Finding Purpose — A Kind Of Mini-Memoir

Person on a spit of land looking out over water. Overhead colourful clouds are forming

“Life owes us little; we owe it everything. 
The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.”

William Cowper

Clients often ask me if I practice what I preach—if I live a life of purpose and meaning. I do. I try. Sometimes. Mostly.

But to get here, I trod a long and winding path, with many wrong turns, and more setbacks than I care to remember.

But, after deep and lingering depression, a brush with suicide, and getting myself back on track by practicing The ABCs of Emotional Mastery a Psychologist friend had taught me, I resolved to stick around, explore different paths, and see where they took me.

What Is Purpose?

Purpose: noun
1. the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc
2. an intended or desired results: end; aim; goal.
3. determination; resoluteness

Purpose answers the question, “What do I really care about—and want to bring into being, in my life, work, and world?”

A clear and compelling purpose ignites passion, and empowers you to persevere and persist, as you create results that matter deeply to you.

Man sits on the end of a rustic dock, above a dark pond, surrounded by heavy foliage. He wears a beige ball cap, a blue pullover and kaki shorts.
My purpose is—through writing and coaching—to help people develop the skills and structure to create what truly matters, with whatever they have to start with—and give their unique gifts to the world.

 To arrive at that clarity, I explored and experimented with different versions of what mattered to me. Here’s a glimpse at the crooked path(s) I took.

Early Interest in Prevention and Empowerment

I started my career as a Criminologist, focusing on prison reform and rehabilitation. A year as a Probation Officer and Court Counsellor in the Edmonton, Alberta, Family and Juvenile Court convinced me that my path more likely lay in prevention and empowerment. I wanted to focus on positives, not negatives. So I went back to school, got another degree, and became a high school teacher in Calgary.

Teaching School

I loved teaching. I loved the kids. I loved the challenge. 

Though I wanted to empower kids to think critically, make good decisions, and create lives that mattered to them, “The System” forced me to teach school more than teach kids.

Even when I followed the curriculum, I was often in The Office, getting reamed out for not teaching it the way the administration wanted me to. At the height of the Vietnam War, even though the curriculum mandated I spend one third of my time on “current events,” the Principal forbid me to teach “that radical lefty BS” and “Vietnam crap.” I did anyway. After suffering through a difficult year, and earning my Permanent Teaching Certificate, I quit

Thinking an answer might lie in teaching teachers, I enrolled in an Education Master’s program. But, alas, in the program I saw teachers socialized to fit into “teach school” systems. I quit and moved back to Calgary to work with The Company of Young Canadians, a staff led, community organizing program

Later, I taught high school again. Had awesome success the first term, working part-time with students that other teachers refused to work with. Much fun. Great success. During the second term, I was supposed to take over a class from a woman going on mat leave. But, sadly, she lost her baby, and I was out of work.

Camp And Experiential Education

The Principal and School District Superintendent wanted me back, full time in the fall. So they hooked me up with the Rocky Mountain YMCA. I wrote a history for a new outdoor centre they were building, and developed an environmental curriculum for that centre. That summer, I co-directed the Camp Chief Hector Leadership Training Staff Camp.

Seven months in the mountains opened my eyes to the power and impact of experiential education—programs and activities from which kids learn from doing—i.e. exploring, experimenting and adventuring. Those months were among the most learning-filled times of my life. Although I couldn’t have articulated then, I’d undergone a paradigm shift in my thinking about how kids learn, and how they apply that learning to their lives.

A view across a marsh surrounded by aspens and large spruce tree, looking up the rounded ridge and rock face of Mt Baldy, on the edge of the Rockies, in the Bow Valley, Alberta. The sky is pale blue, with white wisps of cloud encroaching from the right of the framework.
My Quiet Place. Marsh and Mt Baldy at Camp Chief Hector

Descent Into The Depths of Despair

That fall, teaching academic kids full-time, and stifled by the “system” again, I felt trapped. Fearing I was doomed to live out my days in the confines of a classroom, I suffered the debilitating depression and anxiety described in my Emotional Mastery eBook.

After drugs and teaching skiing at night got the anxiety under control, returned to teaching. A student gave me a copy of Carlos Casteneda’s book, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, in which Don Juan, a Yaqui shaman, becomes Carlos’ teacher. I was leery, but my heart jumped when I read:

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? . . . A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.” 

Don Juan, Yaqui Teacher

I finished out the year, and then began searching for my “path with heart.”

Action Studies

I joined the Action Studies Institute (ASI), a Calgary think tank that developed experience-based, life design, and character-building programs for teens and adults.

Formerly the Calgary Board’s Drug Educations Office, ASI took a “show ’em something better” approach to drugs and life. And focused on helping people develop “generic life design skills” for creating almost anything.

Participants took part in adventure activities and experiential programs. They learned to carve wood and soapstone, weld, tan and sew buckskin, make pottery, and craft the black powder and metal balls for flintlock muskets, and got to shoot them. They learned to hike, rock climb, and survive in the backcountry in the depths of winter.

Most important, they learned why to learn, and generic skills that enabled them to apply their specific skills across a range of challenges an opportunities

Experiences in Personal and Environmental Exploration

On the side, I’d become a Board Member and trainer for the Chicago-based, Institute for Earth Education (IEE). With IEE, I increased my ability to design experiential programs that were fun, engaging, and based on science and solid pedagogical principles. And got my first taste of teaching adults, doing training workshop for naturalists, teachers and camp staff.

Experiential education opened new worlds for me. I still dealt with “systems” but they were mostly enabling systems, not soul-killing ones. My purpose-seeking quest took a leap forward when I started Earthways: Experiences in Personal and Environmental Exploration, a three-week, teepee-based camp for teens in the Canadian Rockies.

Teen girl sits alone in rocks above her mountain camp, pondering her life purpose. Sun setting behind peaks. Her tent visible below.
Earthways teen ponders her purpose on a mountain solo

Earthways combined ASI’s character-building approach with IEE’s ecological understanding and mountain adventures such as hiking, climbing, soloing, and running creeks. We lived in teepees and cooked all our food from scratch. Each evening, around a campfire in one of the teepees, we debriefed the days’ experiences, and abstracted life lessons from them.

Earthways was a highlight, and a turning point in my life. It taughtd me I did not have to rely on an external system to show me a path. I could create my own.

Living Simply

During the summer of 1977, I read the original minimalist article, “Voluntary Simplicity” by Richard Gregg, in CoEvolution Quarterly, a spin off from the Whole Earth Catalogue.

First penned in 1936, and revised in 1974, Gregg says:

Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restrain in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It invokes a deliberate organization of life for a purpose.

Richard Gregg

I resolved to live that way, intuitively realizing that, if I wanted to create and walk my own path, living simply would give me freedom from “the system,” and freedom to create what I truly cared about.

Creating My First Business

Another big step along my path was becoming Director of the Yamnuska Mountain School (YMS) in Canmore, AB.

YMS had started at Yamnuska Centre, where I’d developed the environmental curriculum. But the school had failed, about to be shut down. I was hired to see if I could be made viable. It did. But after a year, it was obvious that mixing adult programs with kids’ summer camp programs did not work.

A group of us moved the school to Canmore. I set up the Yamnuska Mountain School Society, and became the first Executive Director of the reborn Yamnuska Mountain School.

Hardest job I ever had—six years of raising money, budgeting, marketing and promoting programs, keeping books, herding clients and argumentative staff, and fighting with old-style mountain guides and Parks Canada officials. But I taught myself how to be an entrepreneur. To make my money, rather than merely receive it via an institutional cheque.

When I left YMS, it was a profitable mountain skills and leadership school, with a reputation as one of the best in North America. Its legacy continues as Yamnuska Mountain Adventures.

Mount Yamnuska, Bow Valley, Alberta, Canada

Creating and the Path of Least Resistance

My first freelance job involved a staff housing survey and report for the town of Banff, AB. I also helped start the Banff Centre’s School of the Environment. I gave the keynote speech at its Founding Conference, and taught in the Environmental Decision Making For Managers program.

Around the same time, I took a part time gig with the Action Studies Institute. While researching creativity for a “Freedom Skills” project, I stumbled on Robert Fritz’s book The Path of Least Resistance. Originally subtitled Principles For Creating What You Want To Create, it offered a results-focused approach to creating your life and work, rather than merely solving problems. Fritz’s approach was based on three insights:

You are like a river. You go through life taking the path of least resistance. The underlying structure of your life determines the path of least resistance. You can change the fundamental structures of your life.

Cover of the first edition of Robert Fritz's book, The Path of Least Resistance: Principles For Creating What You Want To Create. The cover is textured grey, and the title is dark blue.

I trained and worked with Robert for 9 years, shifting from a problem-driven, “freedom from” stance to a “freedom to create what matters” stance.

As an Advanced Instructor for Fritz’s  Boston-basedTechnologies for Creating (TFC) program, I facilitated TFC and Organizational TFC workshops in Canada and the US. I wrote briefing notes for Peter Senge’s best-selling Fifth Discipline Handbook.

I consulted, coached, designed programs, and facilitated training for: ALCAN, Motorola, Ciba-Geigy, Scotia-McLeod, Banff Centre, Open Learning Agency of BC, Mount Royal College, Sierra Club, BC, Council of Canadians, and numerous other organizations.

At this point, I stopped searching for a path with heart, and set about creating my own.

I still use the creatingbased Life Design Framework Robert invented to help clients become the predominant creative force in their own lives.

Consulting: My Second Business

Equipped with Fritz’s sophisticated skills and a powerful organizing framework for action, I became a trainer and coach in personal, professional, and organizational empowerment. 

I designed, marketed and ran the Canadian Rockies-based Executive Retreats with One Step Beyond, an international, adventure company and speaker’s bureau. Clients included Ciba-Geigy Canada, Scotia McLeod, Control Data Institute, PetroCanada, and Pemberton Securities.

Image by Laura Shaw from Pixabay

In two businesses—Uncommon Sense Consulting, and Summit Strategies, I consulted and did workshops for small start-ups, government departments, and Fortune 500 giants. I trained executive, managers and employees in the “creating framework,” and coached them in how to apply it to their organizations, and lives. I was good at it.

“The best two days of training I have ever attended.”

Glen Farrell, President, Open Learning Agency of BC

Though I made good money, I eventually realized that a consulting path had little heart for me.

Life Design Coaching

Workshops and retreats excited and motivated people, and were a great platform for conveying the basic life design skills and structure for creating outstanding results. But, without follow-up practice and coaching, the learnings often fell by the wayside.

I started coaching people who’d taken TFC and OTFC workshops, and wanted help consistently applying the life design and creating principles and skills to their lives, work, and relationships. Sadly, there organizations rarely had budget for follow-up coaching.

I developed an early Coach Training Program for Peer Resources in Victoria, BC. And have helped numerous coaches set up and implement successful practices.

I took some time off and wrote and published a kind of self-help book, Simplicity AND Success: Creating The Life You Long For. The book exposed my ideas to thousands of people, and many sought help applying its practical approach to creating what matters. So widened my scope to coaching any individuals who wanted to make changes in their lives, work and relationships. That path had plenty of heart.

Twenty+ years later, Life Design Coaching is still my day job.


Writing had long been a dream of mine. I’d journaled occasionally, and written pieces for outdoor magazines and scholarly journals. But, even after I wrote Simplicity And Success, I still didn’t really think of myself as “a writer.”

Blank journal page open on a rough wood desk. A pen lying in the crease of the book
Empty pages.

I hoped, wished, wanted and whined about being a writer, but failed to write consistently, other than in support of my work. I focused on what I “should” do to earn time and money so, someday maybe, I could write.

One New Years, while reviewing ten years of annual Desired Results lists, I noticed that the top result on each list was a different “Bruce’s Trip of The Year.” These were great results. I created many of them. But they weren’t what I most deeply wanted to do and create.

I also noticed that, on every list, just below “Trip Of The Year” was one word: “Writer.”

I immediately moved “Writer/Writing Life” to the top of my List—and started working on a memoir, one hour each morning. I took writing courses, went to workshops, hired a coach and read dozens of “how to write” books. Slowly, I began to develop my writing chops and shifted my primary focus, time and energy to the writing path.

As well as Simplicity and Success, I wrote the four ebooks featured at the bottom of these pages. I wrote articles for magazines and blogs. I published a bi-weekly blog and e-newsletter for nearly 20 years. Still do.

Writing is my passion. Coaching, while important, is secondary. It allows me the financial freedom to write. Together, they lay down a life/work path that is truly heart-filled.

The memoir is coming along nicely.

Creating What Matters Most

As T.S. Elliot said in The Four Quartets, “At the end of all our exploration, we shall arrive at where we started, and know that place for the first time.”

As I got deeper into both writing and creating, I saw I’d traveled full circle.

I’d started with prevention and teaching. Then, seeking my path with heart, I moved to Experiential Ed and Earth Education, then to Life Design and creating what matters, and coaching, consulting, and writing as a way to empower others.

Finally, it dawned on me that “writing” was my path with heart, that purpose I’d been searching for. Instead, of “finding my path,” I’d created it by delving deeper and deeper into what mattered most to me—and then bringing desired results into being.

Now, I see myself as a writer first, and a coach second, helping others create their own paths with heart. It’s a very satisfying mix. I still live simply, for my own sake, and for the Earth. So, yes, I do live my passion and purpose.

On grey wooden desk, a laptop is surrounded by a phone, a cup of coffee, a glass of water, a plant, a notebook and a phone. The writer's arms and hands can be seen typing. As can the blue sleeves of the writer's shirt
The writer, pondering what to say.

Need Help Creating Your Life Purpose?

I’d love to share what I’ve learned about Life Design, creating purpose, and following a self-created path with heart. With a caring, supportive, personal life coach to help, you might find that you can create that path much quicker and easier than I did.

Bruce Elkin

Life Design Coach. Personal Life Coach. 25 years experience. Clients on 6 continents. Author of 5 books and ebooks. Cares about the Earth and living in harmony with its natural systems.