What It Means to "Find Your Purpose"

I don’t think young people today struggle to follow our hearts. We’re a pretty lucky generation in that respect, we Millennials. Our parents, our teachers, our coaches, they all taught us about having a dream. They told us we can do anything we set our minds to and that the world will have our backs when we do it.

Popular culture drove the same message home. Nas (“I Can”) and Biggie (“Sky’s the Limit”) preached to us. Hollywood shaped its storylines to this tune (David Silver pursuing his music career, anyone?).

We came to understand that we should do what we love when we grow up. We learned it in so many ways that, as a generation, we’re equipped with the audacity to execute. If we know what our dreams are we’ll follow them.

The challenge is that many of us don’t know what our dreams are. Execution isn’t the concern, it’s direction.

When I was seven I declared I was going to be the first female to play for the Yankees. I also declared I’d be a lawyer-fashiondesigner-model-author-veterinarian.

This is the blessing and the task our generation faces. I had the confidence to aspire to any dream I could imagine but lacked a guiding light.

So what are we actually meant to do?

I like Yankee baseball. Does that mean it’s my dream or my purpose to make a career of this passion?

At one point, perhaps. Maybe if I’d determined when I was seven that professional baseball was the life for me it would’ve been my purpose. I might’ve put every ounce of effort into becoming the best baseball player I could possibly be. I would’ve been an interesting, energizing, inspiring person to the world around me. I would have broken gender barriers. Maybe if I’d followed that path at that time, being a professional baseball player would’ve been my purpose in life.

But reality struck this girl early and by nine I was pretty sure it was out of the cards. I left that dream behind with Whittier Elementary School.

So what’s next? How do I find the professional calling that’s right for me? I held onto a shred of my MLB dreams for a very long time. Part of me would still would take any job the Yankee organization offered me. But when I’m being honest a job in ticket sales doesn’t do it for me like shortstop once would’ve.

Ok, what else? I like food, I like yoga, I (still) like baseball, I even like to read. How do I follow the advice I’ve heard my whole life and do what I’m meant to do, what I love to do? Like my peers I’m ready and willing to act.

Indra’s Net

I saw author Karan Bajaj speak recently about the lore of Indra’s Net. In Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies Indra was a God whose net is cast over the Universe. The net consists of jewels at every living connection point.

We are each one of these connection points and every jewel reflects all the other jewels — representing that we are all connected and made up of the same capabilities. We each can do whatever we want; there’s a spot on our jewel that will shine that reflection if we want it to.

A description by author Timothy Brook says, “When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every datum that is true — every dharma, in the language of Indian philosophy — is a pearl in Indra’s net. Not only is every pearl tied to every other pearl by virtue of the web on which they hang, but on the surface of every pearl is reflected every other jewel on the net. Everything that exists in Indra’s web implies all else that exists.[18]

Karan asked:

What threads of the Universe are passing through you? Which reflections bounce off your jewel? Turn inward to find what they are and then go out into the world and do good.

These few sentences pretty radically shifted my understanding of what it means to “find your purpose” and follow your dreams.

Figuring out what you should do means finding those specific things that, when you’re doing them, cause you to function as the optimal version of yourself and put that person out into the world.

I liked my last job in marketing. I really did. But I asked myself Karan’s questions: when I’m doing that work, am I putting out into the world the kindest, most authentic, most impactful version of myself?

I don’t think so. I worked at times and in ways that interfered negatively with my relationships. Most of the time I found myself in situations that compromised how I really wanted to be eating, exercising and thinking. Overall, my day-to-day routine affected me in a way that undermined my confidence and happiness. When I went out into the world each day this work didn’t contribute to me being the best version of who I could be. I like this line of work a lot — but overall it doesn’t lead me to my highest capacities.

So I’ve been looking for another calling. Right now it’s teaching yoga.

When I teach I’m challenging myself in all the right ways. I have to be fully prepared for every class. There’s no coasting or sliding under the radar. (Something I found easy to do in marketing.) I’m connecting vulnerably with people constantly. (Something I wasn’t forced to do in marketing.) I’m living healthily. (Something I found difficult to do in marketing.) These are all challenges that make the “me” who steps out into the world everyday the best I can be.

How to find your purpose

The calling is different for everyone. The threads that flow through me are not the same threads that flow through you; my jewel reflects something different than yours.

A while back I bought a book on computer programming. My Mom and Nas told me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. But one page into that instruction book and I was frustrated and uninspired. I closed the book and went to have dinner with my family and I was definitely not pleasant to be around.

Doing that work would not result in me putting my best face forward. I could tell immediately that this was not my life’s purpose. It might be yours though.

Your job in marketing might ignite your most creative thinking. The travel might thrill you and fulfill your wanderlust. You might wake up every morning feeling satisfied and confident, and you’ll walk that person out the door and into the world.

This is what I now think it means to “find your purpose”. When you find those things you do that result in you putting the best version of you out into the world… that is your purpose. Figuring out what those things are lead us to the work we should pursue.

Once we land on those dreams our generation is so well prepared to go out and chase them.

Joanna Cohen