I heard it long before I saw it. The blades of its propellers pounded the air as it moved slowly across the afternoon sky. Sitting atop Mount Fortuna at the north east edge of San Diego, I watched the V-22 Osprey come into view and fly directly overhead. This particular aircraft is a VTOL, meaning it has the capability to tilt its wing propellers to allow for vertical take off and landing. Like a little boy, I watched with awe and wonder.
We had the opportunity to spend the last week in San Diego, whose multiple naval bases and deep sea ports presented a beehive of U.S. military activity. Sailors, Airmen, and Marines were present all around the city, with groups of them even staying in our hotel. Watching these young men and women gathering every morning, I was struck by their youth, their unity, and the energy they had for their missions.
Seeing these soldiers move together with timing and a sense of urgency made it clear that they had a sense of purpose. They were all clear on their mission and they were all in it together. Regardless of the tediousness, the challenge, or the joy of the day’s tasks, they were moving forward.
We all struggle with purpose and direction at various points in our lives. Most of those soldiers gathering before me in that hotel lobby likely enlisted to find their own sense of purpose and direction. Many likely felt called to that life and savored the structure and clarity of it. The structure and hierarchy of the military make day-to-day purpose easy to see. Today, this is your mission, these are your tasks. The wide open plain of the civilian world frequently leaves gaps in our broader sense of mission.
For all of us, purpose needs to be discovered. Occasionally it is obvious. More frequently, it takes work. Sometimes our mission is hiding in plain sight and sometimes it has to be unearthed with intention and effort. Often, our mission, our purpose, shifts through the various phases of our life. As we evolve, as we grow and mature, our purpose also evolves. Change is truly the name of the game.
For those who follow my posts, you’ll know that I refer to the process of discerning purpose and direction as “Following the Signs.” But what does that really mean? First of all, discernment is only the beginning. There is a process and, though we must be somewhat reactionary to much of it, the good news is that many of the choices remain ours. The process involves four steps: 1) Hear the call, 2) Accept the mission, 3) Prepare for the journey, and 4) Walk the path.
Hear the Call
Something brought every one of those young soldiers to that hotel lobby in San Diego. in each case, they heard a call or felt something tugging them toward a life, or at least the start of a life, in the military. These calls come to all of us throughout our lives. They are the signs, the twitches upon the thread, that draw us toward a particular path. Many of them go unnoticed. Many of them are ignored. A few of them capture our attention or maybe even our heart.
In order to discern our call, we must be tuned-in to potential indicators. We’ve got to see or hear the signs. They are frequently subtle, just a whisper. They might appear on a billboard or pop-up in a conversation. The nudge could come from a family member, a friend, or a situation. They may appear as an opportunity but are just as likely to show up as a calamity. The signs will always involve a choice, rarely be clear on first inspection, and likely demand a sacrifice. This leads us to the second step in the process.
Accept the Mission
Not only are the indicators of purpose and mission often difficult to see, they almost always demand something that we may not be prepared to give. Have you ever come across an opportunity that scared the hell out of you? Yeah, there was a sign in there. No, fear is not a surefire indicator of the right path but it can be. The same is true of the “non-opportunities,” situations that look like dead-ends, disasters, or points of desperation. Sometimes it is that feeling of not having a choice that is the sign.
But we always have a choice. If we’ve seen a glimpse or felt a tug, we might be on the path to discerning a proper course of action or choice. However, purpose rarely forces itself upon you. The mission must be accepted. Our consent is necessary in any calling. The call can’t be ours until we accept it and choose to own it. Oddly, consent applies equally to the opportunity as well as the tragedy. Our acceptance can take us to the heights of purpose or the depths of despair. Our mission may be hidden within either. It is our choice that determines our direction. It is our consent that allows us to move forward.
Prepare for the Journey
Before any of those soldiers showed up in San Diego, they had to prepare for the journey. Though they didn’t know it, each of them had been preparing for it for their entire life. Before we can undertake a mission, we must be prepared for it. Before we can even see a potential path or purpose, we must have the right kind of preparation. Our entire life is a training ground to see the next mission. Every stage along the way prepares us for the next. In this sense, we limit our potential mission and our purpose by how we prepare.
Our approach to our education. The chances we take. The failures and the successes. The tasks, roles, projects, and responsibilities all add up to our preparation. They also add up as mission-enabling or purpose-restraining elements. Then, after we’ve discerned a direction, we must prepare with even more intention for that specialized calling.
Every one of those Sailors, Airmen, or Marines had a certain level of preparation walking onto that base but that was only the beginning. Once the mission was accepted, they needed to equip themselves for the days ahead. We work the same way. We are always preparing for the next mission. We cannot fulfill our purpose without proper preparation.
Walk the Path
You’ve seen it. You’ve accepted it. You’ve prepared for it. Now, you must act. Oddly, our greatest point of failure normally lies in our failure to act. We see it all the time. The challenge, opportunity, project, or pathway drops in our lap. The choice falls to us. We run. We refuse. We hide. We say “not now.” We don’t accept. We don’t prepare. We don’t walk forward. We don’t show up.
Why? Fear. Sloth. Confusion. Delusion. The list is endless. We procrastinate. We get distracted. We change our mind. We hesitate. Sometimes, we get lazy. One of the dangers of the bureaucracies in which many of us work is that they allow us to hide. We can bury the signs. We can distract ourselves in meetings. We can take the easier, less demanding path.
For every one of those solders I saw in that lobby, there were another 10 or 100 or 1000 who might have had similar callings. For every entrepreneur, doctor, teacher, parent, or priest, the same ratio holds true. Why do some see it and some do not? Why do some accept and some do not? Why do some prepare and some do not? Why do we fail to act when our time has come?
Not choosing is a choice. Choosing to avoid is picking a path. Choosing inaction is to deny its opposing action. There are a million reasons we do or don’t do. Of course, that is the trick. However, once we’ve walked to the edge by seeing, accepting, and preparing, failing to act is a travesty. And still, we do it. I mean, we don’t do it.
Failure to execute is the biggest barrier to our mission. Failure to act is what ultimately keeps us from fulfilling our purpose.
Purpose built aircraft. Purpose built ships. Purpose built Airmen, Sailors, and Marines. We have the same opportunity for a purpose built life. Every day, we are presented with indicators of a possible path ahead. Every day we are given signs for the right way for us. Every day, we are given the opportunity to accept our mission and walk toward our purpose. It will rarely be obvious. It will rarely be easy. There will rarely be any kind of guarantee. However, it will always be yours, if you choose it.