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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Purpose Path

A Guide to Pursuing Your Authentic Life's Work

Nicholas Pearce with a Foreword by Parker J. Palmer

St. Martin's Essentials



“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

So wrote Henry David Thoreau in his classic book Walden. Many millions of people anxiously look forward to the day when they can stop worrying about paying their mortgages, whittling down their credit card debt, and working in jobs they can’t stand. They long to align their life’s purpose with what they do every single day. After all, isn’t that what every one of us wants—a life filled with purpose and meaning?

As we look to the future, we trust and hope and pray that one day we’ll be able to live the kind of life that we dream of. But for most of us, the clock keeps ticking away the hours, days, and years, and we find ourselves no closer to the dream that, like a mirage, recedes from our grasp the closer we get to it. The reality is that fewer than 20 percent of Americans are working in their dream jobs. This suggests that for a significant part of most people’s lives, their purpose and work are out of alignment. For a significant part of those people’s lives, their life’s work never gets accomplished in the course of their daily work. They ceaselessly strive down a path that, for them, seems to diverge from their true purpose.

In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek explains the critical importance for organizations to identify and live their why—the purpose, cause, or belief that motivates and animates what they do and how they do it. According to Sinek, companies that know their why and live it—such as Southwest Airlines, Disney, and Apple—are the most successful, and they think, act, and communicate in accordance with their unique reason for being.

I am convinced that it is just as important for us as human beings to find our why—our purpose—and to create a life of significance deeply rooted in it. And we can’t afford to wait another minute. As robots and artificial intelligence increasingly are deployed in businesses around the world, and as the global population continues to rise, there will quite possibly be more people chasing fewer jobs.

The time to act is not next week or next year. It is now.

The practice of vocational courage—boldly building a life of significance and not just importance—has been a key aim of my own life and has provided many an honest gut check for me along the winding path I have personally walked—and continue to walk—in an effort to live and lead with purpose. Vocational courage is not merely about job or career, fame or fortune, or even passion—it’s about finding and pursuing your true purpose in life and about making sure your life’s work is reflected through your daily work. In a world that’s increasingly consumed with what people have, vocational courage is about connecting deeply with who you are and why you’re here so that you can thrive in a society that constantly challenges the dignity and worth of our humanness.

As I explored the idea of vocational courage, I reflected on my own life and how I got to where I am today. As an undergraduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I majored in chemical engineering, and that’s the career path I initially expected to follow. However, for reasons that I will detail later in this book, I made a dramatic shift from that path to a new one that led me to discover a unique, multifaceted vocation for myself. In time, I built a career portfolio that was uniquely mine—serving as a professor, pastor, and executive consultant. While my work may appear to be comprised of three separate vocations that have little to do with one another, I always tell my students, clients, congregants, and colleagues that I do not have multiple vocations—I have a single vocation that motivates and encapsulates the work I am called to do on this earth. It is one vocation that plays out in a variety of ways on a variety of platforms—each supporting and intertwining with the others in interesting and powerful ways.

This book contains true stories about real people at different stages in their lives—some whose lives have been enhanced by their vocational courage, and others who have come to regret their lack of it. These stories will help readers gain the self-awareness, clarity, and confidence to better understand their own life’s purpose, commit to following a vocationally courageous path, and navigate the twists and turns of life with strength, wisdom, and courage.

Vocational courage is the boldness to faithfully pursue the fulfillment of one’s distinctive purpose or life’s work. It is about developing both the clarity and the commitment to make the difficult decisions necessary to align one’s daily work with one’s life’s work. It is the fuel for living and leading on your own Purpose Path.

I have organized the content of this book into two parts.

In part 1—“The Five Questions”—I reveal the five questions that we must ask ourselves to explore our own purpose paths and create lives of significance. These questions derive from a distillation of my years of work in vocational courage and talks and conversations I’ve had with leaders, organizations, and everyday people all around the world. These key checkpoints for charting life’s journey can help anyone assess their progress in pursuit of a more meaningful, vocationally courageous life.

These five questions are the heart and soul of this book:

• What is success?

• Who am I?

• Why am I here?

• Am I running the right race?

• Am I running the race well?

While exploring these questions, I take a deep dive into exactly what vocational courage is—and what it isn’t. In addition, I explore the urgency for all of us to exhibit vocational courage in our lives. The hands on the clock move ever forward, and simply wishing, hoping, and thinking about how great it’d be if we dared to pursue the fulfillment of our life’s work doesn’t get us any closer to that elusive goal. Living a life of significance and purpose requires vocational courage, not just smart career planning. “Vocation” isn’t just another word for “career”—it’s about a calling, your life’s work, and not just your job or work activities. Each of us is more than our job or chosen profession, and we don’t have to wait until we reach a certain age to wrestle with the pursuit of our respective vocations. Exploring and living “into” your vocation is not to be deferred. Your vocation is not to be ignored. Your vocation is to be received and stewarded. It is a responsibility. It is both your joy and at the same time an ever-present burden you have been intentionally assigned. It is what gets you out of the bed in the morning. It is your reason for doing what you do—it is your raison d’être. This is not a book about how to pick a profession or choose a career. This is a book about how to pursue a path of purpose for your life and tapping into the strength you need to stay the course.

In part 2 of this book—“Putting Vocational Courage to Work”—I show how you can apply the principles of vocational courage in your own life and in the lives of others. While a vocation is a gift to be received, it is also a journey to be walked. And any vocation worth living for comes with inconvenience. In order to do this well, we have to have the courage to make difficult decisions about our future. We can be clear on what our life’s work is, but not have the commitment to faithfully fulfill it. That’s why I call true success “faithfulness.” Success cannot be defined by the extent to which you achieve someone else’s measurement of impact. Instead, success must be defined by the extent to which you have been consistently faithful and focused on courageously walking your own purpose path.

Ultimately, living on the purpose path is accepting the invitation to a life of vocational courage. It involves gaining clarity about who you are and who you have been created to be—an understanding of why you are on the planet. It also involves relentlessly committing yourself to courageously living out your unique why every single day. It is more than understanding what you love to do, what you are good at doing, or even what you wish you could do—it is refusing to settle for doing anything less than what you must do because you were specifically created to do it. It is saying yes to completing your life’s assignment no matter the cost, complexity, or inconvenience.

This is a book for …

… teens and twentysomethings who are trying to figure out how to purposefully and intentionally orient themselves as they make the transition from high school or college to life as a working adult.

… thirtysomethings who didn’t have this courageous conversation in their twenties and are now beginning to feel a sense of restlessness, frustration, and being stuck in their chosen careers while knowing deep within that they were truly made for more. It’s even for those who had the conversation in their twenties but need to revisit it as life has changed.

… forty- and fiftysomethings who are beginning to look in the rearview mirror and evaluate the net impact of their lives and longing to live lives of purpose and significance while they can still pivot at their professional prime.

… sixty- and seventysomethings who are mentoring and coaching the next generation, while grappling with the same kinds of issues as the forty- and fiftysomethings. They are even more anxious to experience meaning and purpose in their lives as they begin to consider cementing their own legacy.

… parents who want to give their children a gift that has the power to change their lives for the better.

… leaders who want to connect with their people and teams by investing in their personal and professional well-being.

… churches and other communities of faith that want to spark a spiritual conversation with their people about the purpose and meaning of their lives.

We owe it to ourselves to find meaning and take deep pride in what we do in the service of others. We owe it to ourselves to build lives of meaning and significance that inspire us to wake up every morning and make a difference.

That’s real courage.

My sincere hope is that this book will change your life—and the lives of the other people with whom you share it and its ideas—dramatically and for the better. I look forward to meeting you and celebrating your own stories of vocational courage. I look forward to hearing about how you discovered the gift of vocation and then summoned the courage to stay the course on your own purpose path when you needed it most.

Copyright © 2019 by Nicholas Pearce