We all search for greater meaning in our lives. Often that meaning comes from finding our true passion and purpose -- but that's easier said than done.

So I turned to a person who has successfully helped thousands of people find their passion and purpose: Valorie Burton, the bestselling author, speaker, life coach, and entrepreneur who helps people make major life changes, live happier lives, and achieve their professional dreams.

And that's why Valorie Burton is another in my series of interviews related to the Strayer University Readdress Success program, an initiative intended to redefine success as "happiness derived from good relationships and achieving personal goals." (Strayer has launched a petition through Change.org to change the Merriam-Webster definition. Sign the petition, and Strayer will donate 50 cents to Dress for Success, a nonprofit that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women.)

 inline image

Passion is an overarching driver of personal growth and success. How much does the idea of passion come up in your work?

I link passion and purpose together. I think that your purpose is largely out of your passion. Passion is good, but you need to understand why you're doing what you're doing and I think purpose answers the question of how someone's life can be better. When you put together your gifts -- the things you're naturally good at -- and you know what you're really passionate about... that's where you find your purpose.

Perseverance really comes out of passion and purpose. If you don't have passion or purpose you won't persevere when it gets difficult. No one succeeds without facing obstacles, challenges, and setbacks.

Passion becomes the fuel that keeps you pushing forward when it doesn't even look like things will come together.

Your background includes running a successful PR and marketing firm, and being appointed by Texas governor Rick Perry to the Governor's Commission for Women for a two-year term. How did you become a life coach?

When I had my own PR firm, every time I would look at the vision for where we were going, I realized I was good at that, but I wasn't passionate about it, not the way an entrepreneur should be passionate.

I think because one of my gifts is communication, PR and marketing were interesting to me, but I just couldn't picture what that would look like 10 years down the road because I didn't have that level of passion for it. I began seeking out what is my purpose and I had an epiphany one day at a Barnes and Noble store during a journalism convention in 1999.

It was just a sudden spiritual moment when I felt like my mission was to inspire others to live more fulfilling lives and I would do that through writing and speaking. I can't explain it, I just remember the moment, I remember where I was standing, and I remember going back to my hotel room and writing down what I remembered. And it just made perfect sense for who I am. I've always liked motivation, personal growth, and helping people.

Even though I had never articulated it before, that was genuinely my mission.

Within about three weeks I started writing my first book. I finished that book in under three months and I had it in my hand by Thanksgiving and immediately started doing some media.

Then in 2000, I went to the Book Expo America. I had gotten an invitation to a reception Ingram was hosting and while I was there an editor from Random House came through my line and picked up my book and said she was looking for fiction, but the book looked interesting, and that's how I got my first book deal. From that I started doing some regular media appearances and they kept calling me a life coach. I kept arguing that I wasn't a life coach, I didn't have clients, and they said, well, we have to call you something.

I started looking into what coaching was and realized it was the one-on-one version of what I was writing and speaking about. I kind of backed into coaching from writing.

We all face obstacles and challenges; how we respond makes the difference. Any obstacles you've overcome that changed your path for the better?

My biggest challenges have been more personal than professional, but the biggest professional challenge has been staying the course and building a reputation. If you look at a list of the fastest growing careers, "motivational speaking" and "writing" are not on the list.

For the first six or seven years I had the constant thought that I would have been making a lot more money if I had stuck with PR. I wouldn't have enjoyed it, but looking at my contemporaries and seeing that they were VPs at the big PR firms --  making up my mind and then not changing it was pretty huge.

Another big challenge was going through a divorce. That probably changed my entire career, because I think I became a much more powerful speaker and writer after that.

I didn't expect that, though. I actually contemplated giving it all up because I didn't feel anyone would want to listen to me since my life wasn't perfect -- so what right did I have to tell you what you should be doing? Really the opposite was true, because I got to use everything I had been teaching and learning about positive psychology.

What I figured out was that it works.

Surely being open about your struggles resonates well with people.

That's what happened, but I didn't expect it.

My own insecurity made me think the response would be the opposite, but in fact that's what people said to me: "Wow, I relate to you more."

From your perspective, how do you define success?

I define success as a harmony of purpose, resilience, and joy.

My biggest book is called Successful Women Think Differently. When I wrote it, I thought gosh, I need to define what I'm talking about. You have to know why you do the things you do. Purpose is like a compass for the decisions you make, but resilience is also important because we constantly have to bounce back from setbacks.

Then I don't think you can be successful without joy. Research actually shows that although we think success causes us to be happy, it's actually the other way around. Happiness causes success.

People who are happier are more likely to get raises, they're more likely to get promoted. They live longer, they're more likely to get married and be happily married. They're less likely to get sick. They bounce back better. Our positive emotions actually help us deal with adversity better.

I don't see success as numbers and job titles. I see it as having a sense of purpose, being resilient in the face of your challenges, and being happy.

If you don't have those things, I don't think you're successful.

You work with a diverse set of clients. How does the definition of success change from person to person?

From a career perspective, they have done really well. Or they've done well educationally. Or they've done well financially. Or they've done all of those things, but many of them have come to the conclusion they're not that happy at what they're doing -- even though on the outside it appears very successful -- and they're ready to do something different.

They may have defined success in one way and then, when they got it, their definition began to change because they realized that there wasn't a lot of joy involved. Even if they were OK with what they were doing, there wasn't a great sense of purpose.

So they're starting to seek a deeper definition of success -- and ultimately everyone at some point adopts a definition that incorporates some degree of purpose and joy. I don't know that everybody defines success the same way in the beginning, but I think once they get to a certain point, most people realize there is a little piece missing that they want -- and relationships play into that to a huge degree.

I don't think you can be happy without good relationships. You want people to share your success with.

We all evolve into a definition of success. I didn't start out with this definition. As I started to achieve what is the conventional definition of success, I realized that being alone was not going to make me happy.

You talk about happiness and joy as a driver of success. Are there any go-to positive-thinking tactics that you use on a daily basis?

After I had been writing for quite a few years, I went back to grad school at the University of Pennsylvania to study applied positive psychology, which, as opposed to traditional psychology, is the study of what goes right inside us. It looks at what happens when we're happy, when we're resilient, when we're tapping into our strengths.

That is the science of success and happiness, and that energizes me.

One of the things that we know from research is that although about 50 percent of your happiness is genetic, 40 percent is intentional choices -- what you do every single day. One of the books that I wrote, Happy Women Live Better, is about these 13 triggers.

For example, one of my favorite happiness triggers is anticipation, and having something to look forward to. When we create something to look forward to, even if it's something really simple like a favorite show that we'll watch tonight, or a walk we're going to take with a partner and our kids,. that energizes us and boosts our positive emotion.

Anticipation is one, and play is another. I'm good at play, but it's good that I'm married to somebody who's also awesome at it, because it doesn't necessarily come naturally for me. Men tend to play naturally, they bond side by side, and women often don't. We're always thinking about what else we could check off our to-do list. As silly as it sounds, last night we ended up dancing after dinner and I was thinking this is so silly, but it's so fun.

That's how you create memories.

Service is another; sometimes I'll ask myself, "What is something kind I can do today?" Just to go out of my way to do something kind.

All of those things boost happiness -- but we have to be intentional about them.

If you had one piece of advice to give about finding and becoming a success, what would it be?

Expect that you are going to be very afraid to step out and make big decisions.

Expect fear. It's not a stop sign. The most important thing you can learn to do is to be courageous and to move forward despite your fears.

That is the only way to be successful. That means that you're willing to fail and don't see it as failure but as an event you can learn from. Get used to being afraid. Eventually you won't feel as afraid.

You will always have little doubts that pop up when you're trying to do something big.

And that's a good thing, because if it's not big enough, you won't feel any fear. And that means you aren't trying hard enough.