I have a personal mission but I didn’t fully understand what it was, what it meant, and where it came from until I got some advice from my dear friend, Jim Adcox. Over twenty years ago, Jim suggested that I do something he’d done with his own parents—ask my mom and dad to write about their lives when they were young.
I asked them, and to my surprise, both responded with enthusiasm.
My dad hand-wrote over fifty single-spaced pages of tightly cramped script. He began with a joke, “I was born at a very young age . . . ” but after that, it was difficult to read— not because of his handwriting, but because of the painful experiences he wrote about.
My dad grew up under challenging family circumstances, and he also contracted a disease as a child which caused him to temporarily stop growing while he was between six and eighteen months of age. This led to other health problems that would plague him his entire life.
For many reasons, while I was growing up, my father and I had a troubled relationship. But reading about his early years, I learned things about my father I never knew, and we were able to talk to each other with an openness we’d never experienced before.
My dad died suddenly from a massive heart attack less than a year after he wrote those pages. It gave us some precious time to connect that I didn’t realize would be so limited.
My mother, who turns eighty-one this year, also wrote expansively about her younger years, using an old, trusty typewriter. Her childhood was even harder than my dad’s. And though I was aware of many of the events she wrote about, I’d never seen them through the eyes of a scared little girl.
She was one of thirteen children of impoverished immigrant parents. When she was six years old, she fell down in the street and a utility company truck ran over her leg, cutting the length of the leg open and crushing her foot. An ambulance was called, but it didn’t come because of the “bad” neighborhood they lived in. A neighbor took her to a hospital, but they refused to admit her, and she almost died before he got her into a different hospital.
At that hospital, a thoughtful nurse gave my mom a Shirley Temple doll. It was the only toy anyone ever gave her as a little girl. She fell asleep holding the doll in her arms, but the next morning it was gone. Someone had stolen it.
When my mom was eight years old, her mother died, and my mom was placed in an orphanage. Children there shunned her because her foot was permanently discolored and disfigured, and they didn’t want to “catch” anything from her.
The pages my mom and dad wrote are filled with heartbreaking events, unfairness, and injustice, but they aren’t filled with self-pity, and my parents didn’t blame others. Their stories are jarringly straightforward. These things happened. This was their childhood.
As I reflected on what my parents endured in their younger years, I saw that these were two people who had paid their dues—much more than their share—early in life. They deserved a great marriage and great working lives, but they didn’t get either of those. Their marriage was troubled, and they both endured hard working-class jobs with a long line of bad bosses.
When I was young, observing the turmoil in our family, I used to tell myself, “I don’t want to live like this.” But later in life I finally asked, “Why are they living like this? Why all the strain, anger, and unhappiness?”
The answer would have been obvious to most people, but I’d been too self-focused to see it. Some of their struggles were rooted in their difficult early lives. But there was another reason they endured it all: So my sister and I could have better lives.
My sister and I are both adopted, and as I grew older I eventually appreciated the significance of their choice to raise us. (They had to work hard to get us—my father was so cantankerous that the first two adoption agencies rejected him, but my mother finally got him to behave well enough to get through the evaluation process. She and I laugh about that now.) Being adopted continues to grow in significance to me as I move through the stages of life and appreciate how lucky I was to have the opportunities I was given by two people who had to fight for all of theirs.
Reading their words, and then speaking to my parents in new ways with more heartfelt curiosity, openness, and empathy, I learned things about them that changed my relationship with them and changed my life. It helped me see significant flaws in my thinking and priorities. It also deepened my passion for the work I do, and my understanding about what’s at stake for people in having rich relationships and doing meaningful work. I came to see in ways I didn’t before how my mission really starts with them, and in a way, even began before I was born.
In its simplest form, my mission is to help good people win at work and life. By “win,” I mean that everyone deserves to do meaningful work, to be proud of what they do, to thrive, and to have satisfying relationships and experiences.
I saw firsthand the cost of trading work life for “real” life—of enduring work as a necessary evil—and the terrible toll it took on my parents’ lives. It’s my desire to pay forward a debt I can’t ever pay back by helping other people discover the opportunities in life that I was given, but my mother and father were denied.
Do you have a personal mission? Any other thoughts or insights? Add a comment below!