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The Search for Significance
Part Three of Three
by Rebecca Barnett


As we get older, we face our own mortality. When Dr. Steven Reiss faced death while awaiting a liver transplant, he began to question the Pleasure Principle, which says that we are motivated to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

He asked over 6,000 people which values are most significant in motivating their behavior and contributing to their happiness. Reiss found that values, not pleasure, are what bring true happiness and that everybody has the potential to live in accordance with their values.

Reiss argues that "Values-based happiness is a sense that our lives have meaning and fulfill some larger purpose. It represents a spiritual source of satisfaction, stemming from our deeper purpose and values."

There are many good books on clarifying your values and purpose. Juanelle Teague, of People Plus, a consultant and career coach, has a system I consider one of the most effective. She begins by asking the following questions about your personal relationships and important mentors. These relationships could be with a parent, grandparent, a teacher or coach, sibling or friend.

Think about your key relationships and ask these questions:

  • What relationship has made the most positive impact on your life? Why?

  • What relationship has made the most negative impact on your life? Why?

  • Who has been your most important role model? Why?

  • How have these relationships affected your belief system?

  • Who have been your master mentors?

  • How have they affected your life?

  • How have they affected your belief system? How are you different from them?

Teague believes we experience multiple turning points in our lives that shape our values and beliefs. These turning points, negative or positive, are a learning process, resulting in greater strength of character and wisdom. Teague's research has found that most people experience six turning points: as a young child (often this will be our earliest memory) as a pre-teen, during the turbulent teenage years, and as a young professional, intent on achieving and acquiring. However, the most critical turning point occurs between 35 and 45 years of age and centers around failure in career, marriage or health. This is when we begin to question.

Your six turning points

The year of each turning point:

  • Your age?
  • Describe the event.
  • Who was involved?
  • What was the high point of this event?
  • What was the low point of this event?
  • What was the message you received about yourself or others?
  • What was the impact on your personal growth?
  • What life skills and knowledge did you gain?
  • What character strength did you develop?
  • What wisdom did you acquire?
  • How was your response different from that of an average person?
  • What innate ability helped you through this event?
  • What did you enjoy from the experience?
  • What gift have you gained from the experience?

When you summarize the life skills and the character strength and wisdom you developed at each of the turning points, you will have clarity on your call. You will be able to determine where you are needed most and what you must do to find significance.

Tom Koentop has worked in outplacement for many years. "A woman I worked with wanted to do something important with her life, but she would not lower her lifestyle to $50k from $100k. The call was not strong enough. She struggled between having an impact on people's lives and having dollars. Making a change doesn't happen often or easily. People have house and car payments. They have debt. They don't take the time to re-examine life and discover the mission of their life beyond dollars," he says.

Sometimes we fear that answering the call will make us a different person. Bob Buford writes, "I used to think that if I ever said a complete yes to Christ, I would become a completely different person - that I would wear polyester and drive used cars, or ride a donkey in an AIDS-infested third world country doing things I had never enjoyed doing. I was relieved to discover that God does not waste what he has built."

Others are simply unwilling to make the sacrifices. They allow their desire to make a good living to override their need for fulfillment.

Most of us are not Olympians or CEOs. We are ordinary businessmen and women. But we each have a platform, which is both a privilege and responsibility.

As a professional speaker, I have a platform. About a year ago I was speaking to a business group when the room became very, very quiet. They were really with me, taking the message and applying it to their lives. It scared me. Because, in that moment, I realized there was an opportunity for great good or great harm.

You have a platform - in your leadership role at work, in your activity in the community. You have a platform in your role as a parent and spouse. You have a privilege and responsibility to lead with honor and use your platform for great good.

The search for significance will always continue ...


The Author


Rebecca Barnett is an author and motivational speaker on character-centered leadership. Rebecca has a dozen years of executive experience with American’s most admired and aggressive retailers, including The Home Depot and The Limited. Drawing on her research and corporate experience, Rebecca offers practical, pragmatic, experienced solutions. Beyond her corporate, academic and research credentials, Rebecca is a success story on a personal level. Far from a privileged upbringing, Rebecca spent seven years working her way through college and raising her daughter. Her drive, determination and potential were recognized as she earned scholarships and benefited from mentoring by those who believed in her. She continued the fast track of success in her professional life, reaping professional and financial rewards. It took a dramatic wake-up call in the form of a health and family crisis to make her realize she had paid too high a price. Rebecca holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from The Ohio State University, and a Master of Arts in Organizational Communication from Western Kentucky University where she is an adjunct professor. Rebecca is a national referee and black belt in the Olympic sport of Judo. She is a Silver medallist in the 2001 World Masters Championships.

Many more articles in Ethics in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2003 by Rebecca Barnett. All rights reserved.

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