I was asked recently how I came to be in the career I am in. How did I arrive at engineering and what influenced my choice. I hesitated before responding, not because I didn’t know why, but because my answer was going to be of no use to the student asking. This got me thinking on what I would do if I was 18 again and needing to choose a purpose. This is not to say the path I chose is in question, but the method I used definitely is. I approached it all wrong, and I would wager how I did it does not differ much from the majority of people reading this. How would I change my approach, and how would that be universal to anyone thinking of a new career or purpose?
If an 18-year-old me was asking for advice on career choice – or finding his purpose in life – what would I want him to hear? What message would focus him on the path ahead, pushing him toward that life purpose? For me, the following would be the important messages to impart, as opposed to the conventional criteria I used. There will be no mention of school subjects, exam grades, financial return, job security, long-term prospects, chances for advancement – they speak to limitations not to purpose.
Don’t Be Afraid to Fail, Because You Will
You are going to fail. Hopefully you will do it again and again. That sounds a little harsh, but failing will allow you to recognise it is nothing to fear. It will teach you that you don’t fall far, and getting back up again is not so hard. The best lessons are tests of character not of perfect grades. Finding your own purpose is not meant to be a pretty process, it is trial and error. That is why the more life experience you can get, the greater the opportunity there will be to find what inspires you. We are built to be afraid of failing, but it is OK to fail if you walk away somewhat the wiser. Trying something new and out of your comfort zone is meant to be scary. Get out there and fail so you can get that trepidation out-of-the-way.
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” – J.K. Rowling
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison
Forget Any Limits You Think There Are
You need to remember how you thought as a child. Take all your adult sensibilities and lock them in a box for now. I am serious. If you approach the ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions armed with a wrecking ball named ‘how’, the truth of what you want will be buried in the rubble. Forget the ‘how’ and put that in the same locked box. This is the moment to dream about what inspires and excites you. Removing any limited thinking frees you to focus on your inspirations and aspirations. Give yourself that freedom because life tries to take it from you at every step. Knowing your place is an integral part of society and it’s function. Playing with that expectation is a right only you can gift to yourself, and I have no doubt society will survive that gift.
I dreamed of being an astronaut or a fighter pilot. The movies Space Camp and Top Gun were out in the same year, and as an impressionable 10-year-old, both careers seemed to be the coolest thing ever. Getting to rocket through the clouds or soar into space, all while chewing an ungodly amount of gum. What more could a boy ask for – well, with Batman off the table. I tripled my number of dream careers as time passed, but I failed to see the connection between them all until many years later.
The point is we latch on to what excites us when we are young. We gravitate towards the roles that inspire, and make us soar. Unfortunately life doesn’t give us one perfect moment, that wondrous epiphany where we figure out the purpose for our time on this spinning marble. Instead we stumble our way through our early adult years, guided more by osmosis than conscious decision. For many of us we are not aware of the predicament, so how could we avoid it? A good life is nourished by purpose, a reason for being. When someone finds their purpose, it propels them forward to success, transcending limitations, perceived or otherwise.
As a kid, there was one question we all got asked, and that was ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’. Everyone remembers the answers they gave, and why they loved the idea of them at the time. Looking back on it now we were so innocent, the impossible was always possible. We never stopped to think if those dreams could be achieved, we just loved them for what they were. As many of us got older, those dreams lost their focus, blurring into the practical. We succumbed to our perceived place in the world. The power of perception over possibility running out as a clear winner.
What are your strengths? Just sit and think about it, take the time to identify what they are. It’s not easy is it? Speaking of our strengths is perceived as bragging and boasting, so we shy away from it. Focusing on our weaknesses is a tried and trusted trope, because they are highlighted far more than strengths. If you answered the question with school subjects, they are not strengths. Dig deeper and look behind the obvious, think about why you are strong at those subjects. Don’t limit your thinking to academic strengths only. They are traits, not knowledge in the sense we mean. What knowledge do you have that the average person doesn’t and do any inspire you?
If you are looking to find a purpose to spend 50+ hours a week of your time then it has to hit more than one target – your goals, your fields of interest, working conditions, responsibility levels, earning potential, geographical location, etc. That is a sizable list I admit, but why would you not aim to meet them all and if you fall slightly short so be it. Starting only with what you got an ‘A’ in is barely going to scratch the surface.
Lost Time is Not Always a Bad Thing
What makes you lose track of time? Do you have those days were you get so engrossed in a task or activity that time seems to just disappear? If you took away all distractions like movies, websites, games, social media, TV and had to do something with your day what would it be? Some may be able to answer this with ease, for others it may not be so obvious. It’s OK if the answer doesn’t rise up from the deep. Let the question settle and fester. Be honest with yourself about what moves you.
This is where taking risks, and trial and error, come into their own. Taking action, freed from the outcome, helps you learn more about yourself and your motivations. Action in itself provides impetus, and can push you through any lack of motivation. Write down what causes you to lose time, what inspires you, what you are good at.
How Badly Do You Want it?
The words ‘dream’ and ‘purpose’ have been used, which can be construed in a romantic way. But dreams tend to focus on the end point of the journey, the triumph and all that it entails. They never allude to the blood, sweat and tears it took to get there. The sacrifices that had to be made and the long hours it took to mold yourself to that purpose. You need to ask yourself how badly do you want your purpose to become a reality. Are you willing to make the sacrifices it will take to get to the pinnacle?
You have to devote time to any endeavour, and I don’t mean a few hours at the weekend. You need to live and breathe it everyday. Life will throw obstacles in your way and nothing will be easy. If you are committing more time to socialising, playing video games and staring at a TV than you are to achieving your potential, you don’t deserve to reach it. The sacrifices need to be made but if you are substituting with something you love, how can that be bad? It should be made clear though, regardless of the path you choose, being good at anything is hard work and slog. Given that, make it time spent on something you love.
The true dreamers and mavericks arrive at their purpose through taking risks, and trusting in their instincts to choose the right path. External voices are only heeded when there is a message worth listening to. The journey is still their own, with the perceptions and expectations of others thrown to the wayside. They defer to the inner voice, the one that knows them better than anyone. They are the few and not the many, which makes them appear to be the exception to the rule, rather than a worthy aspiration for us all.
It’s a Start, Not a Finish
This is not the last time you will decide on a purpose or career. That seems to be at odds with what I have talked about above but it’s not. Just bear with me on this. Think about how people are at different stages of their lives – infancy, adolescence, twenties, thirties, forties, etc. You may not have experienced all of those stages, but think about the ones you have. You will have changed drastically in the earlier stages of life, with a slower metamorphosis in the later stages to come. Those adult years still have enormous potential for change be it in love, family, friendships and lifestyle. It happens so fast at the time, trust me, and only in the rare moments when you take pause and look back does it become so obvious.
Based on life’s penchant for progress by change, why is it reasonable to assume that this will be the only purpose you will have for its entirety? Why put that pressure on a decision that could change in 5, 10, 15 years? Staying through to what inspires you means that you are in sync with the ebbs and flows of your life, because what inspires you will grow as you grow. If you choose a path paved with poor reasoning, it will crack and crumble beneath every heavy step you take. This is a life defining decision for this phase of your life, not for the entirety of it. Looking in from the outside you could seem to live a life and never change your purpose, but that is a facade that masks the growth you have made within that purpose. There is no set rule, but make the decision knowing it has the possibility to morph into your next inspiration further down your path.
P.S. It is Never Too Late
I just wanted to address anyone reading this who is not 18 and at the cusp of their adult lives. The above advice still holds true regardless of your age or situation. Sure it will need tweaking, and you may have financial and parental commitments that make it all the more difficult, but it is never too late to pursue a purpose or dream. Start smaller and with no pressure. Make it a hobby and take the time to remember why you love it. Look to others who are doing the same and learn from them. If you can spend some time living that purpose, the personal reward is inspiring in itself.
Again, I would say don’t put pressure on it. Allow yourself to learn and make mistakes, but take action and start. Whether it’s playing in a band at weekends, learning to dance, teaching others, volunteering, writing, self-employment, working with children – whatever your purpose or dream, it is never too late. Have some fun with it, and the time needed will energise rather than drain. Don’t see life as set, words etched into stone. That day will come for us all, but what do you want those words to say?
*When I began research into the subject of finding your purpose I was a little overwhelmed by how much information was out there. I was also disappointed to learn it was not always that helpful. Thankfully there was quality help to be found and I debated whether to include it all in this post. Ultimately I felt it would be given short thrift and may not have been of interest to everyone. I did collate the best of the resources and if you are looking to find out more about yourself just use the sign-up form below. That way I can email you in the next few days with the overview of the best resources, and happily answer any questions you have as best I can.