“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”
John F. Kennedy
Imagine being nineteen years old, in college, making good progress studying the administration of justice and having a very realistic goal of continuing on to law school for an eventual career as a lawyer. Then imagine the shock you would experience when just a couple of weeks before going home for Christmas, the Selective Service System of the United States conducted a draft lottery to determine the order of call to military service for the Vietnam War—and learning that you ‘won’ the draft lottery. In fact, the Viet Nam war’s draft lottery was the only lottery I have ever won and like many lotteries, it changed my life.
At nineteen, major events like this can cause repeated cycling through the various steps of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When officials announced my ‘winning’ lottery number on national television, I could not believe the reality of the situation and felt numb and cold all over. I became angry at why this great injustice had happened to me. After all, I had other plans that were important, at least to me! I researched alternatives to military service and sometimes deluded myself by irrationally hoping it would all go away before I needed to report for induction. After a period of depression, I would cycle back through denial, anger and depression again. I never really accepted the imposition of this huge interruption in my life until much later.
Clearly, I did not want to serve in the military. After all, I had other plans for my life and I was on track to achieve them. Mandatory service in the military for two years was not only a shock; it was a huge, unwelcome interruption. Would it surprise you then to learn that I would go on to serve almost 28 years and raise a family while serving in the military? What force in the universe could be powerful enough to cause a person give up his goal of becoming a lawyer to serve in the military for the majority of his working life? The answer is I discovered a higher and better purpose for my labor than I had originally planned.
“Having a purpose is the difference between making a living and making a life.”
For most of us, the first tangible and transformative event in our lives that wakes us up to a higher purpose for our labor is the birth of our first child. When we become a parent of a little person who is completely dependent on us for their very life, we begin to understand and appreciate the joyful satisfaction of working for a higher purpose—working for the good of our child and our family instead of just money.
Sometimes however, we do not immediately understand the higher purpose for our lives. Sometimes it takes years of different experiences to create a gradual understanding that most of the things we think will provide happiness – money, social status, new cars and big houses—do not create lasting satisfaction. We always end up looking for something more.
In my case, I found the higher purpose for my work in both ways – working to earn a paycheck that allowed me to support my children and spouse, as well as working as an Air Force rescue helicopter pilot and easing other people’s pain and suffering and saving lives. My helicopter crew and I cared for and carried premature infants, automobile accident victims, burn victims, traumatic amputation victims, heart attack victims, as well as transplant patients and organs on ice, to places where they could receive appropriate medical treatment. We found lost hikers, lost berry pickers, lost skiers, and a weekend sailor who had fallen out of his boat miles from shore. Each life we saved and each lost person we reunited with grateful family members provided a deep satisfaction – a kind of satisfaction that not obtainable from any amount of money, social status, new cars, or big houses.
Caring for and supporting my family as well as each of the lives my crew and I were credited with saving taught me a few important lessons. First, I learned to appreciate, at a deeply personal level, how precious life is and how astonishingly easy it is to lose. Most importantly, I learned to be grateful for ‘winning’ the draft lottery and the opportunity it gave me to serve a higher purpose – helping others. This included raising my own children to become good and productive citizens as well as relieving suffering and saving lives for total strangers.
Working to save lives is truly working for a higher purpose but it is not the only higher purpose that can make us happy. Depending on the person and situation, a higher purpose can be some combination of intellectual, social and spiritual activity. Improving other people’s lives and circumstances is a higher purpose. Each of us, however, and wherever we are situated, can do something, often several times a day to make other people’s lives better. A simple smile at the office, remembering the birthday of a co-worker or friend, visiting an acquaintance in the hospital, all are small actions that can make the world a better place and serve a higher purpose. When we do careful work and complete projects with as much perfection as possible, we achieve happiness and a deep satisfaction from the higher purpose of a job well done. If we teach or coach so that others become better and more capable, that too, is working for a higher purpose. Ask any volunteer, coach or teacher if they received satisfaction from helping other people. I predict they will tell you many stories of how serving that higher purpose that made them deeply happy.
My service in the Air Force lasted more than the minimum—indeed almost 28 years. The reason? Serving with other men and women who shared the same appreciation for the opportunity to work for a higher purpose. Raising my young family with other young families in an environment characterized by shared values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, citizenship and service before self, inspired my devotion and loyalty – not necessarily to the Air Force, but to the higher purpose that came with serving in the Air Force.
What can you do to find your higher purpose? The simple answer is open yourself to new possibilities of service to others. Try the following activities and see if they lead you to a higher purpose that will give you lasting happiness and satisfaction:
- Teach a skill you have to others. Volunteer as a mentor or coach.
- Do work to the best of your ability and enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done.
- Take time after work or on a weekend to visit or call a sick friend or co-worker.
- Accept new challenges to serve when asked.
- Give the gift of your time to your family.
Many books and blogs offer to tell us the benefits of working for a higher purpose. They often use different words to say the same thing – the key to happiness and satisfaction in life is not found in serving our own agenda. It is found in serving a higher purpose and that purpose is most often found by serving others. Start serving others today in whatever way you feel comfortable and let your higher purpose give you true happiness and satisfaction.