By John Wood

Dr. John Eliot, in his audio program The Maverick Mindset, tells a story that happened early in the career of a heart surgeon by the name of Scott Buchannan.

Before a scheduled heart transplant, it was suggested to Dr. Buchannan by some other doctors that he ask his patient, a 65-year-old woman, why she needs her surgery.

It seemed a little crazy to Dr. Buchannan as the answer to his question appeared to be pretty obvious, but he decided to ask her anyway.

It was suggested that he not stop at the first answer – that he keep digging until he got to something that contained real meaning.

So he went to his patient’s bedside and asked her why she wanted the operation.

Not surprisingly, she said to him …

“Son, I’m about to die here and you’re going to be my surgeon? You’re asking me why I need this procedure? Maybe I’d better get somebody else to perform it.”

Dr. Buchanan calmed her down by saying that he knew she’d had a successful life up to that point and he just wanted to know why she wanted to keep going.

The woman replied …

“You mean my unfinished business?”

She then went on to explain how all her life she’d been a very good swimmer. And how she had a 6-year-old granddaughter who was afraid to go in the water. She wanted to be around to teach her granddaughter to swim. Dr. Buchannan thanked her for the answer.

The operation was a success. Normally, after a heart transplant, it can take up to 12 months of physical therapy to get back to normal. It took this 65-year-old grandmother just four months till she was in the water teaching her granddaughter to swim.

Eliot tells this story to highlight the importance of having a “sense of purpose” in life. It’s important to note that because he now knew a little about the woman, Dr. Buchannan had a greater sense of purpose during the operation. He was not just performing a heart transplant; he was giving a grandmother more time with her granddaughter.

So what exactly does having a sense of purpose mean?

A sense of purpose means having something in your life that is so meaningful to you that you don’t want to give it up. It’s something that without you might not be achieved or accomplished.

A sense of purpose is something that will inspire you to a greater level of achievement. It gives you increased motivation to achieve, fuels your confidence, and gives you the drive you need to take on and conquer any obstacles that fall in your path.

All through history, there have been great stories that highlight the impact and importance of having a sense of purpose in life. Here are three:

  • The desire to provide for one’s family– After being swindled by a friend in a business deal and having forfeited his military pension when he became the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, and his family were destitute. He then learned he had throat cancer. Author Mark Twain, who was also a publisher, offered Grant a sweetheart deal (75% of the royalties would go to Grant) if he’d write his autobiography and allow Twain to publish it. Grant agreed. Grant’s health went downhill so much so that near the end, instead of writing his biography on paper, he dictated it. He pressed on and finished his biography, which he called Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Five days after he finished it, Grant died. The book was a huge seller and earned over $450,000 for his family. At the time (and still today), it’s regarded as one of the finest military memoirs ever published. Grant’s mission was to finish his book, but his larger sense of purpose was to provide for his family after he was gone.
  • Going where no man has gone before– On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the ambitious goal of landing a man safely on the moon by the end of the decade. In his book Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, Michael Collins talks about the effect that had on people who were working for the Apollo space program in 1964. “The goal was clearly and starkly defined. Had not President Kennedy said before the end of the decade?” Collins writes. Collins describes how everyone at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had extra enthusiasm. They were convinced they could do what many said could never be done. They came to work earlier, worked harder, and left later. People knew each day was one day closer to putting a man on the moon. “Everyone at NASA was driven by a strong sense of purpose,” he says. On July 20, 1969, of course, Kennedy’s vision was achieved when Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module’s ladder and said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” 
  • Remembering that life expects something from you–Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, was living in Germany when Hitler took power. During the years he spent in Hitler’s concentration camps, he lost his wife, brother, and parents. They were either sent to the gas chamber or died in a camp. The Nazis forbid people from stopping someone in the camp from committing suicide. Frankl knew that to save lives, he’d have to get to them before they killed themselves. Knowing Frankl was a psychiatrist, the men would often talk to him when suicidal thoughts entered their heads. Frankl recounts two such cases in which two men told him they intended to commit suicide. They had nothing more to live for. All they could see ahead was endless suffering, starvation, and torture, which would most likely end in a trip to the gas chamber.  Frankl writes, “In both cases, it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.”After he talked to the men, he discovered one was a scientist who had started writing a book about science. But it was incomplete. It couldn’t be finished by anyone else. The other man had a child, luckily safe in another country, whom he could hardly wait to see again. While they were two completely different things, Frankl helped both men realize that life expected something from them. Which gave both men the sense of purpose they needed to put thoughts of suicide out of their minds.

On top of reaching a greater level of achievement, there’s another key benefit of living with a sense of purpose.

It was uncovered by a Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford study (which Eliot cites in his program) of people who lived to be 100 years old. The study took place over 30 years and involved approximately 20,000 people.

The goal of the study was to find out what factors contributed to them living so long. Hundreds of factors were considered: everything from eating habits to religion to the size of someone’s family to their smoking and drinking habits.

The results of the study found that living a long life came down primarily to two things. The first was exercise. And not “going to the gym every day” exercise, but how active people were on a daily basis.

The second factor was having a sense of purpose.

To help develop (or strengthen) your sense of purpose, I’ve put together a few tips and suggestions:

  1. Write out how you want to be remembered– This might seem a little morbid, but give it a try. Write out how you want your obituary to read – how you want to be remembered by people. Once you put it into words, your goals and the larger reason you want to achieve them might become obvious to you. Another way to approach this is to pretend you’re amongst friends, family, and co-workers and you’re listening in at your own funeral. What do you want them to say about you?
  2. Attach a purpose to each one of your goals differently– Don’t just say, “I want to lose 20 lbs.” Say to yourself, “I want to lose 20 lbs because I want to show the world that I’m someone who looks after myself and cares about my health and how I look.”Don’t just say to yourself, “I want to be a writer.” Attach a sense of purpose to it: say you want to be a writer to be a shining example to your friends and family of what one can achieve if they put their mind to it.
  3. Make a list of things you’re passionate about– It’s important to have a clear understanding of what motivates you. Put a list together of things you’d love to do and things you’re passionate about. Maybe you want to start an Internet business … write a book or a screenplay … go on a European vacation – whatever it may be, write it down. Then where appropriate, put an action plan together to make things happen.
  4. Volunteer at a local charity– Have you ever seen the BBC show The Secret Millionaire? (Note: earlier this year, ABC aired an Americanized version of The Secret Millionaire.) The real heroes of the show are not necessarily the millionaires who write the checks to help out charities they believe in, but the people who run and/or volunteer at the charities. These are selfless people who have discovered their sense of purpose in life is helping people in their community who are in need.
  5. Keep a journal– Write down daily or weekly the progress you make in pursuit of your goals. This will keep you focused and pumped as you move forward toward achieving your goals. And who knows, one day you could turn it into an inspirational story about your life you could share with your children and grandkids.

Everything you desire to achieve in life can be enhanced by attaching a sense of purpose to it. It can provide you with extraordinary ability and determination.

Whenever you set a goal, also identify the sense of purpose behind it, and I’m confident you’ll also find the inspiration and motivation you need to turn whatever you do into a raving success.