Monday 21 October 2019

Discovering the work you were born to do

What would you do with your life if you weren't afraid? When Caroline Casey asked herself this question, the result was truly life changing, writes Joanna Kiernan

Caroline Casey at the Irish Independent Insider Magazine talk series
Caroline Casey at the Irish Independent Insider Magazine talk series
Caroline Casey

Joanna Kiernan

It is easy to spot those in life who have found their purpose. They are the people who live life with passion. They are the individuals who take time to enjoy the little things, dedicate themselves to leaving a positive imprint and do not worry about what the rest of the world thinks of them. They are secure, confident in their abilities and know who they are.

For many of us, this state is the Holy Grail. We assume, wrongly, that once we finally decide to leap from the great hamster wheel, this blissful existence awaits to break our fall. And by then the comfort of apathy - which usurped years, if not decades of our puny amount of time on this earth - will somehow be forgotten.

The sad fact, however, is that many of us, if we are not careful, will never find our life's purpose. We will search in all the wrong places, ignore every instinct and try to repeatedly squeeze ourselves like round pegs into square holes, until eventually it is too late.

Caroline Casey is one of the lucky ones. "Your purpose changes as you grow and you change and it's an extraordinary thing. At different times you have different purposes," she tells me. "At 17 my life changed and that was one turning point and I have had several of them since. That was a great moment where I had an explanation, the realisation that I wasn't just some crazy, clumsy blonde chick, who was really bad at sports. There was more to it than that."

On her 17th birthday Caroline accompanied her visually impaired younger sister to an appointment with an eye specialist, as she had done many times before.

"Going to the eye specialist was like a family outing. It was a free day off school. The eye specialist just noticed it was my birthday and asked 'so what are you going to do to celebrate?' and I said 'I'm going to learn how to drive!'"

Caroline's excitement was met with silence. "He turned to my mother and he said 'you haven't told her yet?'" she recalls.

A short time later Caroline was informed that she was and had been since birth, legally blind.

"I just wanted to reject it. I wasn't prepared," she explains. "At 17-years-old you want to get on with your life and you are mostly thinking about who you are going to be when you grow up. I thought that vision impairment was going to stop me being what I wanted to be. So I decided right then that I was not going to be a visually impaired person.

"I had got to 17. So I thought 'OK, if I got to here and managed well then I can get through the rest of my life'. It was the wrong decision, but it was a very important decision," Caroline adds. "The most important thing in life is to be yourself, but it is a really difficult thing to do. I had made a decision to reject a part of me and that moment has defined everything that I have done since then."

Over the next decade Caroline rallied against her disability, concealing it as best she could.

"I chose to go through life for the next 11 years proving that I could see and that I was just as good as everyone else," she explains. "I never for a moment thought that I could also be very successful being open about my sight. It never occurred to me at all. I put myself under huge pressure and I achieved extraordinary things in those years, but at a high cost to myself."

Ultimately, fate intervened and despite Caroline's efforts, her sight temporarily deteriorated. Eleven years after the discovery, the choice to share her disability with the world was taken out of Caroline's hands and the now high-flying, global management consultant with Accenture found herself in front of the company's HR manager, forced to reveal her secret.

"I put myself under this pressure trying to be a version of myself that I thought was acceptable to the world, but I don't think it was anything to do with visual impairment; we all have something like this in our lives - we make an excuse or a reason not to be ourselves," Caroline says. "That was just mine and the more I achieved, the more I thought I was getting away with it, but it was so exhausting."

Once again Caroline found herself in an eye specialist's office, but this time she describes the appointment as more like "a therapy session." The specialist advised Caroline to stop fighting her disability and do something different with her life. This moment was to have a profound effect on her. "He asked me 'what did you want to be when you were little?'"

Caroline grieved for the life she had built for herself. Her world was shaken. However, after some soul searching, she finally found the answer to that doctor's question - her childhood dream was to become Mowgli from The Jungle Book.

"You don't get more different than that," Caroline laughs. "I can still remember watching The Jungle Book when I was six-years-old in Gorey cinema. For Mowgli, the jungle was a land of complete possibility. So for me it represented the freedom to be who I am."

Just over a year later, Caroline spent four-and-a-half months as a mahout in India, trekking 1,000 kilometres in aid of Sightsavers on an elephant named Kanchi.

"It never ceases to amaze me that I did that journey," she smiles. "When I met Kanchi on January 13, 2001, it was amazing. I wish I could give you the words to describe coming face to face with what was a dream. I don't think very many people get that chance, to have something like that happen. When I put my forehead on her forehead, even if my life had to stop there, I remember thinking 'I am truly the luckiest person in the world'.

"I think we really know who we want to be when we are very young, but it's just that we make a whole load of reasons and excuses as we grow older and our lives become more secure and as we become more comfortable it's harder to come out and take those risks," Caroline adds. "You are entirely accountable and responsible for your own life and that's the hard thing about growing up. The possibilities do not die with childhood, but we start to get in our own way. I have got in my own way more often than I can tell you."

On her return from India, Caroline founded a not-for-profit organisation with the aim of changing attitudes and behaviours towards disability by working with business leaders. Caroline named the organisation Kanchi after her beloved elephant.

The group has since developed a set of best practices for businesses, to help them see people with disabilities as assets as opposed to liabilities; as customers, employees and members of the community. Hundreds of companies across the globe have now adopted these standards.

"Living your life's purpose does not mean jacking everything else in or making extreme decisions. It is about knowing who you are and what your values are," she says. "People always imagine that I did the elephant trip and then - Eureka! My life was fixed and sorted - not at all. Oddly that elephant trip opened up that Pandora's Box of many more questions and challenges than I ever realised.

"But nobody else should tell another human being who they are, or what they can be, or to limit their chances or opportunities," Caroline continues. "That is the core belief inside me. When I started to own my own tribe - because the one billion people in the world who have a disability, they are my tribe - I was quite disgusted with myself that I had been part of the discrimination against disabilities by not owning my own disability."

For Caroline there were pros and cons to the fact that her disability was kept from her for so long. Though confusing and frustrating at times, her parents' decision allowed her to experience the world without the label of disability.

"I really do think labels are for packages and jam jars. They are not for people," Caroline continues. "For a long time I didn't have that 'visually impaired' label, therefore I could operate to the fullest part of myself. I didn't have that label to limit me.

"But later when I did start to investigate why I was so against owning that label, I found that the reason was because I had seen how disability was accepted in the world and I had seen how people with disabilities were treated, or left out, or assumptions were made about them," Caroline adds. "It is extraordinary that people have decided that Joe or Mary, because they happen to use a wheelchair or have a hearing impairment or a mental health issue, that somebody else decides how they are going to live their life."

This revelation inspired Caroline to go out and try to change how the world views, not just disabled people, but every person in society and break down some of the barriers that exist, which prevent individuals from being who they really are.

"I wanted to create a world where everybody belongs and as the disability community are often the ones most hard hit by that, we started there, but it goes beyond disability," Caroline explains. "Whether it's for the LGBT community, someone who's a different colour, somebody of age - frankly it is all the same thing. It's about seeing beyond that label. I really care about that justice of everybody getting to be the person they want to be."

Caroline began this quest by targeting the business sector. "Business is the most powerful force on the planet and the catalyst for change everywhere in every aspect of society. It touches every lived moment," says Caroline. "If we can get business leaders to see the value of inclusive leadership and help them change their mindset and their behaviours and create inclusive businesses, by default society will become inclusive."

Through this work, Caroline has discovered her purpose in life. She is no longer on the hamster wheel, pretending to be something other than she is. Caroline is happy in her own skin, but that is not to say life is always easy.

"It's hard to stay true to yourself because there is always a more comfortable path. It is hard, you have to make tough decisions, which have implications," she explains. "I sometimes wonder what I am doing; could I not have chosen something easier? But the thing is, I didn't choose it, it chose me.

"We all come to our life purpose in a different way," Caroline adds. "You don't need to jack in your job or set up a social enterprise. You do not need to go across India on the back of an elephant. Mine was an extraordinary jump. If I were to go back into industry again, I could still live my life's purpose holding down a full-time job, but making sure that I was contributing to this mission in a different way, making sure that the culture of the company that I was working with cared about people. Everyone can reach their life purpose in many ways, as long as you are being who you want to be and living your life according to your values."

Caroline Casey is a counsellor at One Young World 2014,

Finding your life purpose

by Caroline Casey

1. Ask yourself what would you do if you were not scared?

2. Trust your gut. The most remarkable thing is that every one of us has this extraordinary wisdom inside us. We have all the answers already. They are inside us. That gut instinct is your deep sense of self and who you are and the thing that so often stops using that gut instinct is our analysing brain. My mum used to say ‘too much analysis leads to paralysis’.

3. You won’t find your life’s purpose running around being hysterical and manic. It’s only when you are quiet and listen to yourself that you will find the answers. Not when you are running around at 90 miles an hour.

4. Be self aware. Recognise and get familiar with what makes you really happy. You might not find your life purpose in those moments, but you will find ingredients for it.

5. Meet lots of people. Find time for the people who are doing completely different things to you and ask questions. Expose yourself to all sorts of different experiences that you may never have imagined.

6. Get out of your comfort zone.

7. Do not be afraid of failure. Accept failure and keep going.

8. Try not to worry about what other people think of you. It’s hard not to take things personally, but if you want to be yourself completely it is so important not to get caught up in other people’s ideas or opinions of you.

9. Do not copy someone else. You cannot be somebody else. Oscar Wilde said it best ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.’

10. Don’t lie to yourself. You can’t fool yourself. Challenge your excuses.

‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’ - Oscar Wilde


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