America’s Most Successful Restaurant Entrepreneur Died the Other Day, and For Some Reason, This Set Me to Thinking about Inviting the Future into Your Life

While reading Norman Brinker’s obituary in The New York Times a day or two ago, I began to think of how important it is to find your purpose in life and then stay with it all your days and nights. Who knows why I started thinking about this at that particular moment, but I did, and for a good while.

It is much more likely that your taste buds would come closer to recognizing Norman Brinker than your eyes or ears. He invented Steak and Ale, Bennigan’s Grill and Tavern, Chili’s Grill and Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy and On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina. In fact, according to a top editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, Brinker invented casual dining, which transformed restaurant-running into a major industry. Anytime we get to order a meal sitting down in a restaurant without feeling we have been held up when the check arrives, we should honor Norman Brinker’s memory. Or when we visit a salad bar. He invented that, too.

Brinker’s life path and mine brushed more than once, although we never met. We both spent important formative boyhood years in eastern New Mexico, though in different eras. His first daughter with tennis great Maureen Connolly would partner in the p.r. business in Dallas with one of my best friends. (That’s why I have copy of Little Mo’s Legacy: A Mother’s Lessons, a Daughter’s Story with a warmly worded inscription by Cindy Brinker Simmons on my bookshelves.) And while Norman Brinker was working through some of the most important years of his restaurant-inventing career, I was reporting journalistically on the Dallas business scene, sometimes about him and his restaurant successes.

Again, none of this could be calculated to spark thoughts about what Norman Brinker’s life purpose was—except something in all that did.

I’m quite sure of two things.

One is that Norman Brinker understood what his life purpose was. Once he figured it out, he never seemed to deviate from it through good times and bad. There were professional setbacks. And personal (for one, he almost died in a polo accident in 1993). But like a committed tracking dog, he always got right back on the scent.

And the second is that whatever Brinker’s life purpose was, it wasn’t about making money. Making money is Small Niche stuff. Small Niches can come and go. You can trade out or abandon Small Niches in life if they aren’t working. But discovering and staying with and living a life shaped by your life purpose is Big Niche stuff. You only have one Big Niche. It is important that you find it. And when you do, that you never lose sight of it.

Why is finding your purpose in life and then staying with it so important? I’ve thought about this a lot. The explanation that rings most authentic for me is the one provided by savants like the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, physicist John A. Wheeler, chemist Ilya Prigogine and biologist Charles Birch. And while they might not agree with my interpretation, I like to think that my life purpose is best understood as the future seeking to influence my present. Not dictate to me, not enslave me, but persuade me to give order in life a chance as things rock along.

It is our life purpose that provides that order. When you and I are on purpose, we are inviting the future to lend us a hand. Show us a path around and through the chaos. Help us make the most of our time here and our opportunities, with less heartbreak than we are sure to have otherwise. Without the future’s assistance in just this way, the Universe can be a dangerous, tumultuous place, where meaning can be illusive and may be out of reach.

Like I say, I don’t know how Norman Brinker explained his purpose in life. It may have had something to do with all those people he trained who went on to head their own restaurant companies. (He once told a reporter he loved “nurturing people.”) Or all those kids he helped put through college. Or with demonstrating, as one work colleague described him, how to be the “toughest and sweetest man in the same body.”

As I said, this really isn’t about Norman Brinker. But rather about how critical it is to find your own Big Niche in life and savor and benefit from the tug and guidance of the future acting on your present. Your brain and mind will have a much tougher task getting you from the Alpha to the Omega of your life if you are off purpose. Or as an epigram I saw up on a signboard at a day care center while driving back from lunch today cautioned: “If everything is coming at you in life, you are in the wrong lane.”

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There are a couple of chapters on purpose—good ones, if you’ll pardon a little hubris—in my and David Neenan’s book Evergreen: Playing a Continuous Comeback Business Game.

Also, Brain Me Up! has a tool for helping you find what you are alive to do. It’s called PathPrimer®.

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