I used to be a messy desk person. But, when I was 35 (I’m now 42), I worked obsessively to get organized and productive. Getting organized was a huge pivot point for me.

First, I bought 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. This was a good place to start, because it really widened the focus of productivity from merely task management to a meta view on my life.

Covey had the audacity to suggest that my life should have a mission. A mission. Something bigger and more consequential than accruing wealth and resume. I remember sitting in my favorite coffee house (Kopi in Andersonville) and feeling mildly dumbfounded by the idea that I ought to consciously choose some broad themes for my life like a writer would for a novel. At first, it seemed both narcissistic and indulgent. Who the f… am I to have a mission. I was a corporate lawyer, not some Mother Theresa. Not for profits have missions, clergy have missions and schools have missions, but not corporate types – we just have goals.

I should mention that during this time in my life, I was repeatedly waking up in the middle of the night acknowledging that if I died that day it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I had just made partner at a law firm I loved, I was on path to achieve goals I had set when I was 9 and I was miserable. Not suicidal, just fatalistic. I lived numbly, but sadly for nearly 6 months.

Then, I went to a big meeting with hundreds of other lawyers. I sat in a hotel ballroom for 3 days, absent-mindedly thumbing through my Blackberry (the ugly one with the grey screen), barely listening. But, then a woman in a purple Le Suit stood on the stage to talk about marketing and cultivating clients and she actually said these words: “Even though I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who cares about branding in Phoenix, I’ve decided that we will become the number three law firm in Arizona.” I watched people applaud this drivel. I realized why I didn’t care if I lived or died: I had no mission. I was just another person trying to rise to the top of the middle.

My career was devoted to an industry that, in many ways, had abandoned any hope of doing good in favor of doing well, regardless of the consequences. Personally, I had just spent nearly nine years representing some great people – but also some truly phenomenal charlatans, crooks and reprobates. I had worked for businesses that tried to extract profit rather than solve problems. The reasons why I picked my career at 9 weren’t just distant, they were invisible.  And, I hated my trajectory.

Look, I’m not going to tell you that I found my mission and changed my life right then and there: self-discovery doesn’t work that way.  But, I can honestly say that marinating in Stephen Covey’s invitation to develop a personal mission and the apparent lack of mission of my life and career set my jaw. For someone recently ambivalent about life or death, I did something odd and life affirming. After 19 years of serious commitment to my favorite hobby, I quit smoking. There was something about understanding that I needed a mission that made me reach for a lifeline.

More tomorrow with some seriously mundane lessons from the second book I read, Time Tactics of Very Successful People.

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