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A Simple Question to Help You Find Purpose in Your Business, Art and Life

A Train to the Arctic Circle

In 2006, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Russia.

At one point, toward the end of the semester, my friend and I had a brilliant idea – to visit the Arctic Circle.

In a spur of the moment decision, we hopped on a вокзал (train) to one of the most northern cities in western Russia: Мурманск (Murmansk).

We were on that train for close to 3 days (we made stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well).  On the last segment (the 1 day and 3 hour trip from St. Petersburg to Murmansk), I decided to pick up a book from the bookstore.  I was a little burned out from reading and studying Russian, so I picked up an English language book:

The Catcher in the Rye.

It’s been at least 7 years now since I’ve read the book, but one thing’s stuck with me since I read it…

Toward the end of the book, the protagonist hits his breaking point and makes this statement:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Leading up to this monologue, the protagonist has been through a 3 day spiral of self-destruction: he gets kicked out of school, travels to New York City by himself, gets drunk, laughed at by women, punched in the stomach by a pimp…pretty much anything humiliating you think could happen to a person, it happens to this kid.

But at the end of the story, after all the terrible things he’s been through, the only thing he could see himself doing in life – the only thing he truly feels compelled to do – is to keep others from throwing themselves off a cliff.

Saving Others

Of course, the underlying meaning here isn’t hard to see.

What the protagonist is really saying is he wishes there was somebody that would stop him from going over the edge. 

But there’s not…or at least seemingly there’s not.

After everything the protagonist’s been through and moments before he runs away from home (until he goes off the proverbial cliff for good), the protagonist sees his little sister and decides to stay.


Because he wants to protect her.

The thing that inevitably keeps him from going over the edge isn’t somebody catching him, but making the personal choice to be the catcher – the protector – for someone else.

He’s finally made a deliberate choice to stop focusing on himself and instead recognize how he can truly live for someone else.

Encountering Providence

Here’s the interesting part: his little sister doesn’t need protecting.

She’s happy and safe; there’s nothing really wrong with her life.  She’s not running toward the cliff at all.

In reality, his little sister is the one protecting him.

By inspiring him to stick around town, to double down on his studies at a new school, and get his life straightened up, she’s saved him.

She’s his catcher in the rye.

And sometimes that’s how life works.  Those who we least expect to help us will be our motivation, our inspiration and our saviors.  Those who we seek to protect are actually our protectors.

Of course, in life we can’t plan for this to happen – it’s called providence.  It happens when we least expect it.

But it’s there – all that’s required from us to tap into providence is to keep our focus outward and to keep hope even when things get tough.

Who Are You Catching?

So when it comes to writing, business or just life in general, who are you focusing on?

Who are you writing for?  Who are you building your product for?  Who are you living for?

  • A great business seeks to be the ‘catcher in the rye’ for their customers and clients; to provide a solution for someone so they can ultimately live a better life.
  • A great author writes for the reader, crafting stories to keep people moving, hopeful and inspired.
  • A great person serves others, focusing on where he can help, not where he needs help. 

It’s an easy thing to live for yourself…at least at the start.

The only problem is this inevitably leads to bitterness, loneliness and anger.  When we fixate on ourselves, we get caught up in the rye, losing track of where we are in relation to the world.  We lose our perspective and running off the cliff can sometimes feel like the only solution.

But there’s another solution available to all of us – if we choose it.

It’s simple: live for others.

A couple things worth thinking about:

  1. When we finally get outside our own heads, we can begin to focus on those around us, those who need our help.  And whether they truly need our help or not, just that recognition – that others need help more than we do – can give sense and purpose to our lives.
  2. Every person, whether they recognize it or not, can inspire someone else.  The little sister in the story didn’t know she was inspiring her older brother – she just did.  You don’t have to actively seek to save others.  Sometimes, just by living a good life and setting an example, you inspire others to save themselves.

So if you’re frustrated with your life, if your business is stuck, or if your art is uninspiring, ask yourself:

In your life, business and art, who are you catching?

Photo credit: Robb from morguefile.com

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  • Providence is a big word, and the little word for that big word is God. God Almighty. God Most High. He comes down to us in gentle providence, and we hardly recognize him. It is he who shows us the people we need to rescue, the ones to whom we simply need to extend a hand.
    I read Salinger’s book many years ago, too many to count, and I never did pick up the hope in it. I remember the little girl, but somehow the hopelessness of the main character simply crushed me. and I never felt as if he were actually rescued. I always thought of him as drifting into oblivion always at risk of simply floating over the edge regardless. I’m really glad to have read your post. I understand it better now.

    • Katherine – thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I’ll be the first to say – I may have read into the story something Salinger didn’t intend. Call it my naive positivity, but I tend to naturally draw the silver lining from things (even when there might not be).

      In this case, whether it was the intention of the author, I see a person who isn’t saved, per se, but at least didn’t go off the edge…and as long as we don’t go off the edge, there is a chance for redemption (for lack of a better word).

      Glad it gave you some food for thought Katherine!

  • Hey Tom,

    Such a good post and a timely reminder. My personal opinion is that the pinnacle of life and business is to exist for other people.

    There’s so much value in setting aside our challenges and focusing on helping other people. It can be hard but I think that’s where we learn some of our most valuable lessons (at least for myself) – being able to let go of our own stuff to be available for somebody else.

    Like you said, it helps us get out of our head, and back to reality – not some idea we have but the raw gritty aspects that get glossed over. It’s a good reminder that there’s more going on than the stuff in our own bubble. It can be liberating to let go of our challenges and help other people move through theirs.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Michael – thanks so much for the post. I think you hit it on the head…other people are the pinnacle.

      It’s funny how much perspective we get when we look for ways we can help others instead of seeking help from others.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment, Michael!

  • Great post! Thank you for writing this and sharing.

    I’ve encountered a number of examples of providence over the last few months, which have set me off on quite an adventure. In each instance it began with me looking beyond myself and putting myself “out there”. This post is a fantastic reminder to allow myself to continue to do that – the ‘rewards’ can be unexpected and inspiring.

    Also, it’s some years since I read “Catcher” – so you’ve inspired me to add it to my reading list so I can revisit it again soon.

    • David – thanks for taking the time to leave a thoughtful comment.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s been years since I’ve read catcher as well – I definitely have to read it again…but I wanted to write a post about how I’ve interpreted it for years, first…who knows, maybe coming back to it now I’ll be confused why I found a positive spin to the story 🙂

      Providence is an excellent topic, one I hope to dig more into in the coming months (and something I’m realizing has a lot to do with courage in an indirect way).

      Thanks again for the comment David! Good luck with everything!

  • That is without a doubt the best explanation of that book I have ever heard. It totally changed my look at it. Awesome post too, but after four years of college and however many I spent in high school, I have never heard a teacher or professor give as insightful of an explanation of that book. So doubly nice post my good man.

    • Seph – thanks for taking the time to post…that’s sincerely the highest compliment and it really means a lot to me. Thank you so much!

      Let me know if there are any more books that need tackling 🙂

  • I know for a fact that when I get out of my head and focus on others, this leads to my greatest sense of accomplishment and joy. I don’t think it can be said enough that by doing our best, we are serving as great examples for others, whether we know it or not. Life is so dynamic and poetic in that those we seek to help are often the ones who help us the most. This has been true for me on so many occasions. Thank you for such a thought provoking post that is really allowing me to think about who I serve and why. And not just at a surface level, but to dig a little deeper and think about why I’m doing my work and who I want to impact.

    • Thanks Michael for the comment! I think you’re spot on – focusing outside ourselves is fundamental to success and happiness…and often, the people we seek to help really are out greatest helpers.

      Thanks for the thoughts Michael!

  • This was a really profound post Tom. I read through the entire post twice, and I realized something. The protagonist is literally following his sisters example of thinking of others. She knew that the path he was on was not the right one.

    Her motives came from her intuition because she knew herself so well. This allowed her to think of her brother and influence him through her example. This influence came from a pure place inside of her. She was not distracted by herself and so she could care for her brother.

    If we can work from a place of confidence that we can trust ourselves, this gives us a chance to help people change themselves.

    • Exactly Brooklyn – if we can at the very least live good lives, there’s no way we can’t impact people. The best lessons are those we learn from others who walk the talk / practice what they preach.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Tom, what a beautiful post! Meaningful, deep and succinct at the same time. I resonate so much with this! Personally, this is the most important part of life- to live for others. That’s the only thing that truly makes me happy. And you know what? I understand this feeling of the protagonist wanting to protect his sister because I am the oldest of 4, all younger sisters. I’ve always thought I was protecting them but it’s worth thinking about it the other way around.

    I am so happy that this cold Russian escapade made you pick up this book and have this deep epiphany about it. The idea is universally true, although not everyone lives by it, and you’ve explained it so well in relation to this book. I love your understanding of the book and actually quite agree with you on that! How beautiful to think the whole time that the title of the book describes not the protagonist but his savior.

    • Jesicka – thanks so much for the kind comments! Glad you enjoyed it and glad it resonated. Not sure if I interpreted the story the way the author meant…he may have never meant for the younger sister to symbolize the catcher in the rye, but that’s what I take from it…and I think it has a more positive meaning that way.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  • Fantastic post Tom! I read Catcher in the Rye over ten years ago and though the exact storyline has faded in my mind the special feeling I had when reading it and message hasn’t. I had never thought about how it might apply in terms of our life purpose and business though. I m going to consider this in my writing.

  • An absolutely strong post, Tom. Very well written and deep. I grew up in East Berlin before the wall fell, so I’ve never read that book, but my wife sometimes talked about it. I really love your interpretation of it because what you are saying is really true. We usually don’t know who our real helpers are who save us from ourselves- and in the same way, we don’t know who we’re inspiring (like the sister didn’t know.) But it’s important to live with a strong set of ethics (whatever they may be) that becomes and example to others. Love it. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Thanks a ton Martin. I wonder how deep this message runs in your own experience growing up in East Berlin. Must have been pretty wild.

      Thanks so much for leaving a message and glad it inspired!

      – Tom

  • It helps a tons to focus our energies outside f ourselves. It helps to realize that there’s more to life than just us, that the world doesn’t revolve around us, and to let go a bit and enjoy it all. And help it all be better!

    Plus, it just plain feels to go help someone else out 🙂 Beyond it helping us take our minds off of our selfish needs.

    Thanks for the reminder Tom! Now on to my work of helping others…

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