If you’re unclear on how to find inspiration and meaning turn to service. In my experience, you can find purpose, meaning, and fulfillment by serving something greater than yourself.
I recently gave a TEDx talk where I spoke about a time that my father unwittingly gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received at one of the lowest points of my life. He said, “Son, I can’t understand everything you’ve been through and I know you’re hurting, but if you could find a way to make your new mission about helping someone else, to attempt to put value in someone else, then I think you’ll find that will help you.”
I’ve found that the reason for living is giving. It’s really that simple. If you’re hurting and not sure what to do or where to turn, start thinking about what you can do for somebody else. From there a life filled with purpose and fulfillment is yours for the making.
It starts by deciding to pursue a life worth living and then figuring out the why behind it. Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” In short when you have something to live for it gives your life meaning, and that makes the sacrifices and vulnerabilities of being human worth it. I’ve found in my life that the how can always be determined if you have a big enough why.
Challenging the status quo can be a daunting task, even more so when you’re navigating through uncharted territory. My why revolved around returning to the man of my pre-injury status. To come off the dozen plus medications I was on to be the husband and father my family needed me to be. After that it was to help others receive the same healing I received through Dr. Mark L Gordon. In Tales From the Blast Factory, we identify the steps to plan, prepare, and perform in the face of a desired outcome and then show how to measure the effectiveness of that plan against a desired outcome.
My suffering as it turns out was in large part self-chosen. When confronted with life altering information and circumstances it’s easy to get wrapped up in yourself. For me it was, “I’ve lost my purpose in life and I’ll never be a Special Forces Operator again, my health is failing, I’m being mistreated, and no-one understands me.” If you don’t know what a victim sounds like the previous sentence provides a good example.
I finally realized it was nobody’s job to take responsibility for my life, that was on me and me alone. I decided to take ownership of my life again. It occurred to me that absolutely everything that had ever occurred in my life was a result of my own doing, and if there was something going on in my life that I didn’t like it would be up to me to fix it.
If you want it you have to earn it, plain and simple. That realization is the birthplace of our personal responsibility and there is real liberation to be found in that. The freedom found in taking full ownership of your life is a decision. Life is really about decisions, every decision we make is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to serve, and to love or to do the opposite. If our decisions are not producing the outcomes we desire then it’s time to analyze what we’re doing and why. My transformation and healing sprung out of the decision to commit to live a life worth living again.
In 2014 I successfully gave up tobacco, alcohol, and the 13 different medications I was on, FOR GOOD. I was at a functional neurology brain treatment center in Dallas, TX where I was being treated for traumatic brain injuries incurred in combat. I was called out by their medical director at the time and my life has been forever positively altered. The following excerpt is taken from our upcoming book Tales From the Blast Factory.
“The doctor said, “You’re still on the battlefield and there are forces attempting to kill you. The next time you feel like you need a drink, ask yourself, Is this more important than my wife and children? Make up your mind right now. What’s more important: your family or having another drink? If it’s your family, then put the drinking behind you. At your current rate of consumption, it will kill you sooner than anything else. Choose to win the fight today and everyday hereafter.” Right then and there, I made the decision I would not consume another drink. That was in October 2014, and I’ve honored it. I was, and continue to be, grateful for the reckoning.”
I came to realize that the reasons that I had experienced any success in my life came from ability to create goals that were in alignment with my highest ideals. In my experience, a goal became real after a mental price tag was put on it. For me, the price tag always came down to a situation of life or death. Fulfill said task and live or come up short and die.
My job entailed one life or death decision after another. That’s how I handled everything as a Special Forces Operator. We can choose to pay the price and live or accept the fact that we’ve chosen the alternative. I’ve found when it’s life or death there is no alternative. Identify what’s important and then execute.
These types of decisions usually need to be made only once. So, when 5:30 am rolled around I didn’t allow any negative inner dialogue, I got up and went to work. That decision was made way before 5:30 am rolled around. When it came time to train it didn’t matter if I didn’t feel like it, that decision was made long before any feelings of procrastination got in the way. I made the immutable decision to win and to live for something, to contribute and perform to the best of my abilities in the service of others.
That was one of my epiphany moments. Find your why, and then make the pursuit of fulfilling it a life or death scenario. I could continue with tobacco, alcohol, and the meds and leave a legacy of failure and suffering to my children. Instead, I decided to make the changes that I deemed necessary in my life. The flip side of that decision would leave me facing certain death and the destruction of everything I love.
I gave them all up, and as of today I have not allowed those substances any power over me nor will I. It starts with why. You must find and pursue your why as if your life and everything you love depends on it, because it does.
As a Special Forces operator, the duty to my team led to the contemplation of my roles as a husband, father, and leader. I understood there would be times I’d be faced with challenging situations in difficult circumstances. I wrote my Standard of Performance (SOP) to serve as a guide about how to live, love, contribute, and perform to the very best of my abilities—to make and be the difference. My combat experiences mandated that I’d default to my most basic level of training when confronted with issues of life and death. My SOP would serve as a blueprint for the difficult questions.
Below is my Standard of Performance. When I wrote it, I had no idea it would save my life. Do you have a Standard of Performance for your life? Are you living your legacy? If not, take the time to sit down and write out the things that are most important to you. This will give you a blueprint for living your best life. When the difficult questions of life are suddenly thrust upon you simply return to your ready-made answers and execute.
My Standard of Performance
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same . . .”
—Rudyard Kipling, “If”
The real measure of life is how the race is run. Triumph and disaster are only by- products. To run the best race, one must cultivate a process in which a laser-sharp focus results in the capacity to plan, prepare, and perform to the best of one’s abilities.
British philosopher and author James Allen wrote, “A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.” Whether you believe that you can or that you can’t, you’re right. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can control what you will feel and do about what happens, and so, in one way or another, you can shape your circumstances.
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl said that our primary motivation in this life is our personal search for meaning. His experience as an inmate of a concentration camp was the catalyst for his discovery of meaning in all forms of existence— even the most horrific. History reveals the presence of a relentless search for meaning amidst great tragedy, suffering, genocide, and more. A conscious effort to perform at one’s best in all things at all times in the pursuit of meaning yields unlimited opportunity and fulfillment.
Furthermore, I believe purpose and fulfillment are ultimately realized through love and how we give to others. In this way, placing others’ needs ahead of our own in consistent acts of selflessness provides for the kind of meaning and success we can only begin to imagine. When things become hopeless, and even when they are not, find a way to make what you do about somebody else.
My wife, Becky, was six months pregnant with our first son (fourth child) when I left my last combat deployment. The plan was to come home for the birth and then go back to work, but sometimes plans change. Days before I was to return home for the birth of my son, my Special Forces (SF) team faced a major setback when one of our vehicles hit an improvised explosive device (IED) returning to our base after an intense mission and fire fight. Everyone in the vehicle survived, but the injuries sustained by our men would not allow them to operate for the remainder of that deployment. The team went from 11 SF Operators down to 8 in the blink of an eye.
After seeing our vehicle blown up and assessing the damage to my teammates at the blast site, I made an instant decision to forgo returning home for the birth of my son who was due in a few weeks, the lives of my teammates depended on it. Becky and my children were safe. They were cared and provided for. They had shelter. They had running water. Air-conditioning. Indoor plumbing. Refrigeration. Hospitals nearby. No threat of imminent danger. In our position, we had none of the above. I knew my soon-to-be-born son would appreciate that decision once he was old enough to comprehend it.
Life constantly presents us with choices. It’s the space between circumstance and response where our battles are won and lost. Understanding the things in our lives that are worth sacrificing for provides a sense of purpose, meaning, and responsibility. Discovering our purpose allows us to better measure our focus and actions in pursuit of our goals.
The question we must ask ourselves is, “are the things we’re placing our focus on getting us closer to fulfilling our purpose or taking us further away?” If our thoughts, feelings, actions, and relationships are not in alignment with our purpose it’s time to pause and reflect. Defining the principles, ideals, and values that are most important to us gives us ready-made answers to the many question’s life presents us with. We’re either getting closer or further away from fulfilling our purpose, there is no middle ground. The choice is ours and ours alone, it is the birthplace of personal responsibility.
The things in life that are worth sacrificing for are never easy, if they were everybody would do it. The right sacrifices can provide us a meaning that allows us to become greater than our individual circumstance. What in your life is worth sacrificing for? If you can’t answer that question, I challenge you to use the principles presented and commit to discovering the answer. A life of purpose and meaning is yours for the making.