What does it mean to find your purpose? This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. When I was in university, finding your purpose felt singular, like one ultimate thing. You know, that one elusive, perfect career. The kind of thing you hear about, where you go to work and don’t even notice the time fly by as you’re so engrossed in your work having so….much….fun. There has to be one perfect thing for everyone, right?
This is what I thought. So much so that I spent all of my free time and energy moving towards this goal, towards the life of my dreams. For me, this meant traveling the world, embracing new cultures and having as many experiences as possible.
When I was 6, my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Apparently I said “ambassador”. Yep, that’s right, at 6 years old I had the travel bug with my eyes set on representing my country overseas. So that’s what I did. I got my first degree in Global Resource Systems. I volunteered and took as many part-time jobs as I could handle. I focussed on getting the best marks in undergrad that I could. I went to Oxford to get my MSc, worked for the Canadian High Commission in London, and finally got that elusive diplomatic job with the British Government. 5 years later and I had lived in Rwanda, DR Congo, and visited more than 30 other countries. I was living the dream.
The thing was……it didn’t feel like my purpose. What once excited me lost its glossy appeal. Being someone who is self aware, I asked myself “Why?” – was this normal? Did this happen to everyone working in international development? It didn’t seem that way, as many colleagues around me were still in their element. Yet, I wasn’t. It was like I finally arrived, getting all the skills I needed to do the career, and it….didn’t…..quite…..fit.
For a long time I didn’t admit this to myself. I LOVED living overseas – meeting new people, getting new experiences. Yet I found myself in a job which was missing…..something. I wasn’t sure what. Turns out, I’d changed. My experiences (some of which were quite traumatic) changed me. Yet I was scared to leave. My inner self screamed “so many people would kill for this job. How dare you think about something else? You are entitled. You don’t deserve to be here”. This was my inner monologue. Finally, I left.
There are many reasons why I left development – turns out burnout was a major cause. I actually hope to regain the strength to return one day. Regardless, at that moment, I realised that my purpose had changed. As I’ve entered my mid-30’s, the idea of purpose has taken on new meaning.
There’s a great TED Talk by Simon Sinek on How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
He notes that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”
I find this an interesting way to think about purpose. People will be more likely to hire you because of your passion (WHY YOU DO IT), than your credentials alone (what you do).
So what do you believe? What are you passionate about? Surround yourself with people who share the same interests. This is the starting place to discovering who you are. Pursue something you believe in, not something you think you should do because it will make you money or impress others. Once you find your interests, you’ll find ways to gain expertise and find your niche career.
Pair this advice with another great TED Talk on finding your purpose in 5 minutes by Adam Leipzig.
He narrows it down to 5 questions:
- Who are you?
- What do you do?
- Who do you do it for?
- For the people you do it for: What do those people want or need?
- What will those people get out of it? How will they change as a result?
If I read this in my undergrad, I would think to myself “I know who I am, kinda. But I don’t have any skills or experience in the toolbox TO GO AND DO IT.” That’s very true! But this helps you figure out what skills you NEED in the toolbox.
In my case, I know I wanted to educate others. I became an education advisor because I wanted to empower others to achieve their potential. To persuade them to take risks. To find courage to dream, and the capacity to act. To think about calculated ambition, and assess options, choosing the right next step. At the time, I couldn’t articulate any of that! I just knew I wanted to go overseas, help people somehow, and contribute to community. Slowly, I started to understand where the gaps were – who needed my help? What do I need to do to fix something that needs fixing? In my case, it was education.
So if you think about who you are. You can think about the things you could do. Who do you do these for? Great question. This helps you take the next step. When you are bright, there are always many options. Who you are can be more than one thing. Don’t stress about that one PERFECT thing. Try something. Make a list of all the things you like to do, and all the potential places you could go. Then pick one, and work towards it. Somewhere along the way, you might change direction. Great – one step closer. Or, you might get to that place, do it for a while, and then change. You may never change, staying in the same job. If so, great!
This is all part of finding your purpose. Indeed, you can have many purposes throughout your life. I wanted to be a Professor, to teach in a university. But I didn’t want a PhD, so I never thought it could happen. I didn’t have enough international experience, so I didn’t think I had much to contribute. At that time, my purpose was OUT THERE. And boy, did I live!
Now, I’m back home for a while. Suddenly, things have changed. I have practical experience, and a strong MSc degree. I worked in research, and in the field. I can teach. My new purpose. One day, this may change again. I do have a secret dream of a tiny house, off-grid, in the middle of no where, raising some kids and having some sheep. hah. So we’ll see!
You see, the “people you do it for”, or the “what will people get as a result” will change, as you change. As you build your professional and personal experience, your options will open up to areas you never dreamed of.
Don’t stress now. It will come. Patience, little seedling.
If you are sitting wondering “what should I be? How can I get there?” Instead, think about this: what excites you? Where would you like to go…..next? Starting small will take you in the right direction. Trust your gut……or as Simon Sinek points out, “start with the WHY, before the how, and the what”.
Lastly, remember this: square people get square jobs. Be a pentagon, be a star, be a hexagon, be any freaking shape you want. Just don’t be a square. Nothing’s worse than a square.