Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Finding your purpose in life

I have always thought it a shame that we are often asked to decide what we want to do with the rest of our lives when we are 18 years old and have just finished high school. Looking back, what does an 18-year-old know yet of himself to make such a life decision? One is expected to enter college, and the college will expect one to declare a major before long.

Some people are lucky in that they are born knowing what they want to do with their lives; they know what they are. For many of the rest of us, it is only through years of trial and error that we discover where we fit in and what we should be doing. This type of life-experience comes long after college is over.

I'm guessing Mozart knew what he was as soon as he could think properly. Probably Picasso knew early on, too. I doubt if either considered going to college to learn how to be lawyers. These sort of people don't agonize over what they should be doing with their lives. They begin doing it naturally at an early age and simply never stop doing it. This is not to say training and practice are not required still.

I spent years, just like a lot of people do, researching the question of what I should be doing with my life - what it is that I was "meant" to do, what I do naturally, what I love to do. Although I eventually became able to articulate what that something was, the answer didn't come easily. Certainly I had no clue when I finished high school.

Like Mozart and Picasso, I believe that most of us - if not all of us - are truly born to be doing a particular thing. I don't mean you were necessarily born to be a machinist, but happy machinists were probably born loving to craft things with their hands. Generally.

Just as happy analysts love to clarify things.


  1. If it's a matter of knowing what I love to do, I've known since I was in gradeschool. I want to be a story teller. Whether I'll ever be good enough to do so on more than a local scale, I don't know, but I'll be telling stories until the day I die either way.

    That's the other side. Mozart knew what he wanted to be early (assuming he wanted to write music) and was unbelievably gifted. I bet there are thousands if not millions of people who want to write/perform music just as much but who will never have a fraction of the skill.

    I have to tell you, I always enjoy people who do what they love even if they're not "pros", even if they're not "the best." That kind of love of the game or the stage or the whatever is infectious, I think, and it affects the audience. I think that's one reason professional sports tend to leave me cold. I don't get the sense that the people in it love the game like they used to when a player was barely scraping a living instead of a one-man million-dollar industry.

  2. Some people would consider it fortunate to be able to leave the decision until 18. In many places you have to make choices on the direction your studies will take long before 18, or, worse, I know of children who are groomed for stardom, whether academic, musical, sports or something else from a very young age.

    And even if they do feel they know it's the life they want to lead, is it right for a child, no matter how talented, to go to university or other specialised training at the age of 14? Do they really know what they are letting themselves in for? Or is it really the parents' wish fulfilment? And does it lead to a balanced adult life?

    Then again, life is a series of compromises and the direction you might ideally want to take could conflict with some other consideration. You may not be able to fulfil your born role as you see it for all sorts of reasons, or it may be delayed. Or there may be loads of things you love to do - you could indulge in serial fulfilment.

    Unlike you though, I don't believe that many have the luxury of knowing what they want to do with their lives, never mind taking the steps in a certain direction. There must be millions like myself. I'm just happy to do what Eleanor Roosevelt said.

    But, hey, good post! :)

  3. @Stephanie B - Hello Stephanie. Thanks for your input.I think you are a good story teller. I am a story teller too, in a way, except that I tell the stories (or try to) of things that already happened. Maybe that's not really story telling, if you don't have to make the story up in your mind, I suppose. As you know, I am completely hopeless at making up characters and inventing action.

    Mozart, I would say, didn't have a choice. And I don't just mean because of his father. I mean he HAD to put the music playing in his head down on paper; he had no choice. I believe there are more people like that than you my believe - people who have no choice in the matter unless they want to be unhappy and bitter all their life. And I have known people like that too. I doubt if he ever considered whether or not he "wanted" to write music.

    I do agree with you about many (most?) professional sports players who have long ago lost the fun of the game they must have had at one time. To not be too hard on them, though, I imagine doing even what you love everyday forever can begin to lose it's luster. After a while, when one notices he is being used by others as a simple commodity, he gets cynical and just begins to go get all the money he can. Sad, in a way.

  4. Nor, by the way, do I think the ability to tell stories of real events is somehow a lesser task. It's just not mine.

  5. Oh, I completely agree about the compulsion to do what you were made to do. And how fortunate for the rest of us that Mozart wrote so much during his short life.

    Without his genius, I know I'm compelled to take the ideas and characters I think up and put them on paper (or virtual paper). I need to do so even if no one ever reads it.

  6. "To not be too hard on them, though, I imagine doing even what you love everyday forever can begin to lose it's luster. "

    Years ago I once met Farouk Engineer. He was a well-known and successful cricketer (as I'm sure you know :) ) but he said precisely that. He was fed up with people saying how lucky he was because when it came down to it, it was just a job. This was in the days before sports were so very professionalised, in the UK at least.

  7. @A. - I'm sure you are right. I still find it lamentable that it is so. A university education is hard and expensive. After that kind of investment, it is hard to just throw it over when you find you don't like what you've chosen at all, or have chosen for the wrong reasons. But I don't know the solution. We can't wait until we have tons of life experience and 20 past trial jobs before we set out to train ourselves finally, can we? I'm just talking to myself and saying it is a pity it is so. And if there is anything worse than not knowing what you really want to do when you are young, it would have to be the pain of knowing what that something is but doing what someone else wants you to do instead. Or of never having the chance to find out what you could have been.

    Life is a series of compromises? I suppose that is why I am always fighting with the world. It has never occurred to me to compromise. Not on purpose. :)

  8. Of course life is a series of compromises. The first one that springs to mind is eating food I'd like versus keeping my weight on an even keel. But that's because of the piece of hot buttered toast sitting in front of me this minute.

  9. Making fun, not making fin. I never ever make fin.

  10. I can really relate to this post, as they used to say in the 1970s (at least we said things like this in my high school consciousness-raising group, lol)...

    I am still trying to balance the path I wanted in my 20s (Victorian scholar/professor who writes mysteries on the side, a la Amanda Cross/Carolyn Heilbrun) with what I am ending up doing (writing about pop culture, historic misfits and making fin of old ads).

    I think that we all tend to dismiss the things we really love as 'not good enough' or 'just for fun' - I do anyway.

    You never told us, in the post, what your journey has been like, except very generally. You may take this as a subtle hint, or not, as you like ;)

  11. I have always regretted that my parents lacked the foresight of Tiger Wood's parents and The Williams Sisters-if only they had forced some sport upon me. . .

    I would like to blame by my unguided life on dear old mom and dad, but at some point you have to take responsibility for your own life-even the choices made when you were a foolish 18 year old which seem a tad unwise now.

    I think Mozart must have been a twerp, much as he was portrayed on The Simpsons. And Picasso should have stuck with realism.

  12. @Stephanie B - Somebody will read it. :) And thank you for saying that.

    @A. - Ummmm... you said he played Cricket, right? How is that a professional sport? Sorry. Couldn't resist. Didn't mean to break your serious and thoughtful mood. :)

    But don't compromise. Eat the buttered toast.
    And I dream of the things I'll do
    With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
    There'll be a load of compromisin'
    On the road to my horizon
    But I'm gonna be where the lights are shinin' on me

  13. @Lidian - What?

    You wanted to be a Victorian scholar who writes mysteries (on the side) and so you studied chemistry??

    Wait. That was in high school.

    So compromise: start making fin of Victorian ads.

    No. Never compromise.
    My journey? Relax Max is a dog, Lidian.

    But Max's puppeteer's road was long with many a winding turn. And it's leading him who knows where, who knows when?

    Have you ever heard of Rufus Wainright, Lidian? No? Good.


    If I'm laden at all, I guess you could say I'm laden with sadness that everyone's heart isn't filled with the gladness of love for one another.

    Lidian, in spite of the vile stories the malicious British have put out about me, I did NOT drop out of school in the 8th grade and I did NOT have to escape from that circus, because I was never REALLY a true captive there.

    I have never been a TV evangelist, but I have sought healing.

    I have never taught electromagnetic theory, but I have been often shocked.

    There have been times it would have been an answer to prayer to find a picture of Alexander Hamilton in my pocket.

    I know where the chair is that Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated and I know where the limousine is that Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated; they are in the same place and I have seen them. They are not in Washington.

    My journey is much too convuluted and shadowy to interest you, trust me.

    But thank you for having an interest, and some day I will relate it all to you. Or write it down in a book.

  14. @Descartes - Thank you for your alternative views. I know you sometimes think I don't give enough weight to some of your comments and this will be no exception.

    I do take exception to your assertion that there comes a time when one has to begin taking responsibility for one's life.

  15. There is something of an assumption that to know what you want to do in life and to be able to do it, you need a talent or vocation in a certain direction, but does it need to be like that? Someone may love collecting stamps, for instance, and be very happy doing that as a hobby in their spare time. It may be one of several ways they find contentment in life.

    But even hobbies and pastimes have been overtaken by the professionalism bug. I collect postcards and like nothing better than sending and receiving them, looking through older ones. I don't want to have the rarest, the oldest, most valuable cards. I want cards that reflect people's lives. I like reading snippets everyday goings on, or having a card that resonates somehow. There is too much emphasis monetary value these days and that can include life planning.

  16. I like creating things like blog templates & scrapbook pages. Don't make any money at it.

    I always thought I wanted to major in computer science. Now I just know enough HTML & CSS to change MY blog, LOL.

    I guess you could say that I was destined to be a Professional Napper. :-)

  17. @Sheila - So you are saying it is better to just take what one gets in life? I admit that probably many more people study for things they don't want to be or never will use, and work at jobs they hardly love. This doesn't mean they shouldn't have tried to do what they love, or at least get a part of it. Hobbies, as I mentioned in the post, I think are possible indicators of things a person likes to do, and therefore clues to right livelihood. I'm not saying you should collect stamps or coins as your life's work, but collecting, analyzing, and sorting are clues to more general occupations. Librarian. Museum curator. Accountant. Anything that requires an ordering of facts. To me it is silly to love music or mechanics or painting and end up being a veterinarian because the college was closer.

    I don't mean YOU are silly. I take your points of view very seriously. :)

    Really. I do.

  18. @Descartes - Well, I hardly ignore you. You often make good points and I take them very seriously. Just not this time.

    @Angelika - You are a designer. An organizer. A collector. An historian. And a good mother.

    Not a car mechanic or a big-time sleeper. If I were to close my eyes and try to read your mind, I would guess that you have a penchant for smoking small cigars and falling in lust 7-11 clerks and tv actors.

    But that would just be a guess. :)

  19. No, I'm not saying that it's better to just take what one gets in life, but I am saying that many people are perfectly content with that. In some cases I'd agree that a hobby can be a pointer towards a likely career, but it doesn't always work out. I have a friends who is an artist and did her level best to make a career out of it after university. She's very good but so are so many people. She couldn't bear a job she considered second best in that field, so she re-trained as a nurse as a mature student.

    I think I'm trying to say it's not all or nothing. There is no reason to suppose a person who loves painting can't make a fine veterinarian and enjoy their life fully. I wouldn't advocate it as a choice merely because the college is near though.

  20. Nobody is content with working at something they hate to do, Sheila. Many DO work at jobs they hate. Show me one who is content (at peace with himself) that does that.

    And show me a hobby that isn't a clue to what a person likes to do. Who would choose a hobby they hate?

    Just because your friend wasn't talented enough to be a painter for money, doesn't mean the hobby didn't point to some more general thing she was good at and loved. (Something that required design and graphic creativity.)

    Any person can go into any field they want. But they should try to find an AREA within that field which uses their natural talents and fulfills (or at lest gratifies) their need for personal completeness.

    There IS a right livelihood for each of us - something that is in harmony with our core values and talents - and if you hate to see Monday morning roll around, you ain't doing it. If you can make money doing something you hate, you can also make money doing something you love.

    What gets you excited, Sheila? Mother Teresa felt good when she was denying herself things and sacrificing for others. Takes all kinds to make the world go 'round. You know very well you wouldn't hate to own a travel shop and accompany tour groups to various countries. But noooooooo. :) In all seriousness, I DO understand that it isn't always possible to go out and follow your dream when you have life obligations and a family to raise. But try to get SOME of it, I say. And I know you have, and still are.

    People make money at anything and everything. Why limit yourself to the first thing that comes along? You know very well that money isn't the goal anyway. Money just "comes" when you are providing value to others.



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