Originally posted to Psychology Today.
The expression “low man on the totem pole”—a colloquial expression signifying someone of little importance—is actually irrelevant in First Nations culture. I argue it should become irrelevant to our thinking as well.
Figures on any totem are not arranged in a specific hierarchy and the most important figure can sometimes be the lowest one. One thing I have learned is that we ought to be unwilling to easily accept things for what they appear to be.
Let’s investigate another metaphor. One might hear the adage, “canary in a coal mine” to signify the unlucky plight of what is arguably one of nature’s most charming birds. Canaries are acutely sensitive to gases such as carbon monoxide and methane that harbor in coalmines. “Canary in a coal mine” is not simply a figure of speech. In days gone by, canaries were actually used to detect gas breeches in various coal mines. If the canary stopped singing—and thus died from toxic gas inhalation—the miners knew it was time to high tail it out of the mine to save their own lives.
I like to think of the canary as serving a wonderful purpose, gleefully singing to guard others. They were the miners’ protectors. They led a very meaningful life. Hence, when I hear the adage, “canary in a coal mine,” I think about it positively, not negatively. Canaries were indeed significant. In fact, they served an incredible, higher purpose.
The totem pole and coal mine canary stories provide us with a contemplative metaphor.
This is personal story. It is a tale where I forgot to listen to my own canary. I also overlooked the true meaning of a totem pole. Ultimately, it is a story where I lost my sense of self, my personal purpose.
It’s a long story, but it introduces the concept of personal purpose and how it is a never-ending journey for all of us, including yours truly.
The Greeks Meet Michelangelo
I have redefined my personal purpose several times. It continues to grow, twist, and morph as I age. In fact, I turn 45-years old in June so I reckon I have another 45 years of personal purpose growth to look forward to.
I may have previously developed, defined and decided who I ought to be in life, but I have also recognized I have to continue the journey each and every day. I live and work with a purpose mindset, but I choose to do so daily, too. It’s a conscious choice. I do not leave it to chance.
There have been times in my life when I was stuck in a job-mindset, simply working for a pay check. Other times I thought the career ladder and a quest for power was what I ought to be achieving. Once I recognized where I was heading—counter to my personal purpose—my life entered into a state of mindfulness. I consider myself lucky. I consider myself to have reached a state of eudemonia, the Greek term for “human flourishing.”
The willingness to build and the quest to learn is key. Purpose is an ongoing voyage, a perpetual exchange with one’s soul. On one of his last sketches, Michelangelo allegedly wrote the words Ancora Imparo (I Am Still Learning), beside an old bearded man who sat in a go-kart with an hourglass before him. Learning, like purpose, ought to be pervasive and continuous. This steadfast belief has helped me in my life, my career, my leadership development, my purpose and with my relationships … including my most important one, with Denise, my beloved better half of twenty years.
Is The Grass Greener?
Occasionally there comes a time in one’s life when the question surfaces, “Is the grass truly greener over there?” Should I deviate from a purpose mindset in favour of a new job or career?
For example, perhaps you are happily married and love the city you live in. A recruiter phones you one day out of the blue. “Dan,” the recruiter says, “we’d like you to become the Chief Operations Officer of Big Time Corporation.” You sit there stunned, wondering what it might be like if you moved your family of five to New York, 5000 kilometers away. “The job starts in a month,” she continues, “and we’ll triple your current salary.” You think to yourself what you could do with all that money. Indeed, it is the chance of a lifetime.
But is it?
Is it the chance of a lifetime?
“The job starts in a month.” A job, you ask yourself? But I have found my purpose, why would I want a job? These sorts of dilemmas and questions arise from time to time for many of us. We must adjudicate whether more money is the ultimate quest. We must decipher whether a new city is the answer. We must sort out if the new (fancier) title and massive operational budget is worth the hassle. We must ultimately decide what makes us tick, between personal, organizational and role purpose. We must ask how we might achieve the sweet spot between all three.
We must ask whether we believe there is such a concept as being top of the totem pole. Is that canary still singing?
Such a situation played out in my family of five. This is the story I’d like to share with you.
The Island Move
In 2010, Denise and I purchased our first four-walled, free standing home in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was as posh a residence as we could imagine in the über cute neighborhood known as Kitsilano.
Three kids under the age of seven—we call them goats—each finally had their own bedroom. There was an actual basement, something foreign to us at the time.
The parents were settled. The children were attending fabulous schools. We thought to ourselves, “We made it!” We owned two cars, a shiny remodeled house, and possessed two great roles in what was our true calling in our chosen professions. The goats were healthy, and all of this was happening in Vancouver, one of the world’s greatest cities. Life was fabulous.
One Saturday morning in February of 2011—a mere eight months after moving into the new house—I read an advertisement in one of Canada’s daily newspapers, The Globe and Mail:
Wanted: Director of Academics, Saint Michaels University School, Victoria, BC.
I thought to myself, “Denise would be perfect for this. Too bad it’s in Victoria, 100 kilometers from here and on an island.”
I stoked the fire, sipped my latté and re-read the posting.
“Oh oh,” I muttered. “She would be perfect for this.”
Over the next few days, many discussions took place between Denise and I about crossing the proverbial pond known as the Georgia Strait, the body of water separating Victoria and Vancouver. Eventually the application was submitted, interviews were conducted and wouldn’t you know it, Denise was offered the position.
Denise initially balked at the job offer. “We can’t move to Victoria,” she said. “We just moved to this beautiful home and I like where I work right now.”
Victoria is a city located approximately 100 kilometers southwest of Vancouver. The population is roughly 400,000. Victoria is the capital city of the province of British Columbia, itself with a total population of roughly 3.5 million. That might seem like an easy move, however, the 100 kilometers is separated by the aforementioned Georgia Strait; a body of water that surrounds the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, the 32,134 km² mass of land where Victoria sits at its southern-most tip. There is no bridge, so to get from Vancouver to Victoria there is the four-hour downtown-to-downtown car ferry commute or the 35-minute float plane or helicopter service.
You could swim across, but there are Orca whales every now and then. It’s not advised. Just ask the seals.
Our family lives by a few mottos. The first: “Everything always works out.” Call us the eternal optimists. Another motto: “Never run out of wine.” Denise gleefully accepted the role, bought more wine, and we embarked on a new set of memories in Victoria.
The move and her new position was not about more money nor was it about a fancier title. We wanted to create an experience where our children—the goats—could go to the same school as their working Mom. “Life is for living,” another of our mottos, was being put into effect so we might as well get out there and live some more.
Island Fever Sets In
The first 6 months were outstanding. Everything was new and exciting.
The goats were settling in as if they had been born in Victoria. Even the Mayor came to our new house to welcome us. The Mayor!
But in March of 2012, I began to feel uneasy. In hindsight, I entered into both a closed and fixed mindset about Victoria and our family situation. The unrelenting gale force winds slamming the Island that winter did not help. But that was merely an environmental factor; I had inflicted psychological damage on our family and myself simply because I was not being open, flexible or demonstrating a growth mindset.
I was becoming a curmudgeon, much like those old guys who occupied the upper balcony on The Muppets.
I had lost my personal purpose to the fault of no one other than myself. I had manufactured my own negativity. I had manufactured my own lack of meaning. I was not only acting sorrowfully, Denise and I were having a wretched time in our relationship.
As 2013 began, the conversations between us opened up to the point of contemplating a full-time move back to Vancouver in the summer of 2014. It was less a conversation as it was a desperate plea from me to Denise. “We must go back to Vancouver,” I appealed to Denise. “I can’t stand it anymore in Victoria.”
Did you notice the shift from “we” to “I” in that sentence?
The decision “we” finally made in the summer of 2013 was to move back to Vancouver in the summer of 2014. This decision set off a series of conversations, not the least of which was the one Denise had with her Head of School in the middle of December, 2013, informing him of her resignation, set for June, 2014. She described his face as ‘white’, body language as ‘forlorn’ and verbal response as ‘shocked’. I wasn’t surprised— Denise is the ultimate professional and consummate team player. Who would ever want her to leave?
But something did not feel right.
I could see in Denise’s eyes that she too was white, forlorn and shocked.
What was I doing? Questions began to circle in my mind.
The Head of School indicated he would inform the staff and faculty of our departure on January 6, 2014. The plan was set, and now clearly in motion.
But something still did not feel right. The questions began to dog me.
Denise took 10 year-old Claire out for some Mommy-Daughter time on December 23, 2013. Denise used this as the moment Claire would be told of the move back to Vancouver. Lead balloons have had more success flying than how that conversation went. Needless to say, Claire was extremely upset and confused about the ‘why’. The word ‘crushed’ comes to mind.
Next up were 8 year-old Cole and 6 year-old Cate. Claire stopped Denise and I in our tracks advising us to let them know on Boxing Day instead of the 23rd so that “their Christmas would not be ruined like mine.”
Over the holidays we began telling close friends and family of our decision. When the Head of School informed the staff and faculty on January 6 at an all-school meeting, I cannot imagine what Denise was feeling at that moment in time. What I pictured, however, was that her heart was being ripped from her chest, displayed for all to see.
The Defeat of Agony
The Vancouver-bound plan now needed a plan itself. We had informed everyone of the move, but the strategy to actually inhabit the city again had not even begun. We had a house to move into, but Denise needed a job and the goats needed a school. That’s when things became emotionally surreal.
Here we were, a lovely family of five with 80 percent of the family content and in an absolute perfect situation with Victoria. The other 20 percent (me) was being a selfish jerk (me), yet we plodded on. Denise began conversations with three schools in Vancouver for a new role and we began the process of submitting school applications for the goats.
To put it bluntly, our purpose had been purposefully extinguished.
There really was no need to move. The canary had been singing a beautiful tune, but for whatever reason, I was deaf to it.
In retrospect, I also forgot about the totem pole.
I was determined to be on the top of it. I was flexing my muscles in spite of the totem laughing at my naivety. At the same time, my dear canary was gasping for air.
For about six weeks, the ordeal became extremely nauseous. During this time period, I travelled to Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Paris for various work events. Throughout the timeframe and when we were face-to-face, Denise and I only ever had “what do we do now” conversations. Various combinations and permutations were discussed. Certain goats began to be admitted into certain schools, whilst certain other goats were coming up short. Denise was busily discussing cool job opportunities (and offers) with schools but nothing was coming close to what Victoria presented.
Four years to the day almost, I was reading the Careers section of The Globe and Mail when I saw a job posting:
Wanted: Director of Academics, Saint Michaels University School (SMUS), Victoria.
I thought to myself, “Denise would be perfect for this … and isn’t it cool the role is based in Victoria.”
On Thursday, February 13th I was returning to Victoria from Paris and on the morning of, I woke up early and called home to speak with Denise on her Wednesday night. The nine-hour time difference helps. “Denise,” I said. “I get in at 8:00pm … can you and the goats pick me up? I want to be one of those Dad’s that have their entire family at the airport to greet them when they arrive back from a long trip.”
Denise responded, “Of course … see you there.”
The long trip home aboard various flights had me thinking how I might finally enter into an open and growth mindset about Victoria. I knew Denise’s school was interviewing for the new Director of Academics, but if we could prevent a decision from being made somehow … could we right the wrong?
Could we repair the personal purpose that was being overlooked?
Would the canary ever sing again?
Personal Purpose Resurfaces
When I got off that final airplane and saw all four of them at the Victoria airport, I could not have been happier. Thankfully, I could not have more clearly rediscovered (and redefined) my personal purpose.
As I entered the arrivals doors I was sobbing. Like a newborn in need of a meal. The only thing running through my mind was how selfish and self-centered I was being, causing such egregious pain to the four most important people in my life.
Flowers were sent on February 14th to Denise’s office, but it was the next day on Saturday, February 15th when we had our most heartfelt conversations about our future. The entire day was one of … “what if we didn’t move, what if you got your role back (the one you love) … what if the goats remain at SMUS?”
In hindsight, it was easily the most cathartic day of my life.
By 7:00pm that Saturday night, Denise phoned her Head of School and asked if he wouldn’t mind rehiring her, and readmitting the children to SMUS.
In a true act of understanding, his answer was: “I didn’t want you leaving in the first place. Consider it done. I’m so thrilled.”
By the time a celebratory bottle of Prosecco was guzzled by Denise and I, we looked at each other with eyes of relief, love and above all, each of our personal declarations of purpose re-established.
In the end, the canary came back to sing a beautiful tune. I actually went to a First Nations art shop and bought a new totem as a reminder that leadership comes at any level, at any moment in time. Purpose is not to be forgotten. I almost did.
Gandhi once wrote:
I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.
In summary, personal purpose is a lifelong journey. All of us will go through moments where we might not be listening to the canary, or we might mistakenly think we should be climbing the totem.
If we are humble enough to recognize we might have to go backwards a few steps in order to move forward, personal purpose will always be within reach.
Originally posted to Psychology Today.
More to read in my latest book, The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization