I used to believe in order to live a full life a person needed to have purpose. I spent time, money, energy, trying to figure out with desperation what my purpose was. For most of my adult life, I believed my purpose on this earth was to help people in corporate settings think differently and see the world through a different lens – a less judgmental and kinder lens that celebrates and accepts what makes us different.
When I found myself without a career at 38, I did a million different things to try to reclaim that sense of purpose and find something new. I did a seminar in reentering the workforce, learned to ground myself in Mother Nature to open myself to chakras, did tarot card readings, and read tons of books about what happens after your dream job ends, how to find your happy endings, and living and learning with purpose and gratitude.
I became an expert in self help because I genuinely thought there was something in me that needed fixing. In my mind, having a purpose was essential to living a fulfilling life, and for me that meant growing and succeeding in a big career.
Looking back, it is funny how I never considered retirement or travel. But my son Zach was still young, about eight years old when we moved back to Canada. I have always loved working and felt it was important for him to see me as someone involved in business discussions.
I eventually settled on entrepreneurship as my next business venture and decided I wanted to enter into the startup space, since it was so connected to the world I was in with telecommunications. When our first company launched, I latched onto this as my new purpose. The business had the goal to help people, especially couples, better communicate and learn about themselves. I was happy and relieved that the next stage of my career was going to serve a greater purpose. With it, I imagined I would be able to combine everything that I loved and was good at in my last career and expand my reach wider and wider.
But, as is the story with most startups, this company got off the ground but was not able to become a sustainable venture. We were not able to secure an investor to properly fund the marketing efforts that would have allowed us get it out into the world. Truth be told, I was uncomfortable in a role talking about code and algorithms, which 10 years ago was the primary discussion and to get investors past that and talk about marketing dollars was near impossible.
After we closed the business I felt I had failed at my “bringing high tech into self help arena and help people learn about themselves” and that I needed to revisit all of those self help books and start my search again into my next life purpose. Slowly but surely, I started to redefine success as something that didn’t have a monetary value and couldn’t be measured in any figures, and instead began to refocus on my previous purpose which was helping people see things from a different perspective. But this time I wanted the end result to also be philanthropic . This is when we launched Stand Up Speak Up and decided to give all of the proceeds of our business back to our community.
Through the experience of creating this business and working to make it viable, I found that I also slowly began to redefine what it meant to have a life purpose. It was not just about my place in my work life, but also my overall place in the world. I had to unlearn the belief that those without a clear career purpose or those not on a path to set achievements were lost souls or aimless people who would struggle to really make a difference.
My newly defined purpose fit nicely into this new path focused on community impact. I started my podcast, dog therapy with kids in the juvenile detention system, and raising funds with artists focused on social justice. It was very interesting and taught me a lot about life’s privileges and how we can take so much for granted.
Then came my cancer diagnosis and the focus switched to my disease and staying alive. That focus lasted almost two years and then a year of focus on stabilizing my mental health. Three years had gone by, and what? I felt lost and tired of the thought of having to reinvent myself and find a new purpose again. New goals, new drive and new dreams. So I just shoved it down to the bottom of my subconscious and decided to try and be happy with a retirement due to cancer.
Just recently, I was writing another blog post about “What now?” What does retirement look like for me? It was during this writing that I had a realization about my unrelenting need to always have a purpose. I believed the key to happiness was clarity of purpose and if I failed to deliver on my purpose I was worthless. I finally realized how needing a purpose sets a person up for failure.
Whether or not your purpose is fulfilled in your life is a matter of personal perspective. And, unfortunately, many of us are the hardest on ourselves. So, we set impossible and ever-changing standards for ourselves and then label it a failure when they are not reached. This sense of “failure” spins in our head and makes us question ourselves and our supposed purpose even more.
I did a web search on Google and Amazon and the amount of content on finding your purpose is endless. I also hear many young people saying, “I do not know my purpose, so how can I decide on my career?” People who fight the mental health battle often question their purpose in life, which can leave them to believe they have no reason for living.
I sat on this and thought about my life and what makes my life worth living. I realized we do not need a specific, definable purpose. We need to see life as a million lessons of all sizes.
Chronicling my life and work through lessons allows me to find fulfillment and meaning in everything I have done. Completing a project is not about the success or failure of it, but rather how it has helped me to grow and have an impact on the world around me. Some of the most important lessons we learn are from failure, growing our sense of empathy and self resiliency. We can build up our career skills and life skills by adding new knowledge from the experience, instead of feeling shame about opportunities or potential paths that might have passed us by.
By thinking like this, if I retrace my life and see what my learnings were, humility and sadness become needed emotions to grow as a person. This has replaced the shame that I used to often feel when I looked at past experiences that I saw as missed chances. If we let shame build in our brains, we are inviting in sadness, resentment, and feelings of worthlessness that can have a lifelong effect on our psyches. Humbly understanding of our own actions’ impacts (both on ourselves and on others) can help us grow our emotional intelligence, kindness, and social awareness.
I believe in reincarnation and that our souls enter each new life with a learning agenda. As our souls learn more and more, we become more enlightened people. We ready ourselves for our next life.
I believe our main purpose should not be to achieve one job or to fit into this world in a certain way. We should instead continue to learn, grow kinder and more empathetic, and be more truthful and authentic humans who listen to our intuition. We should strive to be people who are self-sufficient and take care of our families (chosen or given) and communities, and serve others as best they can. Essentially, we are meant to continue to grow as we leave this world better than how we found it.
I always joke that my soul must have had many tough previous lives in order to get to this amazing one. I have been blessed with many privileges and am grateful.
One day, I made a list of all the lessons I have learned in my life and what experiences they each evolved from. It was a really hard, messy and exhausting brain exercise. I wished that it was something I had kept track of throughout my life. But I did notice a pattern and some key messages.
Here is an example of an experience that for a long time I attached nothing but negativity to and now see in a different way:
I struggled in school to the point where I felt ashamed. It was easy back then to laugh off low marks with school buddies and pretend you barely tried. But in my reality, I spent my school years working hard and yet my marks never reflected that. I felt like something was wrong with me. Before even entering the workforce, I felt I had already become a failure and was not living up to my own expectations.
Once I moved past the typical responses to struggles in school, I forced myself to look deeper and see how that experience helped to create the positive side of me, the happier side.
What I uncovered was that due to my learning disabilities, my brain learned to think and approach things with more creativity. I saw the world differently and it reacted to me differently. I believe part of my career success was because I attracted and accepted people who were able to think and adapt in ways that were innovative and new. This allowed us to experiment, explore and take risks and often stand out from our competitors. My team’s education was not important to me, nor were their ages, genders, or any other aspect of their identity. It was all about how their mind worked and how they were each able to work collectively as a group.
I have always had a sixth sense when it comes to understanding and connecting with people. Somehow my brain was tuned more in that region but was clogged when it came to traditional learning. Most of us learn that we either absorb information visually, auditorily, through reading and writing, or tactically. That is why some people prefer learning from books, others from lectures, and others from hands-on experience. I will never learn best from a classroom. But I now realize that says nothing about my ability to learn, or even to pass on what I have learned.
Through this exercise of tracking my life lessons, I also discovered, it is surprisingly harder for me to extrapolate learning from successes than from perceived failures. My failures are riddled with life lessons. My brain seems to accept those lessons more readily and does not spend time analyzing them. Those nuggets of learning now go immediately into my happy memory bank. My biggest life’s privilege by far is that I have a lot more happy memories than sad ones. My life lessons have not killed me, but instead have made me more resilient. If my circumstances had been different, my experiences and choices could have sent me down another path.
I believe in life we have one overarching purpose: to learn. Our souls will learn thousands of small things throughout our lives, but there are also big moments of learning that our current souls have yet to reach. In continuing to search for understanding and knowledge, we find peace in this lifetime and can we move on to our next reincarnation. Perhaps some people die young because the lessons they needed were learned.
I studied my learning patterns and I kept wondering if I have forced what I want my learning to be or have let it come to me naturally and authentically while I am in a quiet state of meditation. I want my larger life lesson to be about resiliency, as that makes sense as learning from cancer. But I know it was not the right one.
I believe that my overarching learning is about finding my voice, learning to listen to my inner self, and learning how to stand up for myself. Throughout my whole life, while learning this lesson, I have been able to help others to find their voice through my focus and curiosity on people, my podcast, and my business ventures. But I think it was those people who taught me. Hearing people’s stories has shown me how to find my voice.
My husband opened up a new world for me by letting me use my voice to ask for what I want in life. My son Zach gave me strength and encouraged me to be open about my cancer journey. Marla, my childhood bestie who is like a sister, heard and understood me before anyone else did because of my speech impediments. My parents’ inner strength taught me how to find hope and a path forward even in dark and difficult times. I could list off all those who have given me the strength and confidence. This newsletter series has even been a whole new way to share my voice.
If we are here in order to learn, it must mean we are all teachers. We teach through our interactions with one another. We are also all consummate learners, our brains simultaneously in learning and teaching mode all day long.
It forces the questions: Am I a good teacher? Do I mainly teach from the positive or negative part of the brain? But that is for another Sunday.
~ Karla xoxo
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.