Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Living Purposefully

November 11, 2007

Last year I was lucky enough to spend a few hours chatting with Andy Budd of Brighton, England and Derek Featherstone of Ottawa, Canada in a coffee shop in downtown Dallas. The coffee shop was quiet and laid back, located in the basement of an old office building, where the three of us spent the afternoon on comfy couches getting to know one another and talking about the many facets of all things Web-related.

This article is a transcript from The Design View Show, Episode 5.

I had never met Andy or Derek before I picked them up at their hotel. Andy emailed me out of the blue, saying he’d be in Dallas for a conference and how about we get together while he was in town. This was a terrific opportunity to meet someone whose work I had admired for so long and I leapt at the chance. It was doubly good when Derek was there also and we ended up having what was, for me at least, a really cool visit.

When I reflect on our discussions and the issues we examined, I note a recurring theme. There were several points in the discussions where the idea or concept of purpose was raised. In turn and at different times, each of us made some sort of reference to the idea of someone doing what they’re supposed to be doing in life. Sometimes this idea was directly referenced and sometimes it was referred to indirectly in the context of the conversation, but this concept seems, in retrospect, to have been central to all of our discussion. I have to believe that the reason for this is that we are each likely doing what we’re supposed to be doing in life, so it is a concept we’re comfortable with and hold as important.

Andy Budd is a designer, something of a CSS guru, user experience consultant, and frequent lecturer and instructor at events around the world. I immediately got the sense that Andy was a rather together guy with a firm handle on life. I also sensed that he is possessed of a deep understanding of the many facets of his profession. And yet during our conversation he was constantly asking questions, as if trying to get a more well-rounded view of things that it seemed he already understood quite well. Surely that drive to question and seek further insight accounts for his personal success and his ease at discussing a wide variety of topics.

I just know that all of us, every one of you reading now, has felt or still feels some immortal quality inside – something that makes you special; something that makes you extraordinary and different.

Derek Featherstone is a developer and Web accessibility consultant who, like Andy Budd, is kept busy lecturing at events around the world and teaching at workshops for governments and corporations. Derek struck me as a confident and deliberate man. During our discussions I noticed that he seemed very comfortable, regardless of the topic. When talking about his own specific field, Derek seemed truly in his element; sort of like a hawk soaring lazily on the breeze; effortless, but with the very real promise of power.

Yes, I know it seems that I’m talking almost as if these guys have superhuman powers, but of course they do—as I’ll touch on later. There’s a specific reason that I’m using extraordinary language to describe my impressions of them, so I hope you bear with me here.

Even though our topics varied from the frivolous to the practical, everything that these guys contributed to the discussion was offered with a sort of practiced precision and care that made each statement seem weighty. And through it all I sensed a kind of ease and joy in their approach to things. They did then and do now on reflection seem like two people who are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives. Because of that, I think, they’re tapped-in to something that many people are missing in life.

Extraordinary People

Some time after our visit, I was reading and came across something that C.S. Lewis once said. During a sermon, Lewis noted, “There are no ordinary people.” and, “…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” This quote of Lewis’ sent bells off in my head. Now, I understand the context of Lewis’ sentiment, but I thought that if what he’s saying is true, why is it that so few people seem immortal? Why is it that so few people come across as extraordinary individuals?

Now, by “extraordinary” I’m not talking about fame or notoriety or celebrity. I’m referring to extraordinary qualities like those Andy and Derek hinted at with their manner and their spirit. I don’t notice those qualities in many people. But I’d be willing to bet anything that every one of us feels some sense of extraordinary quality inside. I just know that all of us, every one of you reading now, has felt or still feels some immortal quality inside – something that makes you special; something that makes you extraordinary and different.

I believe that this “something” is directly related to our true purpose in life. I also know that our true purpose in life is directly related to something even greater: our direct connection to God and Faith.

Now, while I’m not going to try and turn this into a Christian sermon—my lack of qualification not being the least of reasons—I suggest that if you cannot recognize and acknowledge that purpose in life can only be derived from God, by whatever name you call him, then I’m afraid you do not grasp what “purpose” is. And to you I’d offer my deepest sympathies.

So, that being said, we may not always know or clearly understand our true purpose in life, but I believe that we all have some sense of it—if we care to pay attention.

It’s that tiny, nagging sense of discontent you perceive when you’re doing something other than what you’re supposed to be doing in life; that sense of marking time; wasting time. But with that discontent probably comes a sense of what you’d rather be doing, not because of mere preference or capitulation, but because something tells you it’s just right. It may not seem practical or logical, but it’s there all the same. Its impracticality may suppress your drive to make it happen, but why then is it there?

I think it’s the voice of your purpose telling you precisely what you’re supposed to be doing. And I think that many of us, maybe even most of us, ignore that message and so fail to be extraordinary in life. By ignoring our true purpose I think we remain seemingly ordinary. But it does not have to be this way.

For Example

Before I entered the design profession I used to be doing something else as my career. My career was tied to helping my family (it was a family business that I was involved with), so felt some sense of my work being worthwhile and responsible. Yet through it all I also had the sense that I was in the wrong place. I tried to be responsible and conscientious in my work and, up to a point, I was. I rather prize responsibility as a personal quality and yet my sense of responsibility was no match for the nagging discontent I had with what I was doing.

Ever since I listened to that nagging little voice, life is clearer, simpler, and easier and I’m entirely comfortable in it.

When I left the family business, for two entire years I failed to find a new position in that line of work. I was good at what I did, but that didn’t seem to matter. So, as a lifelong artist, I started working to gain skill and understanding of digital design work, became a freelance Web designer and ultimately landed a position with an agency. And now recently I started my own design studio, partnering with a good friend.

It’s worth noting, I think, that during most of my young adult life and later years few things came easy. Opportunities for real life benefit seemed few and far between. There was no great hardship in life and I got by okay, but I was without any specific purpose. And, of course, there was that sense of not doing what I was supposed to be doing, but I didn’t really know what the alternative was. I was an artist, musician and composer, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to go that dodgy route; especially as I then had a wife and a son.

When I finally decided to follow my heart—to cultivate the thing that I thought I could be good at and happy with, other things changed, too. Opportunities for work and advancement came frequently and easily. But more importantly, I gained an increasing sense of harmony with the world and a sense that no matter what, things would work out. Even during bleaker financial times, I had a confidence that I was doing the right thing. My confidence then has now been validated far better than I imagined possible.

I know in the depths of my core that the reason for this is that I’m now doing what I’m meant to do with my life. Like everyone else I have talents, skills and enthusiasms that make me different from others and that can provide valuable service. I’m a firm believer that if I were not doing what I’m doing now, I’d be less than I’m supposed to be, and in some way irresponsible.

Ever since I listened to that nagging little voice, life is clearer, simpler, and easier and I’m entirely comfortable in it. I don’t yet possess the competence and experience that people like Andy Budd and Derek Featherstone have, but perhaps that will come in time. In any event, I’m more connected to that feeling of purpose and that slightly giddy sense of immortality.

For years I ignored that little voice inside of me and because of this I felt a bit fractured. I’m sure that many people have this same experience— being disconnected from wholeness—and wholeness is exactly what I’m getting at.

I don’t imagine or conceive of my connection to purpose to be something that I have to find and attach like an accessory; like an extra Lego block stuck onto the side of a figurine. For instance, I know that there are some who believe in and imagine some separation between mind, body, and spirit, but these things are completely integrated. They are the same thing; components of the whole.

I believe it’s the same with our purpose. If we perceive our connection to purpose as something outside of us, as something that we have to bring from elsewhere, I think we’re denying our true nature—the very thing that makes us what we are: luminous beings created in God’s image—and endowed with a very real and very important purpose.

We are, or we can be, extraordinary individuals, but surely not without recognizing and utilizing everything we’re blessed with. If we live true to our nature, true to our purpose, and if we acknowledge and cultivate that connection to the greater part of us, we can realize and manifest that quality of immortality Lewis referred to. Or, at the very least, we can gain a greater sense of responsibility, purpose, and wholeness in life, which is what I’ve experienced. For the rest of it, I’ll have to wait and see. But I recognize it in others, which strengthens my faith. In all sorts of ways.

I believe that each of us is born to a true purpose and it lives within us, striving to be recognized …and we have only to listen to that inner voice. And just for the record, what I’m referring to here has nothing to do with anything specifically religious or anything else external …but it most certainly is concerned with Faith; that power source or battery for the soul. I sincerely hope that you’re not one who lacks Faith. For instance, I’ve seen and understand the results of neglecting physical health, and I’ve seen the results of neglecting our connection to Faith and purpose. I notice, and perhaps you have as well, that the results are largely identical. This is because these facets of our lives are not independent options. They’re portions of the whole.

I believe that a purposeful life is nothing more than a holistic life of realized potential. I’ve also noticed, as again perhaps you have, that the contrast between those living a purposeful life and those not doing so is significant. I truly don’t know Andy’s or Derek’s views on Faith, but I cannot deny their obvious connection with a purpose in life. I believe this accounts for the qualities that I and others recognize in them.

There are extraordinary people everywhere. We learn about them and meet them now and then, but perhaps there’s no reason for there to be such stark contrast between them and ourselves. In every case I can think of, not just my recent experience meeting Andy Budd and Derek Featherstone, those sorts of individuals are clearly doing what they were meant to do in life.

So ask yourself: are you doing what you’re supposed to be doing in life? Are you living according to that little nagging voice inside you?

Our inner sense of purpose describes what we are meant to do in life. I think it’s worthwhile to find out what that is; cultivate and listen to it, and become whole. Maybe even extraordinary.