“How do I find my purpose?” It is the eternal question, and one that I have heard so many times. In my close circle of friends, I know many young people – smart and successful for the most part – who covet the idea of leaving their corporate jobs and follow a more purposeful career. But very few take action.
“I don’t know what my purpose is,” most will say to justify status quo. Without an idea of their next destination, they resist embarking on what looks like a perilous journey. While they daydream of freedom and novelty, reason reminds them that leaving a stable corporate career is too big a risk if there is no guarantee of reward at the end of the day.
Take my friend Kais for instance. I met him a while ago in Montreal. He was a brilliant and charismatic young man of Tunisian descent. Kais had won the professional lottery – by a combination hard work, strategy and luck, he became the IT Director of a major financial corporation in his early thirties. He was younger than most of the staff that reported to him, and his peers out aged him by at least a decade. His achievements and his sophistication left a strong impression on me at the time.
After a five year hiatus, Kais and I reconnected through social media. I told him about life in Saigon and my new projects, he told me about how Montreal hadn’t changed and about developments in his career. Even though he was still doing very well, he confided that he felt like a “corporate drone,” going to work like a robot only to pay the mortgage and the bills. “My life,” he said with disarming honesty, “is bland and tasteless.”
For about a year, Kais had been thinking about what to do next. After taking inventory of his hobbies, he considered becoming a diving instructor and opening his own scuba diving school in an exotic location. Attractive prospect. However, he never took action on the plan. Although he absolutely loved scuba diving, his newly found passion still wasn’t enough to justify leaving the comfort of his corporate career. “Maybe it’s just that the grass looks greener on the other side” he added, resigned. He finally asked: “How do I find my purpose? Honestly, I don’t know where to look.”
I wish I had a straight answer for Kais, but I don’t. And I doubt that there is a single recipe for purposeful living. It is, after all, the ultimate personal journey that only we can discover. I can, however, share some of the steps I took on my own path of purpose.
In the spring of 2013, it had become clear to me that I wanted to leave my corporate job and try something new. I had invested a decade in my legal career and quickly reached what I considered the top of my ladder. Taking the next step up meant waiting for my boss to retire – something that certainly was not worth another decade of my life. I was stuck, and all that was waiting for me was a dead end.
As much as I was ready to leave my job, I had no idea what I wanted to do next, even less so what would make me happy. Not knowing which direction to take the first step, I, too, waited for something to happen. Like a sign or an opportunity. I certainly wasn’t going to bomb my career for nothing.
What happened next was completely unexpected: my desire to quit my job acted out subconsciously.
The idea of going to Vietnam had been on my mind for sometime. In fact, it was a trip I had dreamed of taking for many years, but I never had the right combination to time and money to make it possible. This wish that I had buried started to resurface as I was thinking of leaving my job. It lingered on my mind until one day, I announced to my boss that I would take all my vacation days in order to go away for two months. Needless to say that she was utterly opposed to it. But since I had accumulated enough vacation and overtime to cover my trip, I decided that I didn’t need permission. So I went anyway.
Could I have lost my job over this? Maybe, and that’s the point. This little act of subversion allowed me to trick my internal resistance and push myself out the door.
Never could I imagine that this single event would crack open my life and propel me to an entirely new world. In retrospect, this act of disruption was the very first step I needed to take: breaking free of my golden cage. Only a healthy dose of anger and rebellion would give me the strength to lean out of my comfort zone.
Then, the two months of solo travel in Vietnam gave me the perspective I was lacking. Being momentarily relieved from my professional responsibilities, I finally had the clarity to evaluate my life and make decisions. While driving through the vast green rice fields in Northern Vietnam, I realized that my job had shrunk the world around me to the ridiculous size of a city, an office, even a chair. Moreover, the tyranny of “getting things done” had shut down my creativity and turned my soul into a checklist. I had grown myopic from constantly staring at a screen instead of looking up at the horizon.
Suddenly, from the other side of the planet, the world seemed incredibly vast and full of possibilities again.
What followed is a strange yet powerful transformation of my relationship with destiny. I learned to let go of results and embrace uncertainty. I was eventually able to trade stability for a life-long exploration filled with wonder. But after spending years on path that I not chosen, I had completely lost touch with my own wishes and desires. What did I wanted to become? What contribution did I want to make to society? Where was my voice?
Luckily, all the information I needed to figure out my purpose was readily available to me, weaved into the chronology of my life and rooted in the lessons I learned along the way. The clues were everywhere around me, cleverly camouflaged in the mundane things of my life: the books I read and the blogs I followed, the lyrics of the songs I played on repeat, the passions I pursued and the people I admired. All of those seemingly trivial things bore very important information about my preferences. Then, I started the slow process of getting reacquainted with my estranged desires, like a paraplegic learning to use her legs again.
For instance, I have always stubbornly denied creative writing as an important part of my purpose. When I look back, however, I realize that writing was probably the single most tenacious trend in my life. Clues abound: a childhood nickname as “the dictionary,” a fiction writing prize in high school, my degree in literature, two years of journalism, several legal publications, a travel blog… and yet, it never crossed my mind to consider myself a writer. Today, I can only smile at how obvious it had always been.
More recently, my walk on the path of purpose has taught another lesson: to enjoy – meaning to find joy – throughout this oftentimes disconcerting journey. For too long, my quest for purpose has been a tormented soul-search punctuated with existential crises. In retrospect, it didn’t have to be that way. Today, I am learning to take myself much less seriously.
Life, after all, is just a game. Let’s play.