While a lucky few of us know intuitively we are doing exactly the right thing with our lives, the majority of people exist with the nagging feeling that somewhere out there is a more fulfilling life. Sometimes we know what we would really love to be doing but don’t quite have the courage to make the changes. More often, we have a vague feeling of dissatisfaction but don’t quite know how to discover the solution. Years ago I met Sheila MacLeod – a modern-day wayfinder who regularly picks up people who feel their lives are a complete mess and puts them back on the right track. Her aim, she says, is to discover what would make you truly happy, to discover the kind of role in life which could make your “soul sing.”
It sounds rather like a kind of esoteric career-counselling, yet MacLeod is no soothsayer, no Mystic Meg peering into a crystal ball and her work is as meaningful to a harassed mother as it is to a stressed salesman. Her working life has been spent in business and her technique (a swift elegant process known as the Core Statement) has, in the past, been mainly used to put frustrated businesspeople back in the fast lane and to help industry build teams of highly motivated workers. Now, however, she has extended her work out of the business world and can offer anybody a clear insight into what really makes them tick – and tick joyously.
The Core Statement is, very simply, a clear concise statement of your life’s purpose. It outlines the criteria which have to be fulfilled in order to keep you contented and committed to your path in life – to make you adore your days rather than just get by. The process to find it rarely takes more than an hour and, once you have it, you’ve got it for life. As Sheila explains, “It gives you something concrete in just one session. It may modify and refine slightly over the years but the energy of it does not change.”
She explains that all of us have quite specific roles we feel happiest playing in life. While one person might adore new challenges, another might love nothing better than the safe and secure. One person might thrive working entirely on their own while another might be totally lost without the support and stimulus of a team or family.
Our Core Statement tends to be clearest in childhood, before we succumbed to the pressures of school and work. “It’s as if there were an arrow leading through our lives,” says Sheila, “that shows where we should be going. Unfortunately many of us veer away from that straight path – either from pressure at school or college or in the workplace.” And while most of us think that our daily grind is simply something to endure, Sheila points out that such an attitude could be positively injurious to our health and happiness. “When the gap between what we should be doing and what we are doing becomes too great, we start to become stressed and eventually even sick.”
Obviously, she continues, she isn’t suggesting we all pack up our jobs and become ballerinas, footballers or brain surgeons (according to our childhood fancies) but we need to be working in the right environment, in the right way or with the right people. Sometimes all it takes is a small adjustment to make all the difference. She cites the example of a highly successful salesman who seemed to have it all: his job offered maximum security with high rewards on top when he did well. Yet the man was deeply unhappy and couldn’t understand why. When he worked through the Core Statement process with Sheila he soon realised what was going wrong.
“He was too secure,” explains Sheila, “he needed to be right on the edge to function well – in a real high risk, high reward situation. Having a safety net took all the thrill away for him.” He changed his working arrangements so the security was taken away and was, once again, utterly in love with his job. His Core Statement was very simple: “Standing on the edge of the universe, I roar.” “The language is always poetic, almost mystical,” says Sheila, “but it has to resonate within you. For some people the core might be very quiet, say ‘I ensure everything is in its place.’ There are two parts of the process – firstly finding your statement and then seeing how to apply it in your everyday life.”
The process itself is simple yet also great fun. It requires you to look back over your life and pinpoint the times when you were utterly enthralled by life, totally absorbed or totally exhilarated. It makes a map of all the high points.
Sitting in comfortable chairs in a book-lined study, Sheila first asked me to tell her about what filled me with joy in my childhood. I described my love of imaginary games, of painting and acting, of hauling my friends into secret societies I had invented. All the time Sheila was scribbling down what she heard as the key phrases. She then asked me to continue spelling out the high points in my life – quizzing me on my holidays, on university, on my working life. At the end she had several sheets of paper covered with words and phrases. I had thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing but felt, as always, that my interests seemed very broad and quite unreconcilable with anything approaching a “proper” job. But then Sheila started mapping out the words which kept cropping up on a large sheet of paper, making connections between them. A pattern started to emerge.
The editing process continued with small post-it notes which Sheila encouraged me to move around until I felt they made sense. It was totally fascinating and quite exhilarating as the links became clear. I realised that what I love is making sense out of chaos, showing people a way through quite difficult or complex situations; creating alternative worlds. Everything fell into place – the features and books I write about holistic health are close to fulfilling my ideal work. But I need to make the time for the novel I have been wanting to write and leave more space for the painting I adore. “It isn’t always practical to do precisely what you want,” admits Sheila, “because life is not perfect. But you can get within a certain bandwidth. And if you can’t be totally fulfilled at work, you need to balance that with doing what you love in your leisure time.”
People rarely leave Sheila intent on changing their entire career: most often they just need to alter aspects of it. One young architect realised that she needed to leave the world of property development and work on smaller projects with personal clients. Others found that they needed to move into different areas within the same company or simply alter the way they worked.
“It’s like being given the master key to your life,” says Sheila, “you can go back through life and know when and why the key was fitting and when you were forcing the lock. And it allows you to know, from now on, exactly what you need to give you joy in your life.” And, she adds, a joyful worker is always a successful worker. “When you are doing what you should be doing you have charisma, presence. You simply shine. And employers pick up on that – you’ll find you get the right job, sail through the interview. Because you are aligned to your true purpose.”
FINDING YOUR CORE STATEMENT
You can start to understand what makes you “sing your song” by thinking about the following. It helps if you can work with another person who may well notice which phrases are emphasized or repeated.
1. Find a joyful childhood memory. Have your partner ask you the following: What were you doing? What made it special for you? How did you feel? Was anyone with you? Which aspect did you enjoy the most? Write down the key phrases and words which occur.
2. Think of a good time in your life – at any period. Ask the same questions as before and again write down the key phrases and words.
3. Repeat the above process with the following –
* talk about a fulfilling work experience
* explore a hobby or pastime
* capture a moment when you felt complete.
4. Now find the most important key phrases and words and put them on a piece of paper. Which keep occurring? Where are the patterns? Which represent the most important circumstances or attitudes? If you could only have three or four of these phrases or words, which would they be?
5. Try to find a phrase which incorporates these phrases into a sentence which has real meaning for you. Sheila MacLeod says that when you hit on the right kind of statement it will instinctively feel right – some people laugh or even cry. Play with it until it works for you.