A Drive Toward Purpose

Paulette’s Story

A wintery day in February, 2014, I stood looking out over my backyard, at the snow that had gathered and balanced in great silence on the tangled branches of trees, and farther into the distance, at Swan Creek. I had agreed to meet a friend that morning in D.C. for coffee, but gave it second thoughts as I stared into the bright snow, found myself struck by the stillness. I thought again of the striking line from Mary Oliver: “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

I was in the process of retiring from three decades of a corporate career. This hadn’t been the easiest decision, but I had the year before begun to feel a pull toward a different purpose, toward having a different kind of impact on others. I had invested the time and energy to earn an Executive Coaching certificate from Georgetown University and become increasingly focused on the complex emerging idea of compassionate leadership.

The drive was quiet in the way that snow makes things quiet. Even downtown, the streets were still in a way that made me wonder if my friend would even show. But she did. And, it turned out, she had something important she wanted to talk with me about.

Her enthusiasm animated her body and hands as she began to speak, but my heart sank a little when it became clear that she was inviting me to become a member of a business networking organization, one with two serious drawbacks. First, it was located in Atlanta, GA, a city I hadn’t been to since the Democratic Convention in 1988. I couldn’t fathom orienting so far from the strong D.C. networks I had worked so hard to create over the years. Second, joining was going to require a serious financial investment. I sipped my coffee to hide my discomfort, tried, out of courtesy, to smile and conjure the learner’s mind.

Then, an hour into our talk, her big smile firmly in place, she began describing the heart of the Society of International Business Fellows: domestic and international leadership programs. As she told me of her experience with the South East Asia Leadership Academy, about the planned programs to take place in the Middle East and Central Eurasia, then about the domestic programs likely to be initiated that year, I—how does one describe such a moment?—I felt something shift inside my chest. I felt my life beginning to change. I listened. I watched. It seemed the experiences she spoke of, the travel and people and cultures, had become an energy that moved through her, that brightened her.

An hour later, driving home again through the cold, white landscape, I simply didn’t feel like the same person that had driven the other direction that morning. I thought of James Baldwin’s idea that, “most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.” I was in a kind of shock. Of course, I had no way of knowing what profound experiences awaited me as a facilitator of the leadership programs, the cultures and countries, the young leaders who would participate, their fascinating lives and struggles, their courage. I had no way of knowing how powerfully I would be transformed as I tried to help transform others. But I was already beginning to trust my instincts. I began to imagine the active, open, challenging next stage of my life and felt myself, I was sure of it, driving fully toward my purpose.

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