On Having the Courage to Live Your Purpose

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Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive.  Because what the world needs most is more people who have come alive.  Howard Thurman (American civil rights activist 1899 – 1981)

Embracing one’s talents can be a difficult journey.  For women in particular, the effort of carving out a life for oneself and negotiating the off and on-ramps of a career path can contrast sharply with the fulfillment that can be found in nurturing a family and supporting a husband in his career. And, as a friend and I reflected recently, as we toasted her husband’s fabulous new job, (a fabulous promotion to Finance Director quickly followed for her) talented woman are also often good at so many things, they suffer from getting bogged down in things they are merely very good at. This prevents then from being able to truly step into their genius (as discussed in Gay Hendricks book about flow, The Big Leap).

In his book The Great Work of Your Life, Stephen Cope suggests that the only way to living a truly fulfilling life is to discover the deep purpose hidden in every human’s core.  Cope starts the book with the admission that his biggest fear in life was that he would die without having fully lived.  So, deep in middle-age he became a desperate truth-seeker, reading voraciously to find the answer to his fear.

Reading the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, he was struck hard by the lines: “if you bring forth what is within you, what you will bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth with destroy you“. Cope was shocked to consider the idea that not expressing his talents could actually destroy him.

Cope goes on to take the reader on a fascinating application of the allegorical story of The Baghavad Gita to the lives of Western luminaries, such as Beethoven and Keats (as well as ordinary people, friends of the author’s).  2000 years old, The Gita tells the story of how the warrior Arjuna, guided by his divine mentor Krishna, finds his path, his true calling or his dharma.

In exploring the journeys undertaken by Beethoven, Keats and others to realise their talents, Cope demonstrates that the path to discovering our reason for being is rarely straightforward or easy, and concludes that the only way to true fulfillment is through meeting the challenges of our dharma.

I’d just finished reading The Great Work of Your Life, when one of my heroes, Victoria Coren, won the 2014 European Poker Tournament, becoming the first ever person to win it twice. Coren’s book For Richer, For Poorer, A Love Affair with Poker is a very honest, funny and moving book charting her journey from playing poker as a teenager with her brother to making history by becoming the first woman to ever win an EPT main event in 2006.

However just a year earlier, she lay on the bed of her Vegas hotel for a long time musing that “the thought of waking up tomorrow, and the next, makes me feel tired and sad”. Having been diagnosed as clinically depressed she was heartbroken following the end of a love affair. To top it all she’d just gambled (and lost) all three of her emergency envelopes of cash and her increased overdraft. She was not feeling thoroughly alive at all, but was reflecting on Thomas Lynch’s words: “who among us in our right minds hasn’t several times in the course of a life yearned for the comforts of absence and non-being?”.

When I saw Victoria’s tweet “I WON! I bloody WON!!!!!” I recalled her story, and thought of Thomas’s gospel, and the concept of how not bringing one’s talents to the world can destroy us.  I wondered if part of why she was tired and sad back then was a feeling of incongruence with the life she was leading relative to the life that was expected of her.  Daughter of British satirist, writer and host of the classic BBC quiz show Call My Bluff, the late Alan Coren, and lawyer Anne, Victoria was drawn in by the “sordid romance” of poker, a world where she drank and gambled til 6am.  Not I am certain, the world that was imagined for the precociously bright girl (she was writing a column for the UK The Telegraph at the age of 15) who was educated at some of London’s top girls schools.

As is the case with many relationships, Coren’s relationship with her dharma, poker, is a complicated one, cruel at times (she was knocked out in the early rounds of a tournament the week after her big win last year), but poker experts talk of the way she makes the cards “come alive”.  You are an inspiration Victoria. You bloody won and you bloody stuck at it, no matter how many times it threatened to destroy you.
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