Reflections on a Meaning-filled Life

Bob Buford (from Radix Vol. 34:1)

My friend Peb Jackson probably knows more influential Christians in business, politics, and entertainment than almost anyone I know. He is one of the great networkers of all time. I once asked him why more successful people can't seem to break the addiction to success and go on to the next season of their lives, to what I call significance. He thought for a minute and then answered, "They can't measure significance. They are so used to measuring their lives in terms of money, with the lines going upward and to the right. They just can't stand to see the line going downward even if they are very rich."

How do you measure significance?

Life for most of us is built on a constellation of habits, and for successful people the need for measurable results is one of the habits most deeply ingrained. Writer and analyst George Gilder made this observation:

"Men lust, but they know not what for. They fight and compete, but they forget the prize; they spread seed, but spurn the seasons of growth; they chase power and glory, but miss the meaning of life."

Hmmm, missing the meaning of life. That's important. But how does one measure the meaning of life? My friend Jim Collins spent three years thinking about this question. When we had dinner last October, he told me that business-oriented people confuse money with mission. The good becomes the enemy of the great. Here's the way Collins put it in Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, which he handed me that night.

"The confusion between inputs and outputs stems from one of the primary differences between business and the social sectors. In business, money is both an input (a resource for achieving greatness) and an output (a measure of greatness). In the social sectors, money is only an input, and not a measure of greatness.
"A great organization is one that delivers superior performance and makes a distinctive impact over a long period of time. For a business, financial returns are a perfectly legitimate measure of performance. For a social sector organization, however, performance must be assessed relative to mission, not only to financial returns. In the social sectors, the critical question is not 'How much money do we make per dollar of invested capital?' but 'How effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?'"

As I have thought about my own life, in retrospect I can see pretty clearly what happened: In the season I call Halftime, mission became, for me, more important than money. It didn't happen overnight, but it happened. I knew there was something more and I began to seek it. The more I focused on mission, the more it drew me forward.

Peter Drucker, the manager guru of all time, whom I met with two to four times a year in those Halftime years, always drew me back to a single question: "Yes, but to what end?" He taught me over and over that "mission comes first," then comes measurement. For a business, Peter always told me, "Profit is a requirement, not the objective of a business." Think about it.

Bob Klitgaard, the president of Claremont Graduate University, where Drucker taught and where The Drucker Institute resides, wrote this as part of a tribute to Peter:

"On my desk, I keep the last two pages of a 12-page letter Peter Drucker wrote to Bob Buford some 15 years ago. The letter's first 10 pages gave advice related to the institution Bob was initiating. Its last two pages contained advice about Bob's role as leader. Peter wrote about Bob's being 'the maker of policy and the designer.' He also mentioned quality control. 'But as I tried to stress, your first role-or perhaps one of the two first ones-is the personal one. It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do.' 'It is not something that can be measured or can be easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.'"

Order and the Book of Days

The difficulty of measuring significance keeps many people frozen in one stage of their life. Peter Drucker's advice clarified my own mission and pretty much set the DNA for the 15 years since-and for my life's work. He was right: building relationships with people is the most important thing I do. But is there any way to measure or evaluate what has now become my priority?

As addicted as I always have been to measuring both performance and contribution, I struggled for years to find a way to add it all up, especially as I became less and less active in running up the score in business (performance or achievement) and more and more involved in what I mean when I say, "The fruit of my work grows on other people's trees" (contribution).

In the second stage of my life, it's all about relationships. All that will remain when I'm gone will be those parts of me that I have invested in the lives of others. But how do I make that concrete enough to satisfy my compulsive need to measure results? What's the human side of my enterprise in this second stage of my life (which I call Life II)?

I think I have found a way. I call it my Book of Days. If I were to make a picture of my life of relationships, it would be a mosaic. A mosaic consists of fragments, little bits and pieces. Individually, they seem like random sizes and colors, but assembled as they are, for example, as in the ceiling of St. Peter's in Rome, they make a coherent picture. You have to step back a bit to see the pattern, but when you do, it snaps into focus.

Relationships and encounters are the fragments of our lives. They come at us from all directions: an e-mail, a cell phone call, a planned meeting, a random hallway encounter. Clarity about calling and mission is what fits them together to make a picture.

The New Testament describes 47 encounters of Jesus with individual people. Each one is personal. No two are treated alike (think of Mary, Martha, Judas, Pilate). Most of my life now is spent in encounters with individuals. Some lead to big outcomes, others don't. Some are long projects (writing books, convening meetings, speaking to large groups), but quite a few are "just conversations."

My Book of Days is my way of making a mosaic out of the fragments of my life. Here's how it came about. A few years ago, my wife Linda and I went to see an art exhibit for Robert Longo at Metro Pictures in New York. As we entered Metro's cavernous Tribeca gallery, what we saw took our breath away. There were 365 pictures, all the same size (about 2 feet x 3 feet), all framed exactly the same, all done in the same medium (black and white-pen, ink, paint, and charcoal on vellum).

Longo, a gifted artist, lives and works in New York, where he is impacted each day by a barrage of images from the media. For this exhibit he had painted and drawn a memorable image for each day of his life for a year, 365 images for 365 days. To see them all at once required this enormous mosaic representing a year of what got through Longo's filter, of what remained. They were all strong forceful images.

The gallery was selling these pictures in patterns of 10 selected by the artist. I said, "Great!" Linda said, "No way. I'm not letting Robert Longo take over my home!" I reasoned this way and that way with her over a long, civilized lunch at Union Square Café, but it was no deal.

Well, rats. But as the afternoon of other gallery visits wore on, an idea gradually dawned on me. "I can do this," my mind said. "I can collect the fragmentary encounters of my life-and it's worth doing." That afternoon I went to Borders and bought my first Book of Days, blank pages large enough to hold an 8-1/2-inch x 11-inch letter. That day I pasted an artifact to bring that day back to mind. And I've done that every day since for almost three years now: a mosaic of the little pieces of my life.

Since most of my life is now (I hope) devoted to contribution and significance, that's most of what shows up in my Book of Days. It's a kind of treasure chest of what I've attempted to do and of how people have responded. Individual lives, one at a time: very human, much warmer, and more alive than numbers. It's my "gift from heaven," right there in an alive, human format.

It's a reminder that my life has pattern and meaning. I usually look over several pages each week, six to nine months after the fact, and there is always a coherence to it, a sense of direction. It's encouraging.

All the time people ask, "How do I discover my mission in life?" I always say, "It's right there in your life and it has been there a long, long time. You just need to back up and see the pattern."

The mission is in the mosaic, and the mosaic is made up of the fragmentary encounters of your life. It takes some thought, but the pattern is right there, waiting to be discovered. Try it. You'll see.

1 Corinthians 13:12-13

12: For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.

13: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

(21st Century King James Version)

Disorder and the Book of Psalms

Does it ever seem that life just won't fall into place the way you planned? I keep calendars, I make appointments, I have daily plans, weekly plans, plans for my whole life. I want to take charge of life, to be proactive. But, much of the time, perhaps most of my time, my life, and the life of most of those I know, is much more spontaneous than our linear plans would describe.

I make all sorts of plans, but what is useful for my life and for my "musings" just happens. Perhaps I am reacting to events like having lunch with a guy who thought he might die and had made a list of 50 specific things he wanted to tidy up in order to "leave well." Then there are the (smarter-than-mine) reactions of friends responding from their experiences to this idea of "finishing well."

I try to make an orderly, linear book out of my musings. But it's frustrating. Stuff happens and I react to it.

Peter Drucker once shocked me by saying, "People who plan are the unhappiest people in the world. Opportunity is unpredictable. Most of the time, opportunity comes in over the transom. And opportunity doesn't stay long. If you don't respond to an opportunity, it moves on."

The same is true for problems. If you don't change plans and react, they get worse. As Shakespeare said, "Readiness is all." Readiness and reaction.

So the nature of my musings, as I call them, is both spontaneous and reactive. They can't really be put in order. I tried, and it didn't work because my life, like yours I expect, just won't conform to my plans. It's messy. It's disorderly. It's one surprise after another.

Linda has watched with bemused sympathy as I have twisted and turned in the breeze, trying to solve my "making order out of chaos" issue. This past weekend she told me she's taking a course on the Psalms. She said, "Your musings don't have any order. They are like Psalms. They are reactions along the road of life. The Psalms aren't theology. They are more about how people relate to change." Then she read me this (from course material prepared by her friend, Verdell Krisher):


Are they poems, Are they conflicting?

Are they prayers, Are they experiential?

Are they praises, Are they majestic?

Are they songs, Are they dark?

Are they laments, Are they intense?

Are they personal, Are they accusing?

Are they communal, Are they comforting?

The answer is "Yes."

The Psalms are collected into five books, but as Philip Yancey says, "The 150 psalms are as difficult, disordered, and messy as life itself."

So, looking back on my "musings for friends," I find them to be like life in the Second Half-disordered and surprising-but often wonderful. Only occasionally is the Second Half as I plan it.

Here we see David when he had fled from Saul into a cave (Psalm 57).

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge.

I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.

I cry out to God Most High, to God, who fulfills his purpose for me.

He sends from heaven and saves me, rebuking those who hotly pursue me.

God sends his love and his faithfulness.

I am in the midst of lions: I lie among ravenous beasts-men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.

Prayer as a State of Being

Recently I've been thinking about prayer, which is a big part of my life. Let me begin with a parable by Leo Tolstoy that for me gets to the heart of it. It's from Henri Nouwen's book titled Spiritual Direction.

Three Monks on an Island

Three Russian monks lived on a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he discovered that the monks didn't even know the Lord's Prayer. So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the "Our Father" and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water-in fact, they were running after the ship!

When they reached it, they cried, "Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us."

The bishop overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, "But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?"

They answered, "Well, we just say, 'Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'"

The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, "Go back to your land and be at peace."

Nouwen follows this parable by saying, "There's a difference between learning prayers and prayerfulness."

For me, prayer is not separate from daily life. It's a way of being. It's like being with Linda for a weekend at the farm. We're there with one another. We talk over lunch and dinner, but it doesn't particularly matter what we say. It's more about who we are. It's about being together. Sharing lives, with someone you love and trust.

Prayer is like that for me. It's a state of being together with God. It's not usually triggered by liturgy or special needs. It's more like what the Bible instructs us to do: Pray without ceasing.

I may pray the Lord's Prayer, repeat the words of the Doxology or of liturgical prayers occasionally in the day, often at night. There's no such thing as a mental void. When I wake up from sleep, I have a tendency to role-play my coming day in imagination, especially if I'm anxious about the day ahead: giving a speech, confronting something that's not going especially well. Once I get that kind of thought going, it's difficult to get back to sleep. So I fill the void with ritual prayer.

If I've been with an especially stimulating, emotionally engaging group of people the day before, I find that they stay in my head at night. They're there. If they have strong personalities, they leave emotional impressions. I'm still doing business with them, saying things we didn't say, finishing conversations we didn't complete, wondering if there's more to say or do.

Knowing that there's only so much room in my mental box, I may "sing" the Doxology silently. I say the 23rd Psalm or the Lord's Prayer, often drifting back into sleep knowing that I am loved by God, a love that fills the God-shaped void within me.

Often when I pray, I use a framework that has come echoing down century after century. It's easy to remember using the acronym A.C.T.S., which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

First, Adoration: Simply bringing God to mind, sometimes using a remembered song, often a Psalm like this one:

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.

You know my sitting down and my rising up;

You understand my thought afar off.

You comprehend my path and my lying down,

And are acquainted with all my ways.

(Psalm 139)

Next comes Confession: Usually for me that's a matter of my own childish and natural self-absorption. I ask and receive forgiveness.

Thanksgiving is the largest part of my prayers these days. I often use a mechanism for gratitude that I learned from psychologist Larry Crabb in his book, Inside Out.

I begin in gratitude for my inner life with Christ now, and for my eternal life to come when I'm done here. I move on to the relationships I'm grateful for. Then I recall projects I've had the privilege to work on with others. Last, I'm thankful for the material treasures that are a platform for my life and work.

Finally, I get around to my wish list, Supplication, which is always the shortest part, often just the phrase, "Thy will be done on earth (and in my life) as it is in heaven."

Sometimes, particularly when I'm driving (eyes open) or walking alone for exercise, I use my hands as artifacts for prayer: holding a hand upward for praise; palm forward for confession, imagining that my palm rests on the chest of Christ on the cross, my sins passing on to him; palm up for thanksgiving, an attitude of receiving; and palm down for supplication, leaving my concerns in the lap of God.

I always, always feel renewed and refreshed in the knowledge that although things seldom turn out as I've planned and imagined them, they always eventually do turn out. Is this me? Is it God intervening? Is it the interaction of my prayers with those of hundreds of other people who pray their own prayers? I don't know and I don't have to know.

We live in mystery. Each of us experiences a reality that others can't see. We mustn't presume to know too much.

I do know this. There is a God. He is not distant, but close at hand. He's part of me, braided into who I am. I'm never alone. God loves me. I trust him. That's about it.

Some Questions to Consider

How Do You Measure Significance?

  1. Can you in a phrase clearly state your mission in life?
  2. Who or what helped you clarify your mission in life: a writer, a motion picture, your parents, a mentor?
  3. What is the downside of not having a clear mission?

Order and a Book of Days

  1. Could you make a Book of Days? Sure you could. All it takes is a blank book, scissors, a glue stick, five minutes a day, and the raw material of your life.
  2. What is the "mission in the mosaic" in your life: the good things and the hard things? What is the pattern?
  3. Looking at the pattern, what does it indicate that life probably has in store for you next?

Disorder and the Book of Psalms

  1. If you were to write a psalm expressing your current state of mind, what would it say?
  2. What movie, song, poem, or quote would you pick to say "This is my situation now"?
  3. Look over your calendar of the past two weeks. Describe an unpredicted happening, something that was not according to plan.

Prayer As a State of Being

  1. If you had only three words, how would you describe your relationship with God? Is it personal, intimate, distant, trusting, suspicious?
  2. When do you feel closest to God? Is it a special time or place? Or any place?
  3. Does God speak to you? When you "ring," does he answer? How? Through the Word? Through intuition? Imagination-where you "just know"? Through people? Through circumstances?