Alignment with Aspiration

Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.
— Dolly Parton

In my ongoing series on alignment, I’ve described how I think alignment can be more powerful than hierarchical power, and why it can be challenging to find alignment within oneself. In this post, I want to expand on finding a purpose for oneself.

My first title for this post was “Alignment to the Future”, as the alignment model was originally intended to cleanly map to the GROW model of coaching, which starts by identifying a specific goal. Part of coaching is helping the client discover what they want to work towards, so they can focus their time and attention to that end. But as I reflected on the conversations I’ve had with clients who are looking for clarity, it’s rarely about goals, at least in the sense of specific measurable goals that can be achieved.

The conversations become more powerful when we talk about the impact they want to have on the world, or the legacy they want to leave behind. This can include causes that are important enough to the person that they do not care if they achieve a specific result, because working towards the cause is intrinsically meaningful for them. As Viktor Frankl puts it, “what man actually needs is the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

I’ve started calling these aspirations, rather than goals, using a distinction I learned from Norman Fischer in his book Training in Compassion. He describes aspirations as “very impractical commitments” and goes on to say:

But why not have aspirations so lofty they are impossible to fulfill? To have aspirations any less lofty would be to sell ourselves short. The trick is to keep on making effort in the direction of fulfillment of the aspiration but not to think that you will actually complete the job – and not to be dismayed or discouraged by this but instead to be encouraged by it. This is a good approach because you will always have more to do and always be spurred on by the strength of your commitment. To commit to something you could actually accomplish is such small potatoes for a lofty, sacred human being like yourself.

A similar distinction comes from James Carse, in his book Finite and Infinite Games, where he describes finite games as those that have endings and are played within a set of defined rules, as opposed to infinite games, which are designed for us to play for a lifetime, as we change the rules to keep playing. I see goals that are specific and measurable as a finite game, where I see aspirations as described by Fischer as an infinite game to which we can devote our whole life.

When a client comes to me with goals like “I want to get a promotion” or “I want to get hired as a C-level executive”, I want to go deeper. What’s the aspiration behind the goal? What’s the true yearning of their soul? That’s the good stuff.

I have a few ways to help discover or uncover such aspirations.

  • One is to pay attention to your energy as a guide. What are the activities that make your eyes light up, or that you would do in your free time because they bring you intrinsic fulfillment? This can help to point the way to aspirations where you take meaning from the work itself, rather than from the results. This is part of Alignment to Self.
  • What are the qualities that others see in you that you don’t necessarily see in yourself? We are often blind to our true gifts, because we assume that if it’s easy for us, it’s easy for everyone. And one form of aspiration is living into those gifts to contribute them back to the world and help others who can benefit from our gifts. This is part of what I will describe in a future post as Alignment to Reality.
  • Who do you choose to serve? As Jacqueline Novogratz writes in her book Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, “In times of both success and failure, we can choose with whom we stand. Going beyond yourself to enable others not just to persevere but to thrive…” Aspirations live beyond success and failure, so choosing who we stand with is a choice of aspiration. This is part of what I will describe in a future post as Alignment with Others.

When I first read Fischer’s description of aspiration above, I was inspired to set my own aspiration to be a beacon of light in the world, living into a coaching way of being where I serve others by helping them find themselves and live into their unleashed aspirations. And while I don’t expect to reach such a lofty, impractical commitment, I celebrate the moments each week when I feel that way of being flow through me, and those moments of vocation inspire me to keep learning and growing and practicing.

In other words, aspiration as I describe it in this post is not about selecting a future to aspire to (e.g. a specific result or goal), but about finding a way of being that you aspire to in your actions each day, since your next action is all that you control. That aspiration may also inspire you to commit to more specific future goals, but I feel those come after identifying the aspiration.

Alignment to one’s aspiration identifies a purpose or direction, a point towards which we can navigate. Without a consciously chosen direction, then we are likely to bounce around ineffectively as we react to other people. I like how Marcus Aurelius Anderson described it in his book The Gift of Adversity:

“Without purpose we lack direction. Without direction, our lives simply meander down the path of least resistance. We become controlled by purely reactionary or strictly pleasure seeking existence. We’re constantly putting out fires, in some ways, waiting to be victimized by things we are unable to control.”

Defining our own direction creates clarity on where we want to focus, and with that, we can start consciously choosing the next steps on our path, rather than being completely at the mercy of the world around us. Such an aspiration creates alignment for us in our daily lives, as we use that intentional purpose as a guide to become more effective and powerful. We become being more willing to say no to actions or commitments that do not move us towards our aspiration, as they are distracting us from our true calling, and we notice the higher opportunity cost when we know what we want to say yes to.

The last thing I’ll note here is that this sort of aspiration or commitment does not appear overnight. It can take years or decades of experimentation and exploration to get clearer on one’s aspiration. In my story of how I transitioned into coaching, I share that my journey started when a friend asked me how I wanted to measure my life, and it took three years of experiments after that for me to make the commitment to coaching and quit Google. People ask me if I plan to coach for the rest of my life, and I don’t know the answer, because I don’t have a crystal ball. But this is what I am committed to doing now, and I will live into this way of being as much as I can each day.

If this post resonates with you, and you are searching for your own meaning or purpose, feel free to reach out by email or find time for us to chat – I love helping people with this work.

P.S. Another way of describing the difference between aspiration and goals is what Parker Palmer calls the Tragic Gap:

By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible. … I call it “tragic” because it’s a gap that will never close, an inevitable flaw in the human condition. No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.

That means we need to change our calculus about what makes an action worth taking and get past our obsession with results. Being effective is important, of course. I write books because I want to have an impact. But if the only way we judge an action is by its effectiveness, we will take on smaller and smaller tasks, because they’re the only kind with which we are sure we can get results. I’m not giving up on effectiveness, but it has to be secondary.

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