Discovering your strengths and passion.
Shortly after graduating from college, I was at a loss. My friends were in medical school or getting law degrees, others worked in finance. A professor encouraged me to complete a PhD in Comparative Literature, my major, but though I loved reading and writing, the doctoral route in literature did not feel quite right. So I began teaching Pilates while I contemplated my next steps—and life changed.
As I began teaching, I awakened to a sense of timelessness and happiness I had never before experienced. No matter how I felt before class, I always felt fantastic during and after—and it wasn’t just exercise endorphins. This was the first work experience where I didn’t feel the time go by or even look at the clock. In fact, I had to be careful not to go overtime. I could have gone on for hours. What I felt was nothing short of fulfillment. Wow—had I found my dream job? What would my parents say if, after supporting me through four years at Yale, their daughter announced that she was going to become a professional Pilates instructor? They could have saved themselves a lot of money.
Over time, I realized that it wasn’t Pilates that made me fulfilled, it was the act of teaching and sharing something that helped others be happier and healthier. I felt expanded, elated, loving, and joyful at the idea of helping others find fulfillment—and it was this realization that has led to all my professional teaching, research, and writing.
I think that realization also made me more aware of the energy around me when I arrived at Stanford to pursue my doctoral studies in psychology. I immediately felt the manic buzz of an overachieving student culture, a buzz that included three suicides on campus the first year that I was there. The competitive, workaholic, and frenzied culture of an otherwise beautiful and inspiring campus had surely played a role in the decisions made by these students to end their lives.
Meanwhile, I found strength through breathing and meditation practices. So another graduate student and I started organizing grassroots well-being, yoga, breathing, and meditation events and workshops for students. My classmates told me I was crazy; they could not understand why I was spending up to 25 hours a week volunteering. They were spending every possible moment in the lab or at their computers, and they were sure that I was harming my career. Yet I was happier than I had ever been, was getting A’s in my classes, completing my research projects on time, and ended up graduating relatively early (five years, when most take six or more) while gaining acceptance to one of the greatest postdoctoral research labs in my field.
As numerous studies now show, the time I had spent volunteering was so rewarding, fulfilling, and intrinsically valuable, bringing such delight to my mind and peace to my heart, that it actually charged my battery for everything else. My energy was high, my mood was positive, I went to sleep with peace in my heart and felt joyful at work. A classmate once asked me, “What are you on?” And I thought, What are you not getting? Because I was fulfilled, and my eyes were open to the fact that we were incredibly fortunate to be in one of the best programs, doing research we enjoyed, and getting a stipend to do so. I saw things as they were, with gratitude and happiness and awareness. Making a difference kept things in perspective, and kept them light. A plethora of research studies now support the notion that our greatest source of joy lies in giving and supporting others.
All of a sudden, life wasn’t just about me and my small circle of friends and family. It wasn’t a narrow-minded focus on achieving my own dreams and aspirations. It was about connecting with others and helping them find peace and joy. And along the way I experienced a bliss and fulfillment that had been unavailable to me.
One consequence I had not predicted was that feeling connected to others and committing to contributing to their lives made me more successful. To my surprise, upon graduation, Stanford University awarded me the Lyons Award for service. Though I never expected to benefit from the workshops I taught—not beyond the deep inner peace and joy I experienced—it turned out that many former students have invited me to speak at their companies, write for their publications, and otherwise helped promote my career.