books personal

This Book Helped Me Figure Out My Life Purpose

September 16, 2016
Do you know what you’re alive for?
I don’t think everyone looks for a life purpose. If you were born in poverty, or if you’re ill, you can’t afford to wonder why you get out of bed in the mornings. You get out of bed because if you don’t show up to work, you stand to lose your entire existence, and maybe that of your family too. You get out of bed because you don’t know if you’ll still be alive to do it tomorrow.
So my search for meaning is, to some extent, a luxury problem. 
But Maslow made a pretty good point with his hierarchy of needs. My physiological needs are taken care of and I live in a country where my safety needs are unlikely to ever be unfulfilled. Love and belonging is something you can’t really work towards achieving. And so myself and many other people of my culture and my generation are now stuck at the top of the pyramid, wondering how to achieve esteem and self-actualization.

Of course there are people with the same cultural background as mine who don’t ask themselves these kinds of questions. This probably makes their lives a lot easier and less worry-free. I don’t know why I have this deep-seated need to have some sort of purpose. In part I think it’s because if I don’t have something bigger than myself to work towards, then I am just stuck in my own head worrying about my own insignificant problems like whether I’m ever going to have children or whether one day I will learn not to spend money I don’t have on pedicures I don’t need. And that makes me feel selfish and unsatisfied.

Also, figuring out your life’s purpose is, as you might guess, a pretty tricky task. Where do you even start?
Simon Sinek suggests you Start With Why. The author’s main interest is leadership in an organizational context and the examples in the book are taken mostly from the business world. But I think a lot of organizational literature is interesting even if you are not in business and so I read the book from a very personal perspective.
The key assertion is that those businesses that achieve long-term success are the ones that manage to find out, and remain aware of, their reason for existing (above and beyond ‘to make money’). I was already convinced of the importance of a purpose before opening the book, simply because I felt it so strongly myself.
Much more interesting to me was the idea that “the WHY comes from the past. It is born out of the upbringing and life experience of an individual or small group. Every single person has a WHY.” I liked the thought of not having to wander at large aimlessly until I stumble upon some exterior purpose. Maybe I had been looking in the wrong places.
It is good practice to break up long blog posts with pictures to make them easier to read. Therefore, please enjoy this completely unrelated but lovely picture of me in a dress, taken by the amazing Hongwei Tang
So for several weeks, I spent a lot of time thinking. I asked myself what my core beliefs are, what makes me forget to eat properly, what I will stay up until 2 a.m. for. And I reflected upon my upbringing and my childhood a lot.
I was a very lonely child and often felt powerless. Powerlessness is one of the worst feelings there are, because when you feel like you don’t have control over your own life, nothing matters to you. You become completely apathetic. One of my core beliefs is that no one deserves to feel powerless.
When I was eight, I tried running away from home because my mother had used a racial slur to refer to my black friend. I didn’t make it further than to the supermarket at which we shopped for groceries and was promptly escorted back home, but that is beside the point.
When I was eleven, we had a particularly mean French teacher who, one day, made a girl cry with her almost cruelly phrased feedback. I spoke up, questioning her suitability for her job given the tone she liked to assume when speaking to children. In doing so, I risked a letter to my parents, and a letter to my parents meant being beaten.
I become emotional when I feel someone is being treated unfairly, sometimes too much so, to the point where I end up saying hurtful things or behaving in a way I end up regretting. I will speak up against injustice even if that means acting against my own best interests. These are rarely attempts to be noble or brave, but simply instances in which I can’t hold my tongue. I think diversity is a strength, not a weakness, and I think we should celebrate people’s uniqueness instead of sanctioning being different.
So I threw all of those anecdotes and feelings and thoughts together in the notebook I carry, and then I felt really confused for a week or two. All I had to show for my efforts were a few pages of incoherent scribbles. What next?
I talked about all of this to a lovely friend of mine over a couple spritzers, and apparently she found my ramblings more structured than they seemed to me. “What do you mean, you can’t find your WHY? I thought you just said your WHY was fighting injustice.”
I hadn’t managed to put it in those words myself, but once I heard them, they made sense. Fighting injustice is something I can see myself getting up in the mornings for, even if the bed is really cozy and my cat is being particularly affectionate. It’s something I can see myself staying at an office late for, even if I’m hungry or tired. It’s a goal I can take pride in working towards, even if I only ever manage to make a difference on a small scale.
Finding my WHY means I can now decide what projects to commit to, based on whether or not they align with my purpose. It means that I have something to work towards for reasons other than feeding my ego or wanting to be admired. It’s given me a sense of knowing what I’m doing for the first time in years.
There is this common perception that you will find your reason for being in some external place. That you will stumble across your purpose while travelling or reading or trying out jobs. For some people, this may work. But if it doesn’t, I would advise you to look inward, and backward. You might be surprised.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Damita blogs May 5, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    […] I had my “why”, but I needed to define my “what”. […]

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