My Path to Purpose – A Series of Dots

My Path to Purpose – A Series of Dots


Graham Bird

Graham Bird

eadership Consultant United Kingdom

Graham is a passionate leadership consultant and executive coach based in the UK. Since 2003 he has been inspiring the leaders of some of the world’s largest corporations to find their own sense  of meaning in the work they do. He is driven by the belief that each of us has the potential to be  more than we currently believe ourselves to be, a belief that often limits leadership to mediocrity. Graham is known for the authenticity he demonstrates in the work that he does. He believes that  the very best leaders are those who are aligned to a deep sense of purpose, a purpose beyond  self-gratification and self-gain. Graham has worked with thousands of executives from all over the world during his career and  this has led him to nurture a profound belief in the potential purpose-driven leadership.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said in a Stanford University graduation speech, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” 

My story is evidence of that and I am keen to share the story of my journey to finding my purpose. This journey has taken me down many different religious and spiritual roads, most of  which were dead ends but a few, just a few, took me that one step further to answer the questions  I’d asked myself for many years. I feel clearer now, after a long and eventful journey, I feel that I can now take some satisfaction that I am far closer to knowing myself, and therefore my reason  for being, than ever before. The irony is that it was there all of the time. Discovering my purpose  has not been easy; it has taken time, deep reflection, commitment, and much self-reflection. 

Dot No. 1 – from humble beginnings 

My story begins in childhood, which by all standards was pretty normal. I was born into a working class family living in a small two-bedroom apartment in an industrial town in middle England.  Although I have an older brother, he left home when I was 6 years old, and I have very few  memories of his presence. This rendered me in some ways an only child. Without going into the  reasons why, my mother kept me very much by her side during pre-school years which meant  that when I first attended school, I had very little experience of being with other children.  Therefore, I did not know how to behave. This meant that for the first few years of schooling, I was  pretty much a loner and extremely shy; in fact, there was only one other kid whom I called a  friend. This made me different from most of the other children at school, and we all know what  happens to children who are seen as different; they can become the focus of intimidation and  bullying, and that was certainly the case for me. 

I was quite a sickly child and this kept me away from school a lot during the early years of  schooling. This meant that I fell behind with my schoolwork. The result of this was I did not earn a  place at the grammar school. Instead, I went to the local comprehensive school, an institution  where, by definition, “pupils with all aptitudes and abilities are taught together”. The  comprehensive I attended from the age of 11 to 15 was a particularly unpleasant place. My  experience during those years was dominated by fear. There was a very powerful negative  energy in that place, an energy of intimidation and threat. The teaching staff, or at least some of  them, behaved in an autocratic and quite intimidating fashion, which of course just fueled an  energy of retaliation and violence from the unruly element. Bad behaviour was punished with  physical punishment. In hindsight, those early experiences of fear and intimidation began to  cultivate in me a loathing of violence. This manifested itself in what I felt at the time was my only  option, avoidance. I would find any opportunity to skip school whether that was through genuine,  or more often than not, contrived sickness. Looking back, I was a frightened and lonely child. I did  have a few friends who were much like me, bullied and lonely. Finally, at just 15 years old, I walked  away from that school, a place where the primary education had been emotional and physical  survival, with a great sense of relief that my days going forward would be free from fear– or  would they? 

Dot No. 2 – A wake-up call 

Just before my 16th birthday, my family moved to a seaside town on the south coast of England.  Having just left school and moving to a different part of the country meant that once again, I found myself without friends, and the feeling of loneliness reappeared. My father had bought a small restaurant business, so I worked in the business during the daytime and spent the evenings  alone until the restaurant closed around midnight. I didn’t see much of my Dad during those days  as he was still living and working in our home town so I guess this didn’t help the isolation I was  feeling. It was during this time that something began to happen, something that would be a wake up call. I became ill. More specifically I began to lose blood due to internal bleeding. At first, my  mother took me to doctors and the prognosis ranged from ‘growing pains’ to poor diet. I knew  instinctively that none of these explanations were true. I also knew that even at just 16 years old, I  was beginning to get into bad habits, habits of smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and experimenting with recreational drugs. The bleeding continued and I became physically weaker and more and more anaemic day by day. More doctors and more medication failed to stop the  bleeding until eventually, my parents took me to an old family doctor back at our home town. He examined me and immediately admitted me to the hospital. I was suffering from a burst duodenal  ulcer which, it was believed, was the result of the years I’d spent in fear. The acid my stomach had  been producing was literally eating away the lower intestine. By the time I got into the hospital, I’d  lost approximately half of the blood in my body, a life-threatening situation that was luckily caught before it was too late. Once in hospital, I received a blood transfusion and over the course  of two weeks, I slowly began to regain my health and the colour in my cheeks! However, what was  to happen while in the hospital really shocked me. In the bed next to me was a Portuguese man, probably around the age of 40. I don’t recall his name but I do recall that he did all that he could to make me laugh, I guess to relax me. He would tell me jokes, he would make funny faces, he really  was a funny man. Then, in the middle of one long night, I awoke to a ward full of doctors and  nurses, surrounding the bed of my new best friend who had fallen out of bed onto the hard ward  floor during his sleep. He wasn’t in his bed in the morning when I woke. I asked where he was, and I was told that he would not be returning. I learned later that day that he had passed away during  the night. I was shocked, and I was deeply sad. This, in hindsight, was my first experience of the  fragility of life – here one moment and gone the next, an experience that shifted something inside  of me. 

Dot No. 3 – The search inside begins 

Leaving the hospital, I no longer wanted to work in my father’s business; I wanted to go my own  way. However, searching for work at 16 years old with no academic qualifications or work  experience, meant only one thing, little choice but manual work. However, despite holding some  pretty menial jobs during the first few years of full- time work, I always felt that I had more to give, I just didn’t know what that could be or even what that meant. As a result, I drifted from  meaningless work to more meaningless work. I saw work only as a means to a pay packet, no  more and no less. However, regardless of the type of work I did, whether it was in a factory or pumping fuel, I was always aware of something inside of me that yearned for more meaning. I sensed deep down inside that I had more to give but I had no idea of what, let alone how. Alcohol  and drugs were everyday pursuits for many and being vulnerable as I still was, I found myself  slipping into that dark, yet in many ways, exciting world. It was around my early 20s that I began  to realise that the fear that I’d experienced in my early life had not left me, it was still present. I also became aware that I was now angry – angry with myself and angry with life. I would feel  angry if I saw other others being abused, or if anyone tried to abuse me. Although I was living a  pretty unfulfilling life, looking back, I realise that this was a major turning point in my life. 

Dot No. 4 – From self to others 

Religion played no part in my life as a child. In fact, my parents never spoke of the subject and the  only visits to churches were for weddings and funerals. I was an unintentional atheist. Yet, deep down inside, I felt as if there were more to my existence and life than I believed there was. I began  to read about different religions. I began to visit religious buildings, all in the hope of finding  answers, answers to questions that were beginning to occupy my mind. I also began to read self help books which, along with my introduction to spirituality, began to open up my mind to another  reality – one far removed from the life I had lived up to that point. Eventually, in my mid-20s, now married and with a large mortgage to pay, I applied and was successful in securing, a role with a large global organisation as a sales executive. The company at the time was the 8th largest privately-owned company in the world, so heaven knows how I got through the interviews. My  brother had introduced me so that no doubt played a part. Thankfully I was successful, and this was to provide me the opportunity to make a fundamental change in the direction of my life. For  the first time, I was challenged, challenged intellectually as well as emotionally, and for the first time since leaving school, I began to realise a deep lack of self-belief and confidence in myself which was to keep reappearing for many years to come. 

Being in a professional environment, my lack of academic education and writing skills would be  put to the test, so I had to work evenings and weekends in an attempt to educate myself. However, despite the feeling of low self-worth I carried around with myself, I became aware that  others saw something different in me, some saw what I could not: my potential. True to form, I dismissed these well-intentioned compliments as people simply being nice or that they really did  not know the real me. Nonetheless, I grew in that company. At last, I found something that I  enjoyed and was good at. This new role allowed me to attend many training courses, and I  absolutely loved them. I became fascinated by learning about and experiencing a world that up  until then, I had no idea existed. What was most significant, however, was that I was attracted to  what I saw training do – it encouraged people to grow emotionally as well as intellectually. Not  only did I learn valuable life skills, but I also learned to see myself differently. This world of helping  others appealed to me. Maybe part of the appeal of wanting to help others was a cry from myself  for help, too. Inspired by my new discoveries about myself and the support that I was receiving, I  set my career sights on becoming a trainer. I spent the following couple of years in that training  role enjoying pretty much every moment of it and learning so much about life, others and, ultimately, myself. I also began to read, something even through my school years, I’d done little of. I read anything and everything I could find on psychology, religion, spirituality, and self-help. I  started to attend many courses, some to develop my professional skills and some more personal  skills, eventually, gaining qualifications to fill the educational gap left from earlier years. I became obsessed with self-discovery and I knew that at last, I was beginning to find some meaning in the  work I was doing and ultimately life itself. 

Dot No. 5 – The road less travelled 

Now in my early thirties, things were going well, and I was gaining a solid reputation as a  dedicated and loyal member of the organisation when one day, out of the blue, I was invited to the  Managing Director’s office. That day once again shifted the trajectory of my life. I was offered the  opportunity to take over the role of head of training. I had just 2 days to decide if I wanted to  accept this new role and although it was an exciting opportunity, accepting meant moving my wife  and two very young children to a different part of the country, leaving our friends and families  behind. Of course, career-wise, the opportunity was far too good to miss. So, unanimously, the  decision was made. We put our house up for sale and while waiting to sell it, I began to make the  200-mile-per-day round trip to my new place of work, the UK HQ in Henley upon Thames,  England. The timing was not in our favour as it was to take almost two years to sell our home and  find a new one. Learning my new role, and having direct reports for the first time challenged me. To make matters worse, I was living out of a suitcase driving many miles each week, and this took  its toll on me personally and on our marriage. Being in this new environment and having much  responsibility to prove my worth, the old pattern of self-doubt began to re-emerge. I began to be  highly critical of myself, again, blaming myself for every mistake that I made, even for those my  team made. I realise now that during this time of self- centeredness, I took my eye off the ball as  far as my relationship with my family was concerned. I was so focused upon my new job, that I  was unaware of the pressures my wife was experiencing back home. She was left to look after our  home and two very young children while I was away. Slowly our relationship deteriorated and the  fabric of our marriage sadly began to come apart. To add to the pressure at home, the earlier  promises of excellent career opportunities, the promotion and subsequent personal and family sacrifice we’d made, my future with the company came to an abrupt end one February day in 1994, three years after our move. That eventful day, the whole of the training and marketing  departments were closed due to the recession hitting the world at the time. I found myself  amongst 92 others on a list of the largest redundancy programme the UK company had ever  seen. This was to be a very eventful and emotional time as within the very same week that I had  lost my job, our home was burgled and our third beautiful daughter was born. When I called my  wife with the news that I’d lost my job, and therefore the much-needed income to pay for our  large mortgage and general living costs, she naturally became very upset. Yet I sensed, deep  inside, that all would be well and that this was meant to be. Now, in my late thirties, I was about to  take the road less travelled. 

Dot No. 6 – A call to purpose 

The company was very supportive to me during this time offering me help to find another position. Although I did apply for management roles, nothing materialised. Then one day, out of the blue,  my wife suggested that I follow my passion for the career that appealed to me so much, freelance  training. Considering that this idea had slowly cultivated in my mind over the previous few years, I failed to understand why I had not pursued this route before. I guess that my immediate concern was in securing an income, a goal that at the time made perfect sense, but, in hindsight, was a  path that would have kept me secure on the road to mediocrity. She was right, navigating my path  was what I’d always wanted because I wanted to make a difference to a wider audience than my previous corporate role. The fact that I had no clients, no network, no understanding of what it  would take to set up and run my own company, to take 100% responsibility for the large financial  obligations we had did not deter me. Despite the big risk I was about to take, I felt driven by my dream. It took about six months and many sleepless nights before I finally landed my first contract  working with a UK-based 500-store retailer. The next three years were a rollercoaster ride of  travel, nights away from home and 70 to 80-hour work weeks. But I now felt that I was doing what  I was meant to do. 

Dot No. 7 – My dark night of the soul 

I hit hard times in 1999 when my mum passed away. I had been very close to my mum and  spending the final months of her life, watching her health slowly deteriorate was a very difficult  time for me. The following year, the relationship with my wife deteriorated further, so much so that  we decided to divorce. I had spent a lot of time focussing on building my business and travelling  and I guess that I had taken my eye off of the ball and neglected her and time with my three  beautiful young children. This behaviour, although well-intentioned, was to cause me many years  of guilt. We didn’t fall out, we simply accepted that even though at some level the love we had  experienced together still flickered below the surface, we had grown apart. Maybe it was  depression that brought on a feeling of having lost my passion for the work that had driven me  for the previous six years. I was living alone, my debts had doubled, and I began to seriously  question my life, the life I had strived so hard to achieve. It wasn’t the separation from my wife so  much that caused me the pain, it was living apart from my children. The house that was once full  of children’s laughter now felt cold and soulless. Even though my wife and I had decided to part, I  felt guilt, guilt that in some way I had abandoned my children, something that violated my values  as a father. The truth of that matter was, I probably saw more of my kids after the separation because I made sure that I did – it was a perceived loss of identity that I now know was causing  me the pain. This period in my life was my ‘dark night of the soul’. Still working for myself, and  feeling pretty low, I took any training work that I could get but now I was not driven by any sense  of purpose anymore but of a sense of meeting the obligations I needed to meet. 

Dot No. 8 – Light at the end of the tunnel 

Maybe it was denial, but I eventually turned my thoughts outward trying desperately to shut out  the hurt I felt. To do this, I became a volunteer charity worker, mentoring disadvantaged children. I  met and worked with young people who were suffering mentally and emotionally and somehow, this experience helped me to put my own life back into some perspective. I felt the real pain these  young people were feeling, and I began to cultivate a desire to do more to bring about a better  and fairer world, a world where emotional and material poverty could be addressed. It must have  been Christmas 2002 when I was invited to a party by the charity I was working with. At the party, I  sat next to a woman I’d never met before and we began to talk. I mentioned my growing interest  in spirituality, and my desire to learn more when she told me of a meditation course which was to  commence the very next morning in a nearby town. I attended that morning and the subsequent  six-week programme that followed and was sufficiently intrigued by it to sign up for an advanced  course at a meditation centre in Oxford. During the many weeks, I attended the programme, I  became aware of another programme the centre offered. This was a two-day leadership training  course which was titled ”Self-Managing Leadership”. I was intrigued, so I attended this leadership  programme and it shifted the trajectory of my life yet again. I don’t recall how, but I somehow got  to meet the founder of the Oxford Leadership Academy, an Australian named Brian Bacon one Sunday morning in Oxford who invited me to join his company. 

The forming of dot No. 9 and beyond – Finally, on purpose 

For the last 20 years, I have worked with Oxford Leadership, travelling all over the world delivering  transformational leadership programmes and working as an executive coach. “Transforming  leaders for good” is at the heart of the work we do and certainly at the heart of what I do.  However, I now realise that I had not only been pursuing a career purpose, I’d also been pursuing  something much more personal. Eckart Tolle in his book, “A New Earth” talks about having an  inner and an outer purpose. An inner purpose is that journey of discovering the self, who we really  are beyond the ego, whilst outer purpose is our mission in the world, how we live our purpose  through our work. Looking back over the years, I realise I tried to be someone else, as I did not like  the person, I thought I was, therefore my inner purpose has always been to reconnect with my  true, authentic self. On the other hand, my experience of fear and intimidation cultivated in me a  deep sense of compassion for others and this has driven my outer purpose. I thank God that I  finally found the work that I feel I was meant to do, the work that truly inspires me. As I began, looking back on my life, I can see how the dots line up, how every event in my life, good and bad,  positive and negative, have led me to where I am today. Rather than being angry for the hurt and  the missed opportunities that my early years produced; I now see that it was all part of a much bigger plan. Rather than despising the years of intimidation I experienced, I now see how those  times have helped me to understand myself and my mission in life. 

Now in my sixties, I feel privileged to do the work I do with Oxford Leadership, which has provided  me with the vehicle to live my purpose. I can genuinely say that my work is helping, even if just in a  tiny way, to make this world a better place. 

I cannot predict where the future dots will land, but I do know, deep down inside, that my life has  been, and continues to be, a path to living my purpose.