On November 7, I interviewed Wendy May. Wendy May is a purpose coach, conscious leadership consultant, author, and speaker on regenerative purpose. After leaving behind a successful corporate career, she embarked on a heart-lead journey of service work in 2015. As a changemaker, she supports the process of soul purpose alignment so we can create a world of work that works for everyone.
There are ripples in a pond that happened from these small actions that we take. – Wendy MayTweet
Timeline of the Chat
01:31 – Following the conventional path
02:33 – Recognizing the need for something different
05:22 – On having everything
06:35 – The concept of regenerative purpose
11:28 – The source of the ideas in Regenerative Purpose
14:02 – Purpose is multidimensional
15:44 – The cultural appropriation of ikigai
17:47 – Wendy’s Background
21:08 – Discussing privilege and prejudice
21:55 – Being on purpose
23:46 – Creating Space with Regenerative Purpose
30:46 – Challenge/Invitation from Wendy
32:10 – Reminder to Pause
33:39 – What Brings Wendy joy
Regenerative purpose also gives us more of our power back in terms of not subscribing to a program that has been written by someone else. – Wendy MayTweet
Purpose to me is multidimensional; it’s something that takes many different forms. – Wendy MayTweet
Transcript of the Episode
Following the conventional path [00:01:31]
Damianne: [00:01:31] You started out your career on the traditional path. What did that look like?
Wendy: [00:01:36] My parents are immigrants to the US and I studied really hard like most Asian kids to get really good grades. Then went to a good university, worked at a lot of name brand companies, got promoted, got raises, got a condo in San Francisco, you know, all the material success and external achievements. And yeah, about five or so years ago kind of reached this pinnacle of achievement and realized that I was really unhappy actually in my life. And that’s when I started to make some pretty significant changes in the way that I was living my life.
Damianne: [00:02:15] How long had you been on that path when you decided that you needed a change?
Wendy: [00:02:20] It was in different jobs in corporate, both internal in different companies, as well as externally as a consultant in the management consulting firm, in total about 15 years. That was five years ago that I left.
Recognizing the need for something different [00:02:33]
Damianne: [00:02:34] Was there a turning point? Can you pinpoint when the discontent or the unhappiness started, or when you started to notice it?
Wendy: [00:02:45] I would say it was an accumulation of things that gradually built up to the point where I had to make a change, because there was a lot of resistance actually. Everything that I had been taught my whole life was working towards this particular version of success, let’s say. And it was really hard to change my mind around what does success really mean and to acknowledge actually that I was deeply unhappy. Even in my own mind, I was sort of fighting with myself and saying, no, but you have everything that you’re supposed to have to be happy. Why are you unhappy? It doesn’t make any sense and you know, you’re crazy and all this kind of thing.
So yeah, it was a gradual process that looks like it was a sudden change, but that’s only because the action seemed like a momentary switch, but everything that happened to lead up to that moment was over years and months of time.
Damianne: [00:03:37] Steven Pressfield has a book called The War of Art. And in it, he talks about all of the challenges that we face when we seek to make a change, especially when we’re seeking to be creative. I think we can define the word creative quite broadly. It doesn’t have to be in music or in the arts.
And so you talk about this idea of resistance, which is a big theme in The War of Art. What did that look like for you? What challenges, either internally or externally, did you face once you made the decision for a change?
Wendy: [00:04:13] Number one, and I think it’s the same for most of my coaching clients, is just fear of not having financial security. I was taught this is the way to have safety in the world, is to have a good job and to make money, to be independent and not have to rely on anyone for anything, that this is safety and that this is freedom actually.
It took me a long time to start to see that actually, this is not true safety and it’s not true freedom, that actually it’s a trap to feel like you need to acquire and accumulate wealth, and sort of build up your own fortress as a defense against the world. This actually is part of the roots of unhappiness.
It breeds isolation and loneliness and kind of a false sense of security that’s based on material things but doesn’t really cultivate that deep sense of nourishment that we have from being connected in community and feeling social support of other human beings, the interdependence that I think that on a soul level we are really craving and we’ve become quite distant from in modern life.
On having everything [00:05:22]
Damianne: [00:05:22] Now many of us have, have bought into the idea that you can have everything. You can have that high power job, and you can have the family you want, and you can have the relationship you want, and you could be involved in your community. Talk to me about how you think about that presentation of what life could be like.
Wendy: [00:05:41] On some level, I believe that that’s true. I do believe that we can create the kind of life that we want, that we can have the experience of life that we want. I think that where we’re misguided is that we’re led to believe this is represented by symbols, like the car, the job, the wife, the kids. We equate having it all with these objects and the objects that we seek as the symbols of success are actually finite. They’re limited. We’re dysfunctional in thinking that that is unlimited. This is kind of part of our toxic consumerism and capitalism and consumption addiction that we think that these things are limitless without cost. And this is actually quite damaging to ourselves as well as to the planet.
The concept of regenerative purpose [00:06:35]
Damianne: [00:06:35] Your idea is regenerative purpose and that’s the name of your book as well. That term was new to me. Could you share with listeners, what is regenerative purpose and how does it compare with conventional purpose?
Wendy: [00:06:48] In a nutshell, regenerative purpose is treating purpose as an experience rather than an object of seeking. A lot of self-help paints purpose as something that we need to find or figure out, that it’s kind of this fixed entity, you know, sort of a secret mission statement that’s engraved on our DNA that we need to diagnose, and that it’s just sort of a singular thing that everybody has this purpose. Your goal is to figure it out so that you can then make a strategic plan to get there, as if there’s somewhere to get to.
Regenerative purpose is actually the opposite of that. It treats purpose as something that is omnipresent and available to everyone regardless of your station in life. You don’t need a high priced coaching package or whatever to find that actually it’s kind of always around. It’s more something that we access by breaking down some of the conditioning that we have in ourselves that separates us from feeling the alignment of purpose.
Regenerative purpose is named that intentionally because it sort of connotes this fluidity and this cyclical nature. It’s a version of purpose that’s more aligned with nature, rather than sort of human manufactured concepts. In nature, things are cyclical; they’re created and then they’re destroyed.
It’s different than thinking about purpose as something that I need to do that I need to make happen from an ego centered perspective. It changes into something that we’re able to just access by connecting to being part of something bigger than ourselves, by tapping into this flow of nature that we’re part of, but maybe we’re not so important in. It’s not so much about me but around recognizing that we’re the nodes in a web, and connecting to this interdependence and seeing that actually we’re not doing anything of significance on our own, that we are supporting others and we’re supported by others in this web of interdependence all the time.
Damianne: [00:08:56] As I’m listening to you speak, it sounds like you need to be part of something, you need to find something, some community that connects to you. What does that look like? I can imagine listeners thinking, is this something intrinsic to me? Is this something that I need to be observant of the world to see where am I needed? What does that look like?
Wendy: [00:09:18] In my book regenerative purpose, I talk about what I call the four core purpose qualities. So to me, these are ways of being in the world that allow us to connect to that feeling of being on purpose. And I think that when we say we’re looking for purpose, we want to have purpose in our lives, what we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive and being aligned. It’s not so much about having a business plan or a project plan or some concept that I can brand and put on a business card. It’s not really about that. And so the way for me to access regenerative purpose is to work on these qualities in myself that are actually kind of an unlearning .
It’s an unlearning of the conditioning that we’ve been trained in our whole lives to go with the plan, and feed a system, to kind of get freedom from that so that we can feel better in ourselves and those qualities.
I would just mention them briefly: authenticity; attunement, so that’s where we talk about this deep listening and being open to feedback from the world and being in conversation and co-creation. So [they are] authenticity, attunement, responsiveness, and responsiveness is distinct from reactivity or responsibility, even, responsiveness being that ability to choose direction and to take action from a place of presence and from love, not from obligations, expectation or societally imposed expectations. The final one is about receptivity. It completes the cycle because it’s what nourishes us and brings us sustenance to make this whole process sustainable.
There needs to be a give and a take, but receptivity is also much more than just material support and financial support. Receptivity is also being part of this web and receiving guidance and signals from other people, synchronistic meetings, different signs that we’re getting from our environment, the feedback that we get from the world about direction, about focus and where we’re needed.
The source of the ideas in Regenerative Purpose [00:11:28]
Damianne: [00:11:28] It really sounds like it matters how we show up, the choices we make and the way that we decide, the intention that we have as we live our lives.
What led you to this realization and how did you come up with the concepts in regenerative purpose?
Wendy: [00:11:48] Honestly, I don’t think that I came up with them. It’s a repackaging of, I think, ancient wisdom. I don’t necessarily think that anything in the book is brand new. It’s not of my invention. Maybe I have my own way of framing it or putting it into words. But I think that the things that I’m talking about in this book are really old concepts of how to be a human being and how to live in the world that we’ve lost touch with.
So in a sense, I would say there’s nothing new in it. In terms of how it came to me, I would say it’s my experience, it’s also the experience of my clients that I’ve been working with around purpose over the last five years. To be honest, when I first started doing that work, I didn’t even realize it was about purpose.
It was in the beginning just about my own life transition and my own changes that I had made in my career. And I had people reaching out to me saying, Hey, you seem to have shifted and you’re much happier now. I want some of that. Can you help me? And I said, okay, yeah.
I was coaching people basically on life transition and making change, and only looking backwards was I able to see that the theme that was emerging was really that people were looking for this deeper sense of alignment in what they were doing with their lives, how they were investing their time, money, energy, capital, to create the kind of world that we want to live in.
I put this term purpose on it. Of course we can understand it in a lot of different ways but that’s effectively what it was about. And the idea for the book came, you know, similar to my own life change, I think came in drips and drops over time. It entered my awareness, entered my consciousness in different insights over time, and then eventually became a book without me ever setting out in the beginning with the intention of writing a book.
Damianne: [00:13:37] I think that listeners can really apply this to their own life in terms of finding the patterns, seeing the patterns that are helping them be happy, and the patterns that are really more destructive forces or more negative forces in their life. And so if we are open to being able to see the feedback we’re getting from life, as you said, there are so many lessons that we can learn.
Purpose is multidimensional [00:14:02]
One book that a friend recommended to me that I started recently is a book on scanners. I don’t remember the author, but it basically talks about how the world tells us we need to make a choice and we need to do one thing and focus everything on that one thing. And really there is another way that we can explore the breadth of our interest and we can have a variety of different experiences.
And so, as you’re talking, it’s making me think of this too, that it doesn’t have to be the purpose. It can be purpose in the things that we do, or it can also be our purpose that changes over time.
Wendy: [00:14:42] Absolutely. Purpose to me is multidimensional; it’s something that takes many different forms. We tend to focus on the form. When we ask somebody what is your purpose? The only thing that you can answer with is something that takes a material form, right, like I made a book, I made a podcast. Here’s this thing that I created, but actually that’s not the purpose. That’s just the by-product of the purpose.
Purpose can be served in many ways that are fleeting, that don’t take a form. Purpose can be served by a brief interaction that you have with someone in the checkout lane of the grocery store. Purpose can be infused in the way that you parent your children on a day-to-day basis. Purpose can be where you choose to shop and spend your money. Everything like that is purpose because it’s all different ways that we intentionally invest our time, money, energy, all the different currency that we have access to to influence our reality. The choices that we make around that, all of that is purpose.
The cultural appropriation of ikigai [00:15:44]
Damianne: [00:15:44] Another term that you use is ikigai, which is a Japanese term. It’s interesting because I lived in Japan for four years, but I didn’t come across the term until recently in the past couple of years, a number of friends and colleagues have been talking about the word ikigai. What’s your understanding of ikigai and how does it connect to the concepts of purpose?
Wendy: [00:16:09] Yeah, so it’s interesting. One of the bonus chapters of my book, that’s available on my website, is called The Cultural Appropriation of Ikigai. So I have sort of a, I guess a bit of a fringe perspective on that as well. I know that it’s a very popular term and I think that it’s compelling.
There’s a sort of a fetishization of things that are Japanese in many ways and modern culture. And there are things that are relevant around the concept of ikigai. But I would say the way that ikigai has been co-opted is a relatively modern application. So, yeah, I mean, ikigai literally means reason for being. It’s connected to a long line of research around how a sense of purpose and a sense of meaning and a sense of alignment with our external environment supports us mostly with longevity.
It originated with the Japanese doctor who was doing this research on patients who were terminally ill; that was the origination of it, but this sort of four-part Venn diagram that ikigai has been associated with is frankly kind of made up.
Damianne: [00:17:25] That’s interesting. I think this is not an unusual thing that we see nowadays where a traditional concept is co-opted and expanded and it’s used in ways that were not originally intended. And we have no way of knowing that until we go and do some of the research, which a lot of people don’t nowadays .
Wendy’s Background [00:17:47]
As we speak about culture, how do you identify?
Wendy: [00:17:52] You mean in terms of my own background? So I am an American born Chinese and Taiwanese woman. My parents are from Mainland China and from Taiwan so that’s my ancestry. I am ethnic Chinese, culturally American and currently living in Thailand. I would say I’ve many, many, multiple, multiple cultural influences, largely Asian based.
My family’s historically Buddhist. I would call myself agnostic or spiritual and yeah, I guess in some ways I’ve become less and less identified with my American-ness over time and see myself associating with a more international community, with a different set of values that aren’t necessarily tied to nationality.
Damianne: [00:18:45] Yeah, one of my favorite quotes is the world is one country and mankind its citizens. And I, as a person who’s lived in multiple countries around the world and who now lives in the Czech Republic as an immigrant, that really resonates with me. I find it a bit challenging at times because I have citizenship in Canada and in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, and people will ask me about things that are happening in those places. And I don’t know when I will live in either of those places again, if I will live in either of those places again. I find it hard to figure out my responsibility and my interaction with each of them.
I’m curious as an Asian person, who’s not Thai but living in Thailand, what is that like? I know it can be a bit different if you look similar to people in an area but you’re not from that area.
Wendy: [00:19:40] Yeah, it’s very complicated. Of course living in the US, I experienced racism growing up, and that was somehow a little bit more clear. But living in Thailand, it’s very complicated because there’s multiple layers of these kinds of biases that I have to unpack: being a woman, being Asian, looking Thai but not being Thai.
I’ve experienced many times people speaking Thai to me because I look like I should understand the language, but I don’t. And then I come back to them with my perfect English, my American English, and they’re just confused, you know? So it’s definitely the body that I’m in and the culture that I’ve been brought up in, language that I speak messes with people’s heads a little. I can see the shock sometimes on people’s faces when I opened my mouth, because it’s not what they’re expecting.
It’s an interesting thing. I have fun with it a little bit and try not to take it too seriously. I will say that I have experienced some forms of what I would say, uh, race-based privilege relative to my, you know, white presenting foreign friends here in Thailand because of the way I look.
It’s not quite as overt as the racism in the US. I would say it’s much more subtle, but I do notice it that sometimes if I’m waiting at a food stand to be served, I will be served first before my white friends, you know, so, yeah, it is interesting.
Discussing privilege and prejudice [00:21:08]
Damianne: [00:21:08] It’s interesting to think about in one body, in one presentation, there can be privilege and there can also be oppression or prejudice or bias at the same time. And I think that’s sometimes a difficult concept or a difficult thing for people to think about because we don’t do very well with shades of gray.
Wendy: [00:21:35] Privilege is multi-faceted. I think that we all are more privileged in some ways and less privileged in other ways. And also it’s contextual. As I was just sharing the story with you I was thinking the whole privilege matrix for me changes based on where I am in the world. So yeah, it’s also something that’s very contextual.
Being on purpose [00:21:55]
Damianne: [00:21:55] So if we go back to the concept of purpose and living on purpose, as opposed to finding purpose, how can a person go about developing the qualities, or what is one action somebody can take to be on purpose?
Wendy: [00:22:10] This is the tricky thing, right? The hard thing to sell about regenerative purpose is that there is no silver bullet solution. It’s really a lifelong commitment. It’s a practice and it’s something that we have to kind of have a discipline or devotion to, because like anything that requires practice, it’s not something that you can just accomplish and then you’re done. You kind of approach it but you never reach it or finish it. And there’s going to be movements in your life that take you further away from it. It’s a practice of having to recenter, rebalance and reconnect with it always.
For me, it really does center around these qualities that I mentioned before. And in my book, I actually talk about how each of these four purpose qualities is broken down into different dimensions that are inner and outer, as well as the interface between the inner and outer layer of these qualities.
I talk about different practices that are associated with all of these different types of qualities. There’s no simple or brief way to express it. It’s just, there’s many different things that we can do to connect with authenticity and attunement and responsiveness and receptivity.
And it’s also an awareness about how most of the world, the way that it’s set up is going to block us from those qualities or prevent us from accessing those qualities because that’s kind of the default culture that we live in right now. So it takes a lot of discipline and devotion to really cultivate these qualities in ourselves and to remain faithful to that even when external pressures would push us in a different direction.
Creating Space with Regenerative Purpose [00:23:46]
Damianne: [00:23:46] When you talk to people about regenerative purpose or when you coach your clients, do you ever find that this concept brings up any anxiety for people? Because I think on some level, when we see, okay, there is the signpost. I’m going to that signpost and when I get there, yay. But now we’re saying it can shift, it could change, it looks different at different times. What’s the reaction?
Wendy: [00:24:12] It’s actually the opposite. Most of the time when I’m talking to people about regenerative purpose and they really get it for the first time, generally what people experience is a sense of relaxation and a sense of ease because the traditional variety of purpose, the conventional approach to purpose is so objectifying and is goal oriented. That is what creates this anxiety and this stress and this almost shame around not having your purpose or knowing what it is. But when people really understand what regenerative purpose is, it actually invites them into this sense of, you know, kind of this exhale. There is this relief that comes from knowing that purpose is available to us all the time and that we can access it without having to try so hard to achieve something.
Damianne: [00:25:05] This is making me think that whatever you’re doing, maybe there are a few exceptions, but in most cases you can actually find the purpose or find a purpose in what you’re doing, as opposed to looking for the purpose that you’re going to be living.
I like that. It’s a bit of a mind shift, but it helps you have a different stance in the world, a different way that you interact with people and with whatever it is that you’re doing.
Wendy: [00:25:35] Yeah. And I think actually what it does is it supports sovereignty. You know, it makes us less susceptible to have our time, money and energy co-opted by other forces that would use us for their own purpose. Having this perspective actually makes us, um, ironically, you know, I talk about the fact that regenerative purpose is about interdependence, but regenerative purpose also gives us more of our power back in terms of not subscribing to a program that has been written by someone else.
It gives us more authorship, I would say, over our lives and more intentionality around how we want our lives to be used as a force of good and a force of change in the world.
Damianne: [00:26:20] If people are looking for your book, they will notice that they can’t find it on Amazon. Tell me about that decision and does it connect in some way to the concepts of purpose?
Wendy: [00:26:33] Yeah, absolutely. I launched my book on Amazon originally and a few months later decided to remove it from Amazon, because I realized actually that amazon as a company, the way that they operate and the way that they interact and reward and report data to their authors, independent published authors, is not aligned with my values. Once I had this realization, it would have been hypocritical for me to continue to sell my book on their platform. So it was very much a regenerative purpose move for me to remove my book.
This is one of these things where, you know, we can see how we start to change the world with the small actions that we take, the small acts of rebellion. Many people said to me, wow, it’s not a very smart move to remove your book from Amazon. And I said but if selling my book on Amazon is actually antithetical to the principles of what I’m communicating in the book, then I’m not even living regenerative purpose myself, and then I’m a fraud. What point is there in that? Even if I sell a few more books, it’s not worth it to me. I’m out of integrity. So this was the reason why I took my book off of Amazon and you can only find it on my own website.
But of course the nature of the way Amazon works, you can actually still buy the book on Amazon because Amazon has been able to procure the book through third-party publishers and things like that. So they do have it on Amazon, but I’m not selling it on Amazon. So this is the thing that it seems like a minor thing, but it’s, to me it’s a big deal.
Damianne: [00:28:11] Yes and I guess the whole idea is making the choices, doing the things that feel right for you. And sometimes it’s very easy for us to rationalize the decisions we want to make anyway. When we feel this, this struggle, this cognitive dissonance, one approach is all of the rationalizations that we can make. So I think it’s a very interesting challenge to ourselves to consider where are we not living with authenticity, where are we making excuses that we could identify if we were being honest?
Wendy: [00:28:53] Yeah. Yeah And it seems almost kind of pointless to take my book off of Amazon, that it’s not going to really make a big impact. But this is the whole point of what I’m saying in regenerative purpose. If we collectively all took small actions like this, it would make a big difference.
Around the time that I removed my book from Amazon, I also wrote a Medium essay around why I’m leaving Amazon. I launched a mini social media campaign to get all of my friends to boycott Amazon as well. So, you know, maybe half a dozen people decided to cancel their prime accounts because of me. But you know, that’s still something, and if those people talk to two more people, there are ripples in a pond that happened from these small actions that we take, especially if we’re transparent with the people around us about the principled decisions that we’re making or the sacrifices that we’re taking with intention, that we make these decisions consciously. We start to make other people around us question the same things, you know, whereas they might not have had awareness before.
Damianne: [00:29:57] I have to admit that the first time I heard the Mary Oliver poem and there’s this one line, what will you do with your one wild and precious life? And I have to say it, this gives me a bit of anxiety because I was like my one wild and precious life. But as I think about… it doesn’t have to be what will you do with your one wild and precious life?
It could be, what will you do with your one wild and precious life? It could have a very different tone around it in that life is precious. What are the things that matter to you in terms of what you’re doing? Are you doing things that sit right with you, that feel right. It doesn’t have to be that it’s a big thing. It could even be those tiny things, those tiny actions.
Challenge/Invitation from Wendy [00:30:46]
Connecting to the idea of action, I don’t know if this is discordant to ask you this, but could you share a challenge or an invitation with listeners around the idea of purpose?
Wendy: [00:30:59] Yeah. The challenge that I would give is to ask people to consider how their purpose actually doesn’t belong to them because we often say my purpose and your purpose. The invitation is to reflect upon how purpose cannot be mine and cannot be yours; it is necessarily ours. That this purpose that we talk about, if what we’re really up to is making a positive difference in the world, it doesn’t exist in isolation, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum or in my own mind, or as a concept that I can hold individually. So yeah, this is the question that I would invite people to reflect on is how can you see that purpose doesn’t belong to you?
Damianne: [00:31:51] I will share all of your links in the show notes, and people can learn more about you and more about your work. You tend to be heywendymay everywhere so that’s easy enough to find and heywendymay.com, regenerativepurpose.com. All of those links will be in the show notes.
Reminder to Pause [00:32:10]
As we end our conversation today, is there anything else that you would like to share? Any recommendations or suggestions or anything else that’s on your mind?
Wendy: [00:32:20] No, not really. I guess, you know, for me personally, in this time. It’s just been very challenging I think for many of us. What I’m feeling into in this exact moment is just, uh, calling to be a bit still and to be patient with the process and wait for further instructions for life from life, I would say, because it, it feels like for me, at least, I don’t know if this is the case for others that are listening, but, I feel a lot of heaviness in the last months and especially the last couple of weeks. And there is a little bit of confusion, I guess, about the next step. And if I’m practicing regenerative purpose, I am reminding myself also that these moments of pause and these moments of confusion and sadness and anger, whatever is coming up right now, are really necessary and they’re really an integral part of the process.
So I guess a little bit of a note to self and anyone else who it might resonate with to just, yeah, take that breath, that pause, and to trust the process and to be open and to listen and wait for further instructions about how and where your life is best used.
What Brings Wendy Joy [00:33:39]
Damianne: [00:33:39] I am going to ask one more question. What’s bringing you joy right now, in this time, at this moment.
Wendy: [00:33:49] Connecting with nature. I’m really blessed that I have access to nature. Also my cat. I have a cat who I live with, my COVID companion. So I’m very grateful to have a cat for cuddles and, uh, dance. I would say dance is my go to, you know, when I feel like I’m too caught up in my mind process and stories and sort of, uh, doomsday scenarios or whatever, I just get into my body and I dance and I always sweat and move. And then I feel better afterwards. Yeah.
Damianne: [00:34:24] Yes. I used to start the day with dancing a Zumba song or something. I’ve kind of got an out of the habit of it recently, but it’s definitely something that I want to go back to. My friends always say, Oh, when you dance you smile. What a great way to start the day, right? Is there any particular type of dance you practice so is it freeform or…
Wendy: [00:34:47] It’s pretty freestyle. When I’ve taken dance classes, I like to take hip hop classes or dance hall classes but I can enjoy dancing to almost any kind of music.
We are supporting others and we’re supported by others in this web of interdependence all the time. – Wendy MayTweet
The objects that we seek as the symbols of success are actually finite. – Wendy MayTweet