—both within an individual and without. In the process, Gladwell argues that society needs to provide opportunities for all to be successful, not just those with the right upbringing or advantages.

In knowing what it takes to be successful, I think we can all incorporate these lessons into our own lives. For me, Outliers is a strong reminder that diligence does pay off. The key is to remain persistent and be bold enough to take the chances that come your way.

[Image from here.]

March 8, 2011

Purpose Driven Living

You'd think that a book with the name The Purpose Driven Life: What Am I Here For? would deliver. This book, by Rick Warren, has sold millions of copies and is number one on Amazon's list of Religion & Spirituality books. After reading some reviews, and taking a look at an excerpt of the first few chapters from the author's website, I decided to give the book a whirl. And boy, am I glad I did.

From a young age, I've always had the sense that life is about more than what we can see right in front of us, more than this material world. I've also strongly felt that God has created each of us for a purpose, and that we are to love God by loving and serving those around us. I've recently come to realize that this conviction, this knowledge or wisdom, is a real gift. And while I may be struggling with the particulars of this purpose, I am not lost; I have a firm foundation to build from.

The Purpose Driven Life
put to paper many of these feelings I've had about life's meaning, and as I read each chapter (one a day for 40 days, as the author recommends), I felt my spirit lifting. In this culture of ours, discussion of the true meaning of life is rare. We're constantly inundated with messages that tell us that material things are the key to happiness, that we should live it up, that we should do what we want, do what feels good. Finally, here's a book that reminds us what life is really about. (Though, of course, the Bible did it first.)

The book's organized by five general purposes of life, which Warren discusses in detail and relates to key Biblical passages:

Purpose #1: You were made for God's pleasure
Purpose #2: You were formed for God's family
Purpose #3: You were created to become like Christ
Purpose #4: You were shaped for serving God
Purpose #5: You were made for a mission

Each chapter has a point to ponder, a key Biblical verse to remember, and a question to consider. While answering the questions at times felt tedious, I'm glad I took the time to do it, because this is where I felt I got the most out of the book. Significant insights came to me through considering my own life and experiences in light of scripture and the purpose discussed in each chapter.

Some ideas that stood out to me:
  • Prayer lets you speak to God. Meditation lets God speak to you. 
  • "The essence of love is not what we think or do or provide for others, but how much we give of ourselves.... Love means giving up—yielding my preferences, comfort, goals, security, money, energy, or time for the benefit of someone else."
  • "You discover your role in life through your relationships with others."
  • Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less. 
  • Our time on earth is about building and strengthening our character for heaven. 
  • Believe God is working in your life even when you don't feel it. 
  • God never wastes anything; He matches our calling and our capabilities. God wants to say something to the world through each of us.
These are just some of the many insights this book offers. Overall, it's a great guide to having a closer relationship with God, both in prayer and reflection, and throughout our daily lives. Purpose driven living is not only about being aware of what we're here for, but also letting this knowledge inform how we live our lives—and this is the great challenge of the Christian life.

[Image from here.]

February 6, 2011

Youth as a Time of Searching

Pope John Paul II wrote, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, that youth is a time of searching for answers to basic questions. He notes that we’re not only looking for meaning in life, but also “a concrete way to go about living” that life.

As a youth struggling with how to fulfill my mission on earth, how best to use the gifts I’ve been given, I can definitely relate to this observation. I am full of questions, from “Where to begin?” to “How?” to “Then what?” and I’m overwhelmed with advice, from family and friends, to career counsellors, to self-help books, to the saints and the Gospel itself.

It’s a very humbling experience, because when you’re in school, all you have to do is what’s expected of you. You know the drill and the rewards are clear: study, work hard, get good grades. But as soon as you leave that comfortable bubble, things are no longer so clear cut.

In everything that I’ve been learning from this experience, the strongest lesson is this: that I am not alone. I am not the only one who is uncertain. And I am certainly not the only one who cares about making a difference in this world, who wants work that is meaningful and truly engages my spirit.

The prevailing message in this world is that, when you get to a certain age, you’re supposed to have it all figured out—or at least pretend you do. But the reality is that, with ever-increasing options for work and the ever-changing nature of the job market, it becomes even harder to choose.

But choose we must. And what we decide to do with our lives is our responsibility and gift to God.

[Photo from here.]