Finding purpose and meaning in your work: Interview with Robert V. Taylor

As an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, Robert V. Taylor fled his hometown Cape Town in 1980 after being threatened with prison time for refusing to join the military. With guidance from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he completed his theology studies in the United States, and continued working for social change. In 1999 he became the dean of St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, making him the first openly gay Episcopal dean in the United States. After resigning from that position in 2008 Robert embarked on a new phase in his journey.

Today, Robert is a speaker for corporate and college audiences, a commentator and author.  At the invitation of Desmond Tutu he is President of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation in New York.

In this interview, Robert talks about his journey, the importance of sharing our stories, and how we can embrace the sudden surprises life gives us.

Your new book is A New Way to be Human: 7 Spiritual Pathways to Becoming Alive, which explores how to live life with greater purpose and meaning. Why did you write this book?

Over the last few decades, people in the social service world, in corporate life, and in government have been consistently asking me the same questions:

  1. How do I love and lead a life of love?
  2. Am I good enough to do anything and make a difference?

That last question is especially profound. In fact, in one day I was asked by a woman who overcame homelessness, abuse, and addiction and she still wondered if she was good enough to make a difference. Then later that day, I met this highly successful corporate leader at a fundraising event, a guy that people really admired and his question to me was, “Am I good enough to make a difference?”

The book came out of responding to those questions and also to address the disillusionment that I think has increased over the last few decades. People are saying, “My voice doesn’t count. My vote doesn’t count.” The book is telling people that we need your voice, imagination, and action. It offers some insights to help you get started and explore what it means to be human in the midst of great tech and economic change.

The first chapter is about connecting stories through three stepping stones: share your story and the holy truth it reveals about who you are and who you are becoming; accept the invitation to live your story in connection with others; and engage in intentional mindful feasting with one another. Why is it important to embrace one’s story and connect with others?

Our own life and stories and experiences are not just about me or you. They invariably – when we know them, own them, and embrace them the good and wonderful experiences and ones of shame and regret that we hesitate to talk about— they reveal and point to wisdom and truth that is universal and pushes us to see the greater purpose of our lives.

Robert V. Taylor

For example, I loved fishing with my dad. When I was a kid I would tell everyone about it. When I was a teenager, I was less enthusiastic about it—it didn’t seem as cool—and I remember not being able to kill the fish which I also didn’t want people to know about.

Then, when I was in my 30s and told this story, it revealed an incredible kindness that my dad did not call me names for not wanting to kill a fish.

Then, when I was in my 40s and told this story, I realized that for my dad, who had been raised not to show his emotions, those fishing trips were not just fishing trips but were my dad trying to be emotionally close to me as he could.

Then, when I was in my 50s, he had passed but there were stories of him forming bonds with other men, and our fishing trips being one part of that.

The storyline is the same but reveal new insights and new wisdom. They also invite questions. When we know our own story and when we are aware that it reveals wisdom and truth to us and that they are also shifting, we become curious about the stories of other people. And that’s where human interaction begins. We get beyond those differences and discover our need of one another.

It’s rooted in ubuntu: I am because you are.

A big part of your story is your friendship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What impact has your relationship with him had on your work?

He has this ability to discover joy and playfulness in the midst of even serious issues. He witnessed human atrocities and death threats and yet there is this capacity to be absolutely silly and deep joy in being playful and in laughter. It is not contrived. It is part of the practice of living in a mindful way. Of saying, “I am not going to allow all that I deal with to overburden me to the point that I don’t see the light of life around me.”

This is a great lesson, especially for those of us trying to change the world. It is very easy to get caught up in the things that we see but so critical to think about how we can ground our lives and live in a mindful way.

Was there a defining moment in your journey that called you into action? When you knew you had to be involved something bigger than yourself?

Life presents us with unexpected invitations and I’ve had several of those moments. But one in particular is when I arrived in Seattle in 1999, the organization I was leading was asked to host a tent encampment of homeless people that the City of Seattle wanted to shut down.  However, I knew in Seattle in a city of incredible wealth, that the desire to put people in need out of site and out of mind, meant that we needed to respond with humanity, justice and housing, and rethink what kind of city we want to be.

When I resigned from that position in 2008, I was invited to apply to lead wonderful nonprofits. But I had this moment when I realized I was going to be doing more of the same. The position might be different, but this moment in my life is the opportunity to do the work I have resisted doing for 25 years, to address my fears and dive into them.  In place of resisting I am working as a speaker out on the speaking circuit, working as a commentator and published author.  I am grateful for people who encouraged and supported me on this path.

How can others identify and embrace those moments of action?

Be very aware and open to the surprises that life presents and cultivate your own intuition. Our first reaction when life throws a curve is to step back and say no. I don’t have time. It will disrupt my life. And these may be true on some level. Don’t deny that, this kind of awareness and acknowledgement are critical. This marks the difference between walking into something with wanton foolishness versus a mindful awareness that you are entering some significant sacred ground on your journey.

What are some of the mistakes people make when getting involved in issues and causes they care about?

When you first get involved, you’re likely drawn or inspired by a particular person or effectiveness of an organization. You elevate them to a bigger or better than life status. You jump in and you discover that the organization is human and the leadership is human. There are politics you don’t like. You are excited but you get disillusioned. Not an uncommon experience and people become cynical and walk away.

But we should ask, “What is the gift in the disillusionment? What is it revealing to me and what am I going to do with it?”

Some will try to offer their skillsets in addressing organizational issues. Others will try to improve programing or policies. Others avoid those organizational and policy issues and focus on hands-on service components.

No path is better than another but it must be life giving to you as a person. Your own sense of dissatisfaction will come through in your work. Your service needs to come with a sense of gladness from deep within. If you have no gladness, take a sabbatical! Don’t stop completely, but do take a break. Remember that the world need your unique voice, gifts and imagination engaged.

Learn more about Robert V. Taylor and his new book, A New Way to Be Human, at

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Former Editor and Creator of Idealist Careers, a publication of Follow me on Twitter @ajlovesya.

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