Aspiration, or Essence?15th Oct 2020
My coach asked me a good question the other day:
“What’s your aspiration?”
I recoiled from the question.
“Why the reaction?” she asked.
“It’s that word: aspiration. It speaks of striving, of a gap to be filled.”
I realised in that moment that I’m over filling gaps. It’s exhausting. And I’m not sure it serves me anymore.
“What would be a more useful word?”, she asked.
“Essence.”, I replied.
I had no idea where that word came from. It just felt right.
“Tell me more…” she said.
“I guess I’m more interested now in bringing out the best of who I already am. My essence. I’m becoming less interested in striving to become a different version of myself.”
“Interesting!” she said, wisely.
What’s this all about?
I reckon we have an ingrained narrative in our western society that goes like this: To be successful, work out what you want – your aspiration – identify the gaps between what you have and what you want, strive to fill them, and you will get what you want.
Using aspiration as a motivational tool in and of itself is incredibly powerful. As humans, we’re blessed with the gift of imagination. When we can tell a compelling story of a better future, it can move minds, hearts, and mountains. Just look at the research. Purpose-driven organisations, with a compelling story for the future they want, have the edge in workforce and customer satisfaction, profitability and growth.
It’s the gap and striving bits that I have an issue with. The cost of the aspiration narrative is that we can overlook what we already have. I remember, many years ago, seeing a counsellor. She said to me “You have so much potential!” At which point I burst into tears. “Why are you crying?” she asked. “Because I’m not living up to it!” I replied. Whoah! I was so focused on becoming a future version of me that I wasn’t appreciating my gifts in the here and now. I had overlooked my essence. And as a result, I was all tied up in the knots of striving and gaps.
What if instead of defining our aspirations, we first defined our essence? The things that define who we are when we’re at our best. From there, we can craft an aspiration to be that way more often. It’s less about defining a gap to be filled, and more about defining a place that we can come back to so we can do our best work.
This idea can apply at any level. Whether your focus is you, your team, your organisation or your society, the idea of defining your essence first can work. What would happen if you convened your people to tell stories about your essence? What if you defined that and asked people to make decisions from that place?
Michelangelo talked about ‘the uncarved block’. He’d look at a block of stone and see the statue inside it. His job, he’d say, was to remove the stone that didn’t belong, so the statue could emerge. It was already there, some stuff just needed to be removed.
Your essence is there. Your people’s essence is there too. Shine a light on it, and watch what happens.
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