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

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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?

5 Reasons Why We’re More Productive on Planes and How to Replicate it at Work

“Please place your seat back and tray table in their full upright and locked position and check to ensure your seat belt is securely fastened.”

Now, get to work!

Have you ever noticed you get more work done while flying? You’re not the only one. What if we could understand the reasons why we are so productive in the air and replicate those techniques at work? The good news is that Jon Acuff has shown us how to do that.

In his new book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Acuff tells us that, if we want to get things done, we need to learn when we are most productive and replicate these results at work. As it turns out, most people are exceptionally industrious at 35,000 feet and the reasons are simple.

You can only bring a limited amount of work. You are physically constrained on a plane. You have a limited workspace, so you typically focus on completing one task like finishing a presentation, writing a report, or analyzing an income statement. You actually do deep work while flying because you are focused and not distracted. This can be replicated at your job by taking a limited amount of work to a quiet place and focus on completing just that task.

White noise helps you focus. The constant drone of the jet engines actually helps contribute towards deep work. We are naturally wired to be easily distracted and the workplace is one of the worst places for interruptions. White noise in the background is filtered out by the brain and forgotten, like how you quickly forget an air conditioner is running until someone mentions it. This noise masks out other sounds which would otherwise distract you. This can be replicated at work by purchasing a white noise machine like the Big Red Rooster Sound Machine.

Limited Internet connectivity keeps you from unnecessary distractions. On a plane, there is little to no internet to distract you. This means, no text messages, no e-mails, and no urges to check social media status. This allows you to completely focus on the task at hand. At work, this can be replicated by scheduling time where you focus and completely turn off your Wi-Fi and phone. Others have experimented with the Pomodoro Technique which requires intense focus, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. You can use a Miracle Cube Timer to time your focus sessions.

Deadlines push us to get things done quickly. When traveling, there are well-defined deadlines for boarding, turning off cell phones, taking out and putting away laptops, etc. These force us to work quickly to beat the deadline. This is a reflection of Parkinson’s law, where work expands or contracts to fill the time available. This is why, if you wait until the last minute to do something, it only takes a minute to get it done. This can be replicated at work by creating and enforcing strict personal deadlines for tasks or activities.

Nobody knows you. Except for the occasional chatty seat-mate, people leave you alone when you travel because they don’t know you. Anonymity allows you to work without friends and colleagues interrupting you. To do this at work, try working from coffee shops, libraries, or co-working spaces where no one knows you. This will help you get away from colleagues who unwittingly cut into your deep work. The new surroundings will also provide additional inspiration.

If you want to be more productive, there’s no need to book a flight. Simply take the productivity lessons from flying and apply them to your work life. Learn to limit your work, surround yourself with white noise, turn off the Wi-Fi, set deadlines, and change your surroundings. These simple changes to your work life will help you focus, do deep work, and get things done.

What can a Christmas Movie about an Elf Teach us about Leadership?

Full confession. I once dressed up as Buddy the Elf and delivered candy canes to all my employees. That’s how much I love the movie Elf. I actually have a Buddy the Elf coffee mug that I use at work every year from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

I’m not the only one who loves this movie either. In the 14 years since its release, Elf has become a classic “must watch” holiday movie. Most people can quote at least one line from this hilarious Christmas comedy.

As I watched Elf again this year, I realize there were many powerful leadership messages in the story. Here’s some that I noticed:

Sometimes people just don’t fit in. Buddy the Elf was a human raised by elves. As such, he didn’t really fit into either world. As a leader, there are times when we have great employees who just don’t fit into an assignment or a department. We need to identify these people and put them in roles where they are a better fit.

Employees need to discover things on their own. Buddy the Elf learned his birth father, who he had never met, was on the “naughty list.” He went on a quest to find him to learn more about himself. Often times, employees need to do the same thing. They need to try new activities and be given stretch assignments to learn what they love. As leaders, we need to give people the freedom to discover what their true passions are.

“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” George S. Patton

People will always amaze you. When Buddy the Elf decides to decorate the toy department at Gimbels for Santa’s visit, everyone is shocked at his abilities. People will amaze you as well. Give them the chance to show you what they can do. As George Patton said, let them surprise you with their results.

“I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” Buddy the Elf

Just smile. An employee once told me, I was her favorite boss. When I asked why, she explained that I always said, “thank you” and I smiled a lot. As a leader, we set the tone. If we’re upbeat and happy, our employees will sense that. Even when you’re having a rough day, remember to smile.

Don’t pick a snowball fight with someone from the North Pole. Buddy the Elf befriends his half-brother when he shows off his unusual talents in a snowball fight. As a business leader, we need to recognize when to fight and when to back down. Not every fight needs to be won. Pick your battles, whether it’s with employees, co-workers, or even customers. Always remember that discretion is often the better part of valor.

“I’m sorry I ruined your lives and crammed 11 cookies into the VCR.” Buddy the Elf

Sometimes we need to apologize.  When things didn’t initially work out with Buddy’s new-found family, he leaves an apology letter. Apologizing is often the hardest but most important thing we do as leaders. If we make a mistake, admit it and apologize. People know it’s hard to admit when you are wrong or hurt someone which makes a sincere apology even more powerful.

“You stink. You smell like beef and cheese! You don’t smell like Santa.” Buddy the Elf

Employees can spot a fake. Buddy the Elf quickly spotted the fake Santa and our employees will spot fakes as well. If you are not being genuine, authentic, and truthful, your employees will know. They can tell when you are not being real with them. Don’t think you can fake it around your team.

You need people to believe in your vision to bring it to life. Buddy the Elf knew people had to believe in Santa to make the reindeer fly. It’s the same thing with our visions. To bring our plans to life, we need people to understand and believe in them. Do your employees understand your vision? Do they believe in it? If not, it’s never going to get off the ground.

Christmas season is a great time to gather and watch our favorite holiday movies. As you sit through Elf this year, think about the leadership messages. Look for those employees who are not fitting in, find ways to let employees discover things on their own, give your people room to amaze you, find time to smile, choose your battles carefully, apologize, be authentic, and give your people something to believe in. If we do these things, we will be more successful as leaders and, maybe, be as happy as Buddy the Elf himself.