Updated: Jan 2, 2019
— A framework for answering life’s biggest question
Last year, I quit my dream job at Google because I had finally uncovered the purpose of my life.
I had been searching, on- and off-again, for 34 years. The last stretch was accelerated by the raw pain of burn out, and traversed three continents. Fortunately, I encountered some remarkable teachers and teachings. I found maps and guides. And these are what I want to share with you.
Your life’s purpose; the meaning of your life. The meaning of it all. There are answers. There is truth. More importantly, there is your answer, your truth. You’ll need honesty, courage, and willingness as you seek. Listen, and have patience. This work builds. The good news is, your answer is already within you. You need only to uncover it.
So, how did I start to tackle the Big Question: What is the purpose of my life?
This question plagued me in my teenage and college years. At that age, it wove its mire through long, sleepless nights, as I tried to declare my major and choose my career. But tried as I might, I could never find “the big answer.” I thought it impossible — a rite for the lucky few, struck either by lightning or blessed by the clarity of a well worn path.
So I started guessing, which seemed to work reasonably well. In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert shows us that while humans are bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future, we’re much better at predicting what will make us happy right now. For example, if I asked you, “Would you like Greek food for dinner 3 weeks from now?” You may make a fairly good guess at how you’ll feel. But you’d be more accurate if I asked you, “Would you like to have Greek food for dinner tonight?”
When I focused on the far distant future, I became overwhelmed. By focusing on the immediate future, I felt empowered. I thought to myself: if I don’t know my final destination, then I might as well be happy at each step along the way. At least that’s a path I can look back on and say, “Hey, I did the best I could with the information I had at the time, and I wasn’t making unhappy choices.” And it would lead to a lower chance of regret. Ergo, that’s how I ended up at my first job at OpenTable, working in restaurant technology: I was following my immutable, lifelong love of food.
As I started working, the Big Question fell to the wayside. With the invincibility of youth and the luxury of time, I turned my attention to other things.
A decade later, like a cartooned conscience, the Big Question came back and perched a heavy weight on my shoulder. By the eve of my 30th birthday, I found myself with renewed fervor, a willing pilgrim to undertake the challenge. Instead of despair, I heard a decree: go earn your answer. Do the work necessary to get closer. It won’t just fall into your lap. This time, I had more skills, and even a few cohorts. (It’s worth mentioning that a partner and a family would have given me enough purpose than I would have known what to do with, but as luck would have it, I didn’t even have a car or a pet.)
So I went searching, actively searching. I entered, officially, into the realm of Self Inquiry. And much like the humans that’ve gone searching before me, I found a wealth of information, experiences, wisdom, and teachings. I dove into every resource available to me: the internet, books, personality tests (woo, The Big 5! Myers-Briggs! Another version of Myers Briggs! Enneagrams!), my friends, spiritual centers, anything I could get my hands on. The journey became inevitably spiritual. It brought me to Burning Man and the Amazon jungle, to London and Bali, to Tony Robbins and modest Thai monks, to meditation retreats and yoga teacher training, to continued learning and wonderment. It was a saga! But suddenly, things got clearer. The secret of life, its meaning, and how to live it with ease and grace, revealed itself. And while the answers were incredibly rewarding, the actual learning itself was an equal treasure.
So, let’s get into it.
There are seven words in the question, “What is the purpose of my life?” However, there is only one word that is most important; that when known, unravels the entire question. The operative keyword here is, “my.” It doesn’t matter what someone else’s purpose is, it only matters that you know your own. So my task quickly became: Know Thyself.
Now we’ve begun. We’ve broken down our Big Question into a smaller question, “Who am I?” While also big, “Who am I?” is a bit less daunting, since it only needs to be observed in order to be known. As I toyed with this question, I realized that if I continued to break big questions into smaller questions, things got easier. And suddenly, the way emerged. I found myself unraveling each question into more digestible pieces. (As you read, imagine that each question builds upon the last, they get more specific and help you delve deeper.)
What is the purpose of my life?
What, and who am I?
What is my mission? What is my calling?
What am I on earth to give? What am I here to contribute?
What can I give? What are my talents? What is my gift? What value do I bring to the table?
What can I bring to a situation or a group of people that I am uniquely equipped to bring? What, because of my unique background, experiences, interests, or ideas, makes my contributions in any given situation valuable?
What am I good at? What skills or talents do I have?
What gives me energy?
What, when I’m doing it, makes me feel alive?
What makes time dilate (go by really fast, or slow down?)
When do I feel flow?
This line of questioning does the following:
It presumes that we are focusing on your purpose, not necessarily just your career, job, or work. Your purpose is when you get to spend your time on your mission. There’s a difference.
It presumes a subtle but important difference between one’s purpose and the meaning of life. My answer for the meaning of life is quite simple (ask me about it if you wish; I came upon it during my vipassana); however, a purpose hints at directing your life and energy towards something.
It presumes one wants to live a fulfilling life, and I’ve defined a fulfilling life as one in which I have a positive impact on others. Thus, contribution is a key component. (I’ve always felt that my life is one of service. And indeed, all my personality tests return this trait — I love helping others.) Yours may differ. One of the questions on your question tree might be, “What do I find fulfilling?” or “What does a fulfilling life look like?”
It derives what you are good at not from external feedback, or what you’ve been rewarded for in the past, but with parts of you that can’t be faked. You tend to enjoy yourself when you are doing something you love. You tend to have fun. When you have fun, your perception of time changes (it starts to whizz by!) and you feel energized. These are not trivial matters, they are valuable signals. The things that excite you are not random. They are connected to your purpose. Follow them. (N.B. External feedback can also be very illuminating, since it takes time for many of us to see ourselves clearly. One helpful activity is to ask five people who know you well (friends, parents, professors), “What do you see as my strengths?” and notice if there are any patterns.)
It suggests that you should be doing what you are good at, i.e. leading with your strengths. While there is virtue in improving on your weaknesses, what will ultimately set you apart is excelling. A good goal is balance. So long as you aren’t so unskilled in one area that it negatively impacts your ability to succeed overall, you can always supplement your weak links by working with a complementary team. When we can lead with our strengths, however, it is easier to access flow. We were given our gifts so that we could give them away. Hone these, and work will never feel like “work.”
In observing myself on a daily basis, I found that what gave me the most energy, made me feel the most alive, made time fly by, and made me feel flow was when I was:
Connecting 1:1 with people, especially on matters of the heart
Facilitating workshops & public speaking (teaching, inspiring, communicating new ideas)
I quickly realized that if I could find a life where I could do the above 95% of the time, I would be very happy. And that might be enough. Yet my own happiness, while a wonderful side effect, is not the purpose of my life. It would not bring fulfillment. I had to go further.
Luckily, I watch a lot of Ted Talks. I came across this one (by Adam Leipzig, a Yale alum), which further honed my line of questioning. I found his five questions to be extremely helpful. (Note: they are not dissimilar to Peter Drucker’s The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, article here):
Who are you?
What do you do?
Who do you do it for?
What do they want or need?
How do they change as a result of what you give them?
I’d already been focusing on questions #1 and #2, so questions #3, #4, and #5 felt like a natural extension. To illustrate this, let me walk you through these with my own answers:
1. Who are you?
This question focuses on what makes you, you. What’s your name? What are you?
My answer: I’m Amy. I’m a woman, a daughter, an immigrant, a curious soul, a seeker, a listener, an adventurer.
2. What do you do?
This question focuses on your innate preferences, passions, skills, talents
My answer: I solve problems, teach, help others, present, pitch, perform, listen, write, learn, connect, build new things, diagnose issues, connect ideas, champion others, break rules.
3. Who do you do it for?
Don’t overthink this question — go with your gut.
My answer: I found that I cared most deeply for a) anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life, b) professionals that work too hard and burn out, c) anyone who’s healing from heartbreak, and d) women. My heart bleeds for these people. Yours could be: impoverished youth, people in third world countries who don’t have access to clean water, senior citizens, anyone who suffers from hunger, people who have cancer, or as broad as mankind.
4. What do they want or need?
This may be clear already, or you may need to do a bit of research (direct or indirect) to answer this question. Come back to why you focused on this group of people in the first place. Call on your empathy. What are the problems they are facing?
For anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life, they need help and access to HOW to do this. They need guides, and maps, and the courage and inspiration to know that it’s possible.
For professionals that work too hard and burn out, they need tools and skills to bring their bodies and minds back into balance. They need to reclaim a healthy lifestyle, to heal, and to nurture their energetic capacity to perform.
For anyone who’s healing from heartbreak, they need to be able to be in their pain, reclaim a sense of self, strengthen their forgiveness practice, and most importantly, learn how to love themselves and others again.
For women, they (we!) need people & systems that champion our self esteem and confidence, and immediately usable skills and tools to succeed in the workplace.
5. How do they change as a result of what you give them?
This is the impact, the difference you are hoping to make.
For anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life: They lead a fulfilling life.
For professionals that work too hard and burn out: They are high performing and healthy individuals.
For anyone who’s healing from heartbreak: They love wholeheartedly.
For women: They have a confidence that draws from a deep well of self love, and they succeed in the workplace.
Once you complete this puzzle, a picture will come into view. Yet you may still feel like it is a postcard of a faraway place, a powerful vision you are uneasy to claim because you don’t know how to manifest or build it. Ask Beyonce at age 4 what she wanted to be as a grown up, and she would have fiercely said, “I want to be a pop star!” That’s a big dream. But every big dream has a beginning, a first step. Identify what skills you need to learn now (i.e. dancing, singing, performing) in order to get to where you need to go next. Treat it like a video game, one level at a time. Every step you take, you’ll unlock a new achievement. As my father likes to say, we all put our pants on one leg at a time.
Next, keep your mindset flexible. Carol Dweck writes about the importance of Growth Mindset, which is our ability to develop our abilities and intelligence. (Here’s their website.) That’s right, your brain, abilities, and intelligence are malleable. Every time you get a little stuck, tell yourself, I’m not there… YET. This language is important. It programs your brain into thinking that a) your goals are possible and b) you’re on your way. Persist. I promise, this is how all big things become reality.
You can do it. What’s more, you can invent it.
For now, start the search. You don’t have to have all the answers right now. Few of us do.
Beethoven may have uncovered his purpose at age 3 because he was lucky enough to come in contact with a piano. But what if he hadn’t had access to one until he was 30, 40, 50?
Your instrument is out there. Go encounter it.
Remember, it’s a continuous process. Trust in your inner teacher, for as cliche as it might sound, the answer truly does lie within.
Last, don’t ever let a failure of imagination be the reason that you stop searching. When the world presents you with Option A vs Option B, and neither sound quite right, see if you can imagine an Option C.
The world needs your inventions.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” — Marianne Williamson
“I like things to happen. And if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen.” — Winston Churchill
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” — Confucius
“What you seek is seeking you.” — Rumi
The framework above is what worked for me, but your mission is to find what works for you. There are many out there. For example, one of my favorites is Ikigai. It comes from Japan, and translates into “a reason for being,” like the French raison d’être. I used to have a print out of this on my desk. It was a constant reminder to notice and learn, both about the world and myself. And it reminded me: I am not alone in this search. And neither are you.
N.B. As you proceed, there are things that may get in your way. Including yourself. I wrote the below in case you find that the thing that’s limiting you is your past beliefs.
In my journey, part of my despair was due to my expectations: that if I didn’t know it already, it might not exist. That sounds so silly to say in retrospect, but at any given stage in our lives, don’t we live it relying on how much we think we already know? So, while these revelations were new to me, it bears stating that most of this knowledge had already existed for millennia. The digital age makes it seems like all the world’s information is accessible at any moment. This is an illusion. It also masks the trove of information that isn’t available online. Last, even if it all becomes accessible one day, there’s information overload — you’ve got to sort through the haystacks to find what’s relevant.
Second (and this may be controversial), for the first time in my life, I found science to be insufficient. “The purpose of your life” cannot be answered by the scientific method. Even if hypotheses could be tested and proven, they are still retroactive observations. The closest I could get was in the qualitative research of Brene Brown, who studies shame and vulnerability. (Watch her viral TED Talk here.) The stories and insights she shares helped me find courage and support. Yet the truth of averages can only take you so far. Personal truth, I realized, is all that really matters.
Philosophers were a bit more helpful. But even there, it isn’t enough to acquire knowledge or insight. Merely knowing doesn’t amount to wisdom. Wisdom requires direct experience in order to be incorporated.
This was frustrating for me, because logical, cerebral, thinking is what had worked for me my entire life. But every time I tried to toss the Big Question to my brain, I would hit a wall and get frustrated. The best advice I have ever gotten for when you aren’t getting the results you want, is to simply change your approach. My logic-driven, head-led strategy wasn’t working. So I changed my approach.
I had to surrender my past biases and stop judging people, ideas, and things which were not strictly empirical, or even seemingly rational. It’s the Dunning Kruger effect: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It was the first of many times I came face to face with my ego and saw how it could limit instead of free me.
I also had to learn how to abandon certainty for uncertainty. This required faith, something I’d never endorsed or practiced before. In my upbringing (I have an atomic physicist as a father), faith was a muscle devoid of any esteem, stimulation, or exercise. It was certainly not logic brain friendly. But I was determined. So, I crawled into the attic, dusted off my little faith muscle, and started to strengthen it. It was rather uncomfortable. Slowly, I found myself able to walk a road I had never been able to take before. Faith was a new pair of shoes. Finally, I was open to anything that might help me. My new approach opened new doors.
What, if you let it go or reconsidered it, might open new doors for you?