‘The day you find out why’ – Purpose, Contemplation and Transformational Learning

Dave Tullett, Integral Development Coach


‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why’.

(Quote popularly attributed to Mark Twain)

I open my workshop – ‘Exploring Purpose’ – with this quote because it speaks to me about choice.  Admittedly, you don’t have much choice about the first, but you do have choice about how you want to live life and what you will do to explore and uncover your ‘Why’.  Through my work, mainly with executives, I have noticed that all too few of us have found the time, space or energy to discover and pursue our ‘why’, our purpose.  I believe contemplative practices can create a space and a source of raw materials for this type of ‘inner work’.

Here I’ll share the thinking and intention behind my session; it’s relationship to contemplative practices, especially reflection and imagination; and what I have learned about using this type of approach in an executive (adult) education setting.

The session, is quite simple and is built around three connected contemplative practices:

  • Ikigai – I ask participant to reflect on their work and life using the Japanese framework of four overlapping circles – What you like? What are you good at?; What does the world need?; What can you get paid for?  Your Ikigai is your life’s value, what gets you out of bed each day and is found at the centre of the overlapping circles.  Executives like this framework, because it gives structure and I like it because it offers a very visible expression of the balance in an individual’s life.
  • Visualisation – Using a mountain metaphor, I ask participants to re-acquaint themselves with some of their formative experiences.  More detail below.
  • Metaphor – An image or metaphor that captures the essence of what they have learned about themselves from these reflective exercises.  A reflective practice in itself.  Metaphors include: shining moons; flag bearers; lighthouses; and one even suggested the fatty underbelly of a tuna (an expensive cut).


I developed this exercise with Dr Andrew White from Oxford University, as part of a transformational workshop called Mountain to Mountain.  In this exercise participants are invited to access the imagination, the mind’s eye and to re-visit and re-cast some of the lived experiences that have shaped their ‘world-view’. The mountain is a metaphor for their life and career.  I ask them to place themselves on the mountainside, at the point they think they are in their life.  I’m at pains to encourage them to think about the path in terms of the progress they feel they have made towards achieving the dreams and goals they set themselves at the outset of their career.  By connecting to the memories of these earlier goals, they start a process of reflecting on and taking stock of their current situation. 

The invitation is to look down the mountain and see events and people that have shaped how they see the world and their role and purpose in it.  I invite them to thank people who have helped and people who have been difficult or obstructive.  We then look up at the various paths that might lie ahead for them.  Paths of service and purpose or wasteland.  I ask them to think about the qualities they will need to develop and the support they need to succeed in bringing purpose to life.  I finish the visualisation, by inviting them to look around – ‘Is this where you want to be?’. 

In the group debrief I have heard many profound and moving recollections of events of ‘good’ people that have helped shape the individual’s sense of purpose.  What is fascinating, is that many describe having the sudden realisation that the ‘awkward’ colleague or boss taught them something important about life or leadership.  On reflection, they recognise that they owe this person a debt of gratitude too.

This is a learning experience not a lecture, and can take executives out of their comfort zone.  I encourage them to notice the emotion and sensations that discomfort creates.  To receive it, sit with it, and then get curious about where it comes from and how they normally (habitually) respond to that emotion.  Finally, I’m asking them to reflect on how they might make more effective choices about how to use the energy discomfort generates.

I’m after a ‘vertical’ learning experience, not about adding skills, but about expanding and experimenting with perspectives and bringing the whole human into the learning process.   A chance to open to the possibilities that ‘not knowing’ offers and an encouragement to develop curiosity, imagination and courage.  It’s also a way to explore the assumptions, perspectives and beliefs that sit beneath the surface of our everyday habits of mind.

The exercise asks participants to re-frame their lived experiences, to see what else these might offer, what new possibility might be uncovered.  In plenary we make a space where they can share insights, moments of personal discovery and unfolding, and collectively make sense of their experiences. 

And of course, I am hoping that the combination of reflective exercises will offer them a gateway to some sort of transformational learning experience.  Enabling them to: reflect without judgment on where they find themselves, relative to where they planned to be; re-assess the way they have constructed their reality and how that influences their world-view; and, as Mezirow (1990, p 13) suggests, have them re-calibrate their ‘own orientation to perceiving, knowing, believing, feeling and acting’.

I have noticed that there are several conditions that shape the quality of the contemplative experience and each one has something to do with courage.

Students, in this case executives, have to be courageous enough to move from passive consumption of content to an active engagement with their own experience and its influence on their world-view.  To quote Mezirow they have to be willing to engage with a process “of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action” (Mezirow 1996, p. 162).  Not everyone is (yet) ready for this process.

The contemplative practitioner has to muster the courage to let go of the certainty and power that ‘Teacher’ suggests and adopt a much more uncertain (and difficult to name) role.  There is no lecture plan, no cause and effect, stuff (some of it difficult) emerges.  It takes time and patience to get comfortable with this discomfort.

Finally, sponsors need to be prepared to take a risk, again shifting from the safety and certainty of content and a focus on skillsets to include a focus on experience and shifting mindsets.  I have been extremely fortunate to have sponsors who have the courage to support contemplative practices not as an alternative to content and traditional teaching methods but as a complement to them.

In applying these practices, I’m hoping to help others get a glimpse of that ‘second day’, the day they find out Why they were born.


Mezirow, J. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood (pp. 1-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Mezirow, J. (1996). Contemporary paradigms of learning. Adult education quarterly, 46(3), 158-172.

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