Unlock Your Purpose
Finding out what we’re meant to do with our lives can be a journey taken in stages, filled with periods of reflection and reassessment along the way.
In 2004, Jonathan Kelly (B.S. ’96) was 30 and on the rise at a New Jersey-based private equity firm, where he loved crunching numbers and analyzing business models. What’s more, he was enjoying all the trappings that come with that type of high-flying, outwardly successful lifestyle. He drove a Porsche and owned a three-story condo with two balconies overlooking the Hudson River. He wore power suits and dined at restaurants with months-long reservation lists.
And yet, in Kelly’s words, he had the vitality of a dead tree.
“I was starting to have financial success and a life with stability and a trajectory to sustain a family,” he says, noting that he was in a relationship with a woman that had progressed to them discussing marriage. “But it started to just be empty. I felt like there had to be something more.”
Defining that “more” proved elusive, however. He certainly didn’t need more material possessions. Over the phone, Kelly confided his growing confusion to his older brother, who asked him the question that would change his life: “Have you prayed about this?”
The youngest of seven children, Kelly had grown up Catholic in towns across southern Minnesota, where his father was a lawyer and then a judge. His faith was certainly a part of his life, but it wasn’t central to it. While he hadn’t thought to pray about his situation, his brother’s suggestion suddenly felt right.
Kelly crawled out of bed and knelt on the floor. “What do you want from my life?” he asked.
That simple question began a journey that culminated almost a year later. Kelly was standing in New York City’s Penn Station after returning from a spiritual retreat in Croatia. He says he watched the crowds pass, a sea of faces intently focused on their Blackberries, and knew in his heart that this crush of power and money wasn’t for him. In that moment, he decided to devote his life to serving God.
Kelly began the painful process of ending his relationship. Then he quit his job—one of the partners assumed he’d gotten another offer, which in a way he had. After that he moved home to Minnesota and entered the seminary in the fall of 2005.
“I didn’t look too far ahead because I’d probably be too frightened,” admits Kelly—now Father Kelly. We’re sitting in his office at St. John Vianney College Seminary on the University of St. Thomas grounds in St. Paul, where he’s the seminary’s spiritual director, and he chuckles as he recalls what he now considers the ego and vanity of his younger self.
Unlike his former condo on the Hudson, now Kelly lives on the third floor of the seminary with 26 aspiring priests, whom he mentors. The surroundings are comfortable, but few would call them lush. His book-filled office is decorated with images of saints, including St. Catherine and St. John Henry Newman. There’s also a football, placed on a shelf just below a photograph of Mother Teresa. “We do a lot of the normal college-age things here,” he says, by way of explaining the somewhat incongruous pigskin. A former U of M varsity golfer, Kelly still plays the sport, only now it’s not about competition. It’s a way to connect.
“There are people, especially men, who would never talk to a priest,” he says. “But they’ll play golf with me.”
Kelly is so relaxed and content—his face lights up when he greets a mentee in the hallway—that it’s almost impossible to imagine him in any other vocation. His work gives him peace, and serving others has turned out to be a profoundly satisfying choice. But his life is also proof that finding an answer to the existential question “Why am I here?” can be complicated.
What's in this for me?
Identifying a sense of purpose doesn’t just improve psychospiritual well-being. Research shows it can improve health, too. Various studies have shown people with a strong sense of purpose may live longer, suffer less cardiovascular disease, may be less likely to get Alzheimer’s, may be able to handle pain better, and are more resilient. In addition, studies show that adults with “a high sense of meaning” in their lives enjoy more satisfying relationships.
While very few of us will ever hear a clarion call as dramatic Father Kelly’s, that doesn’t mean we aren’t searching for meaning beyond the joys and sorrows of our daily lives. After all, understanding our purpose on this planet is a fundamental human need.
“It’s in our DNA to want to belong and to want our lives to matter,” says Richard Leider, a senior fellow at the U of M’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing (CSH). Leider founded The Purpose Project at the center, which is a series of workshops and lectures that help people identify this unifying force in their lives. He’s also the author of nine books, including the bestselling The Power of Purpose: Find Meaning, Live Longer, Better (Berrett-Koehler). “We want to make a difference and we want to spend our time doing things we can savor,” he says.
Purpose, according to Leider, is the answer to the question Why? As in “Why do I get up in the morning? Why am I doing this?”
Leider says our collective desire to locate this sense of deeper meaning is especially crucial today. That’s because we’re living longer and may have to confront the fact that what mattered to us when we were younger isn’t what speaks to us as we age. Leider also points to what he calls a “transition revolution,” saying statistics show 1 in 3 people are currently undergoing some kind of transformative change, whether that’s retirement, divorce, a new job, or caring for children or aging parents. That’s the kind of upheaval that often forces people to reevaluate what comes next for them.
As Kelly’s experience shows, finding our true purpose may not follow a linear progression. Experts like Leider say the key to defining purpose is to identify something outside ourselves, a value that transcends personal ambition, such as working to improve the health or happiness of others.
“In a lot of industries, people will have a goal to sell ‘X’ amount and at the end of the year, they’ll walk off the [awards] stage and think, ‘How come it doesn’t feel better?’” says Leider. “Well, selling ‘X’ amount was a goal. What really gave them fulfillment was the lives they touched that year… [by] making a big difference in a person’s health, a person’s relationship, a person’s retirement. And that’s why they really do [their work]. The truth is you can do both.”
When it comes to defining and discovering our purpose, the University has a number of resources that can help. In the 2018-2019 academic year, the U of M launched the Advanced Careers Initiative (UMAC), which is often referred to as a “gap year for grownups,” after the practice of high school students choosing to travel or work for a year before entering college.
In this case, UMAC helps adults navigate the passage between the go-go pace of their career-building years and their retirement years. Most participants are either in their 50s and trying to transition to a career that resonates more with their core values or have recently retired and want to remain engaged in meaningful activities.
What UMAC does is help participants try on new identities that are more aligned to their emerging values and interests.
“I see purpose as an evolution that shifts not only as we age, but as different priorities emerge in our lives,” says Kate Schaefers (M.A. ‘88), the program’s executive director. “And I think that’s true when it comes to meaningful work.” Schaefers ticks off a number of questions participants wrestle with during the process: “Do you feel like you’re having an impact? Do you see a connection between what you’re doing and some of the outcomes your organization is trying to achieve? For most people, having that connection—that’s really what contributes to meaning and purpose.”
That’s what happened for UMAC fellow Lisa Mattson (B.S. ’87). After more than two decades of work managing the business operations of a Twin Cities medical research company, Mattson felt there was “something missing in terms of what my next professional, purposeful challenge was.” In her mid-50s, Mattson wasn’t ready to retire; instead, she wanted to spend the next 15 years of her working life at a mission-driven organization. She’d found great satisfaction and a sense of social connection volunteering for her kids’ school when they were young—a passion that led her to cofound the Twin Cities chapter of The Power of 100, a giving circle where members pool their contributions and donate funds to local nonprofits.
While at UMAC, Mattson drew on that feeling of contentment to imagine her next steps. She did an internship at Second Harvest Heartland, a Twin Cities foodbank; internships are a required component of the UMAC year. Her boss was in her early 30s, so Mattson also had the opportunity to reverse-mentor. Mattson discovered the nonprofit needed data analysis, so she took a course to learn that skill. Then she spent five months doing research and used survey data the nonprofit had collected to help them get a better sense of food shelf users in the 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin the nonprofit supports. She says this work helped clarify her passion around the issue of food scarcity and for helping people who are experiencing food insecurity.
“There was an energy and an ease about those activities,” says Mattson. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do more of—something that gives me that feeling of connection and feeds my soul.’”
Today, Mattson continues to work part time as a skilled volunteer at Second Harvest and is researching where she’d like to pursue her next opportunity.
For Sheila Peyraud, who studied in the Carlson School of Management’s executive program, being a UMAC fellow was an opportunity to reimagine retirement. At 63, she’d been in what she describes as a “corporate bubble” for decades—most recently as the vice president and chief technical officer for Donaldson, a filtration systems manufacturer headquartered in the Twin Cities.
But her initial retirement left her unsatisfied. “I felt like some sort of caged hummingbird,” she says. “I had way too much energy and just felt like I didn’t have anything to show for all my crazy running in circles. I had a clean house and my yard looked good for once, but it wasn’t doing it for me.”
UMAC gave Peyraud the opportunity to take Grand Challenges classes with UMN undergraduates, an experience she says was exhilarating both because of the issues being explored and the opportunity to meet new people outside corporate life. Peyraud chose two courses: One examined the widening economic gap in the United States; the other was about world hunger.
Through her work at UMAC, Peyraud also discovered that she had a talent for teaching literacy to kids. “I didn’t expect to want to work with children,” she says. But after learning her skills were greatly needed by the community and that she could use them to give back, she was hooked. Now, she’s finishing her literacy certificate and may follow that with tutoring in schools and developing literacy curriculums. “The program changed my life,” she says.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen (M.F.A. ’02) is Minnesota Alumni’s senior editor and author of 111 Places in the Twin Cities that You Must Not Miss.