11/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Striving for Purpose and Meaning

In the past year, as a leadership consultant, I have been facilitating clients to think about meaning and purpose; their passion and the legacy they want to leave in the world. Much of this was sparked by the recession, being laid off or faced with the fear of being without a job. For most, career is defining. When confronting the possible loss of this identity, it is natural to dig deeper and look for other defining entities in your life.

A few months ago, after a fatal diagnosis, I found myself experiencing this same process. When given news that you can have months or a year, maybe two to live, one quickly moves to evaluate life, relationships, accomplishments and the legacy that will be left behind. I found myself asking "What impact or imprint will be here when I am gone?," "What loose ends do I want to tie up?," "What was the true purpose of my existence?," "How do I want to leave?" and "What is it that I still want to do?" As someone who has always been described as resilient, I felt powerless, helpless, angry and sad. But aside from those strong emotions, I was determined to find meaning and purpose in the cards I was dealt.

Self-reflection is critical to human development and growth, professionally and personally. Without it we are stagnated, stuck and empty. People stay in therapy and analysis for years and do not find answers, but life experiences can catapult the reflection process. The saying "life passes before my eyes" is an understatement when faced with the possibility of death. The lens of life shifts and becomes clearer and pronounced. No longer are minute, insignificant incidents important. There is no time to pay attention to irrelevance and certainly no desire to either. Time is of the essence and you find yourself prioritizing -- what is it that I really want to do? Who is it that I want to spend time with versus feeling compelled to be with? The questions one begins to ask oneself are those that should have been asked continuously. For someone who prides themselves in being self reflective and insightful, I was surprised at some of the learnings that were coming to me full speed during this time.

What is it that is truly important? For me, my number one priority was definitely my children. Was I a good enough mother? What have I instilled in my children? Will my values shape them when I am not here anymore? How will they be taken care of when I am not here to comfort them? Questions that fill the mind constantly and that can not be set aside. Other priorities came to the surface -- relationships -- I didn't tell most people because I wanted to experience my relationship with them as I have done before. I wanted to submerse myself in my friendships and with family members I chose to be with -- an important part of this reflective equation. Thirdly, I wanted to take stock of what I set out to do as a young adult with a mission and purpose. What is it that drove me to put myself through college and grad school living on five or six dollars a day? Was that young idealist able to do what she set out to do or was something missing? If so, what was I going to do about this?

What I found was that my life has taken a zig-zag course -- not the linear path that some take. I allowed myself to be shaped by experiences and not be on a time clock -- willing to veer off traditional paths, take risks and follow my passion and internal compass. Was that easy? Not at all -- the criticism I received from family and peers that I "was confused," "wasted a PhD education," "was circling," or 'straying from my original career" was profound. I didn't care -- although angry at the remarks, I truly believed that a career was a journey and I was willing to be adventurous and see what happened.

I have also found that I have not strayed from meaning and purpose. I set out into this world to make a difference for girls and women -- empower them to be who they were, take risks, venture out of their comfort zone and define themselves versus being defined by our male-dominated culture. Our society is in desperate need of a gender revolution that is different from the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and I want to be part of this change initiative! My passion lies with bridging girls and women, building community and encouraging girls and women to have a voice -- a voice that is authentic, that integrates the feminine and the feminist and that does not alienate men.

So why blog about all of this? I just received news that I will be physically fine -- but the learning that came from two months of grappling with life and death was the best education I could have ever received. As a society we get stuck in the negative, we criticize and complain, give our opinion and communicate our dissatisfaction. But what if you were given the life sentence I was handed? Would this have an impact on your outlook? What is the meaning and purpose of your life and what is getting in the way from achieving your ideals? What do you take for granted? What open ties do you want to close? And why do people wait until the end of their life to rectify and come to a resolution?

I am determined to continue to create impact -- I have already started forming a not for profit pilot that will empower girls to be advocates for community and self. No longer will I wait or deem something "irrational" -- my goal is to transform the irrational to rational -- I have always been a dreamer and believed that dreams really do come true and now I know it. It's not always that a poor girl from the Bronx becomes a leadership expert with power and influence, but it should happen more often -- and that's what I am determined to do.