The Search for an Inspiring Life—How to Measure What Matters Most

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Featured Speakers: 

  • Fr. Kevin Sandberg, C.S.C., Ph.D, Director of Spiritual and Curricular Enrichment, Inspired Leadership Initiative, University of Notre Dame
  • Margaret Higgins, Ph.D., Director of Mission Integration, Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Santa Clara University and Inspired Leadership Initiative Alum (Cohort 3, 2021-2022)

The first virtual event in the series Creating Your Inspired Journey unraveled the difference between inspiration and motivation and where sources for those sensations might exist around us. This event was moderated by Fr. Kevin Sandberg, C.S.C., Ph.D, the Director of Spiritual and Curricular Enrichment for Notre Dame’s Inspired Leadership Initiative. Fr. Sandberg was joined by Margaret Higgins, Ph.D., the Director of Mission Integration at the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education within Santa Clara University, in addition to being an alum of Cohort 3 (2021-2022) of the Inspired Leadership Initiative at Notre Dame. This discussion was a deep conversation about Higgins’ own experience in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI), what inspires her, and how to be open to newness, particularly in the second half of one’s life. The session concluded with an opportunity for the speakers to answer some questions from live audience members and online viewers.

The session began with Fr. Sandberg and Higgins asking each other what they found inspiring recently. Fr. Sandberg found inspiration in nature, particularly when his students were away from campus and less accessible during the pandemic or academic breaks. When his students are there, Fr. Sandberg finds great inspiration in them. He also finds inspiration through different types of art, such as classical music and visual art, as well as in comments from others. Seeing others inspired is inspiring in itself. In response, Higgins discussed her shift from high motivation to high inspiration. In her career, she was motivated by professional growth, leadership positions, and the development of her students. Now, her passions and work are more inspiring than motivating, particularly after her completion of the Inspired Leadership Initiative. Her work is in many ways similar to her career — building up others holistically and engaging people deeper in Jesuit education — but it is now more of an inspiration. We all need inspiration to keep moving forward and have life brought into all of our endeavors.

Next, Fr. Sandberg asked Higgins to expand on her career journey, and how she had the fuel and inspiration to continue on until she reached ILI. Higgins worked with undereducated or poorly educated students and their families, guiding them through an academically rigorous high school program. Working for and with determined students was inspirational, but eventually led to the need for a change to rediscover the breath of life. At Notre Dame, the experience was completely different – think jeans and a backpack instead of business professional attire in an office – but there were similar moments of inspiration in this, in a sense, sabbatical. Students young and old, resources and professors, and the beautiful campus made remarkable contributions to Higgins’ life.

Fr. Sandberg and Higgins also unpacked the difference between transactional and virtual realities versus social realities, something that is experienced by many students and professionals focused more on worldly motivators. Fr. Sandberg believes that these transactional experiences lacking in inspiration deaden the individual.But in developing a more social network, one can feel fully supported and connected to others. Higgins explained how this social connection is easier when people lead with their authentic selves. In being one’s true self, experiences can be deeply felt together and journeys are not traveled alone. The pandemic discouraged communities and forced us to be isolated; however, as we emerge from isolation, we find that doing the journey with others is better, so long as everyone is present and loving. Higgins elaborated on how she handled her loneliness. Despite flourishing surroundings and a bounty of opportunities, we can still feel isolated. Higgins attributed her time auditing classes at Notre Dame, during which her only responsibilities were to learn and understand the material, was freeing. Watching young people’s minds transform was very meaningful. Turning to prayer also played a large part in escaping painful bouts of loneliness and in preventing future loneliness from gnawing away further. 

To further combat loneliness, the speakers recommended finding opportunities to instill inspiration in others. At this point in the conversation, Fr. Sandberg identified Higgins as a deuteragonist, or the second actor in a story who feeds others what they need to drive them to victory at the conclusion of one’s journey. To truly grow and experience profound meaning in life, we sometimes need to reframe our perspective, particularly how we measure the value and success of our lives. Fr. Sandberg gives the example of billionaires like Rockefeller being unsatisfied with their life, knowing there was still more wealth that could be accumulated. To that, Higgins responded with some suggestions to get us away from unhealthy standards in life that do not foster genuine happiness. Higgins explained how ILI encouraged her to go our of her comfort zone to explore new passions and form new relationships. She also discussed the importance of just being, rather than doing. Life is spent moving at a thousand miles per hour, so taking time to simply exist can be a game-changer in escaping the noise of our world. Finding new family can be life-chaning as well, because as we grow, new connection is greatly impactful. Higgins offered even more advice as the conversation progressed: don’t be scared of the new. Get rid of the algorithm we have come to live by because it is not always right. Instead embrace newness and seek it out. If we are not open to change, we might miss something coming our way that could dramatically shift our lives for the better. Sew the seeds of change and growth, even if the fruits of that work does not come. Those labors can still be life-changing.

As the event started to wind down, Fr. Sandberg pivoted the conversation to answer questions from online participants. Higgins described her experience in class with undergraduate students as “transformative.” She also described it as frightening as her younger peers gave her feedback on her creative writing pieces, but mainly because of the amazing minds and curiosity the students had. Working with the undergraduates also gave Higgins strong hope for the future– future of the world and the future of the Church–  because of how curous, accepting, and kind the students were. Coming from a background in education in which she built programs for students and supported them from afar, it was meaningful to sit with them in classes, see them at work, and learn about their passions. Fr. Sandberg followed with a worry that students have already adopted a billable hours mindset in which they view their worth by the utility of their time. Given this mindset, student are likely to struggle with their agency and fail to live open-endedly.  In being with students and seeing their struggles, Higgins reports becoming a better listener who can work with students instead of just for them.

Fr. Sandberg wrapped up the event with a suggestion to help each audience member rediscover portions of their life that are inspiring. He advises to write down a list of maxims for life on an index card, carry that index card for a year, and use it in moments of need to breath life into oneself. Each maxim tells a unique story about the person who carries it, and that story can inspire the card’s owner and/or anyone around them. Higgins concluded by detailing what matters most in life to her, or what she would put on her own index card. She includes the people who helped her grow, the people who today support her, and the relationships she has yet to form that will shape her heart and perspective.

Visit the event page for more.


  • The pandemic, despite all its lows, gave us the opportunity to be reflective, sit in solitude, and be more open to inspiring things, an experience comparable to the Sabbath. (8:45)
  • The most common fear among undergraduate students at Notre Dame is loneliness, despite the rich friendships they typically form quickly into their college experience. Being alone can be daunting, unless one looks at it as an opportunity for solitude and deep introspection. (19:31)
  • Inspiration does not occur at random but often must be sought out. In creating small moments of Sabbath each day, we can find comfort in ourselves, peace in what we do not know, and inspiration in the world around us. (23:19)
  • One must put their ego aside so they can move away from materialistic motivators like wealth and power and instead focus on the desires coming from their heart. (29:12)
  • If we are not open to change, we might miss something coming our way that could dramatically shift our lives for the better. (37:32)

  • “To be a plastic person in a big house– that is some people’s aspiration but it lacks inspiration.” (Fr. Sandberg, 6:54)
  • “Solitude isn’t necessarily even being alone, but aloneness isn’t loneliness. Solitude is actually being deeply connected in yourself so that you can hear yourself outside of the din.” (Fr. Sandberg, 20:20)
  • “What [being a deuteragonist] means is you let your ego get out of the way and you let inspiration come in… What I had to do though was separate from first career into probably what will be much more important– my second career– which feels much more, even more, vocational than my first. So, deuteronomist it is: person who promotes, person who supports.” (Margaret Higgins, 28:16)
  • “Ego is not a bad thing. It’s something we need to have, but what I feel this stage of life is for me is ego is background. God, enduring, inspiration, others, love, in whichever way you call it, how you name the Divine, that’s in the foreground now.” (Margaret Higgins, 30:05)
  • “We spend a whole lifetime… doing a lot of doing, but in being– an there’s different ways to be; for me it’s centering prayer, but it might be meditation, it might be yoga, we’re being– we’re doing a different type of listening, and it’s amazing what answers come.” (Margaret Higgins, 33:56)
  • “[John Wooden] said there was a difference between succeeding and winning. Maybe winning is that heightening, but succeeding is that deepening.” (Fr. Sandberg, 36:39)

LeadershipClass of 1983Digest163Digest171Inspired Leadership Initiative

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