How a Crappy Cup of Coffee Helped Me Find My Purpose in Life and How to Find Yours

Winter in Northern Ohio is tough and the people who live through these winters are even tougher.  It was then and there where I realized my calling, when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain.

As general manager of an industrial business, I was responsible for the manufacturing plant I was visiting in Ohio that winter. I was 35 years old and only 8 years out of the Navy. I was young and aggressive but still trying to figure out what I was going to do in my civilian life.

I had fulfilled my dream to serve as a submarine Naval Officer and now I was a civilian, working for a large multi-national company. I never really thought of life after the military. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next in my career.

In my first general manager role, three years earlier, I implemented monthly “all employee” meetings. I thought it was important to communicate how the business was doing and what the priorities were each month. I also loved interacting with the manufacturing plant personnel.

In my current role, I had responsibility for two manufacturing plants. I had come to the Ohio plant, in the middle of winter, to meet with employees.  It was 2AM and I was scheduled to talk to the 3rd shift team.

We had a room reserved right outside the production line on the second floor. The building was old, dark and drafty. It was cold and I was tired. I found a greasy old coffee pot with hot coffee right outside our meeting room. I poured myself a hot, black coffee into a small Styrofoam cup and went into the meeting.

Our QA manager was presenting the quality numbers first and I sat in the back of the room and listened. I was thinking about what I was going to say. This business was losing money. We had to turn it around. I wasn’t sure how I was going to create a sense of urgency without inciting panic.

As I sat, thought and listened, I looked down at my coffee. It was the worst cup of coffee I had ever seen in my life (worse than anything I had seen in the Navy). There were unknown things floating in it. There was a sheen of oil on the surface. I could see coffee grounds on the bottom of the cup. It was dreadful. But I drank it anyway.

It was then when I realized my purpose in life.

With an engineering degree, two master’s degrees, military service and years of leadership experience, I could be anywhere doing anything. I imagined I could be working at amazing companies doing incredible things anywhere in the world. I didn’t have to be in Ohio, in the winter, in an old drafty manufacturing plant, in the middle of the night, drinking the worst cup of coffee I had ever seen. I didn’t have to be in charge of a business losing money that needed a turnaround.

But I realized at that moment, there was nowhere else I would rather be.

Despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), I wanted to be with these employees. I wanted to share what I knew about the state of the business. I wanted to work with them to craft a plan to turn the business around and make a profit. I wanted to lead these people and this business. I wanted to be here and nowhere else in the world. I wanted to make a difference.

“The grand invitation is to embrace the reality of your life and to figure out what to do with it.” Chip Edens

That crappy cup of coffee told me that I had found my life’s purpose. I knew that, despite the tough circumstances, I was built for this. I wanted to be here.

Have you found your life’s purpose? Most people haven’t. If you have, fantastic! If not, here are some signs to look for.

You love it. When you’re doing what you were born to do, time goes by fast. You look up and hours have passed because you are so focused on your work. You are “in the zone” when you are doing purposeful work. You look forward to it. These are the activities you “can’t wait” to get started. It’s your passion.

 You are great at it. You are doing your life’s work when you discover you are really good at something. You are recognized, promoted or even awarded for your work. You are identified as an expert or an opinion leader in your field. You are great at something when people seek you out to understand how you are doing it.

You are paid for it. One of the greatest compliments you can receive is when people pay you to do something. If your skills are adding so much value to someone that they are willing to compensate you for it, you are doing something important. Passion without a paycheck is simply a hobby. Your life’s purpose should also pay the bills.

The world needs it. In some way, your work is making a difference. You are doing something that has meaning. It has impact. You are changing the world in some specific way that has meaning to you and others.

Find Your Purpose

15 years later, I’m still leading manufacturing businesses. I’m still working in manufacturing plants and drinking suspect coffee. And I couldn’t be happier. I found my calling. I found my life’s purpose. I love what I do.

How about you? Have you discovered what you were designed to do? Have you found your life’s purpose?

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