On Finding Purpose

With great responsibility, comes great thanks

One of the great philosophers of our time once said that. His name is Spiderman.

Now, let me test you. How many things are wrong with the first three sentences?

The answer is three. First of all, it’s with great responsibility comes great power. Second of all, Uncle Ben said this (not Spiderman). Third, he is not a great philosopher; he is a fictional character.

So now that that’s all clear, let’s get on with today’s post! The reason why I said, “with great responsibility comes great thanks” is I want to talk about finding purpose today. I believe the thing which gives us the most “thanks” in life is our purpose: that is, the thing which we are thanked for most is our calling.

But to understand gratitude, we must in equal weight understand responsibility.

What responsibility do you bear in your everyday life?

Ask firemen, they say it’s putting out fires. Ask policemen, they say it’s protecting their city from crime. Ask teachers, they say it’s raising the next generation. Ask your parents, and they might say raising someone who is half way decent.

You see, what each of these people have in common is that they are serving a purpose, and hence are useful. Without their efforts, our world would look like a very different place. Thus, when we thank our local firemen or our parents for a job well done (thanks ma, I turned out aight), we are also acknowledging the responsibility they bear.

So let’s get back to you (dear reader): what value do you bring to this earth? Have you thought about it?

Good.

I have too. Actually, I’ve thought about it a lot more than you have (probably). So, let me tell you my story, how I found / am finding my purposethen I’ll come back to you, promise.

Let’s start at the beginning (the beginning beginning)

I was a quiet kid. I liked locking myself in my room, playing video-games and my Casio Keyboard into the wee hours of the night. I had a small circle of friends. I grew up with parents who always showered me with love, often calling me “baby Jesus”, sort of a family joke that stuck simply because I was an EASY kid.

But in high school, I suffered from social anxiety. I often wished I could be like other people who were much more confident and social than I was. I compared myself to them and often wondered why we’re different.

This really sucked in high school when I had to find my niche, so to speak. I branched out from my video-game friends and made a cheerleader girlfriend (score!). From there, I made friends with the skateboarders, the band geeks, the “cool kids”, and even the jocks.

It was a miracle coming from a kid who liked to stay in his bedroom and play Final Fantasy all day long. Truly, I don’t know how I was able to make friends with so many different people, that is, until I realized something: I was actually good with people (who’d a thunk?).

For as many groups of friends I had, I also had an equal number of hobbies. I played piano at choir concerts. I ran Cross Country. I liked chess. I had a network of friends and like most high schoolers I was happy –then suddenly– graduation came and everyone split off into a thousand different directions.

I hadn’t entertained the idea of “purpose” once in my life before. I was content just living the life I had: hanging out with my friends, playing piano, going to shows, and spending time with my girlfriend. What more could a guy ask for? But the pressure was on. If anyone was to become anyone, you had to enter college (so the narrative of our American culture imposes).

I entered college with the mindset that I was going to “find myself”. I wasn’t interested in going for a practical degree like engineering or computer science. I went in with an open mind. As a result, I changed majors from Business to Music to Anthropology and finally I decided on English (then added a Philosophy degree just for fun).

At this point in life, I was always cooped up in the library reading a book on Emerson or Kant, writing a book report, etc. Everyone I knew was really confused and anxious about the future at that time. But strangely, I wasn’t. I was idealistic and confident I would become a humanities professor. 

In my final year of college, I tediously worked on my senior thesis, titled “The Aesthetics of Instrumental Music” (riveting, I know). It’s a 45 page report on how and why we value music, a project that combined my love for music, philosophy, and writing. The Associate Dean praised it saying, I should go for my Masters of Arts. He recommended the University of Hawaii Manao. There I would study obscure texts on yoga, the divinity of consciousness, some languages such as Sanskrit and Japanese, and ultimately continue  my thesis into a publication. Sounds exciting doesn’t it?

However, as tempting as it sounded, I suddenly had doubts.

As I studied the academic market, I learned it was / is / will be shit. I didn’t want to spend ten years of my life completing a PHD only to find myself unemployed and thousands of dollars in debt. Plus, I reckoned my writing would only be read by .5% of the population. I wanted to make a bigger impact and I’m not sure if academia fit the bill.

So, I opted to take a break from school (18 years of my life, already) and travel to Japan to teach English. Out of pure luck and hard work, I was able to land a very nice gig on the JET program, a dream come true. Living in Japan is easily the biggest highlight of my life so far as it checks a lot boxes.

  1. I get to teach bright eyed students how to speak English
  2. I get to learn a foreign language
  3. I get to travel and learn more about diverse ways of thinking
  4. I get to write about it all (read by you?)
  5. I never have to read a scholarly article EVER AGAIN.

Amazing, isn’t it? Go me!

Except all is greener on the other side. There is trouble in paradise, I’m afraid. For the first time in my life the question, “what is my purpose in life”, is actually daunting rather than exciting. Part of the reason for this is pressure to find a “real job” like some of my peers who are “climbing the ladder of success” in their corporate jobs. Many people are getting married or having kids.

Meanwhile, I have a bunch of photos from around the world, a life-changing experience, and so much cool knowledge it’ll blow your hat off. But at the same time, with my qualifications, it doesn’t really equate to a job in the American marketplace (not one I’d be fulfilled in, anyways). I’m left wondering when this rollercoaster stops, will I land on my feet?

So while I am happier than I’ve ever been before, I know living in Japan can’t go on forever. I feel I am forced to go to my drawing board and reconcile all this information about myself and make a decision. What’s my purpose? What’s the next step? I’m slipping, help!  (助けってください !) I thought living abroad was supposed to bring clarity, not more confusion!

Woah woah woah, slow down there buster

As Plato said, “Know thyself”. My unconventional path has ultimately led me to realize I only want to do work that is engaging and meaningful. I have never once in my path copped out for a engineering job because I wanted money. For that I feel proud. I think life is too short to waste it on practical ends over passionate ones.

Further, I believe the more you know yourself, the better you can walk “the path” (The Tao in Taoism). Traveling is a perfect way to do this. So let’s take a look at what’s I’ve learned in my journeys so far. I’ve learned that I can make friends easily anywhere in the world, I like teaching and writing, and I like learning foreign languages and traveling. I’ve also learned that I am a generalist with a wide variety of hobbies, but I am not a specialist. I am a Jack-of-all-trades (or Zack-of-all-trades).

Great, so that means I can literally be anything! The glass is half full. Hooray! The hard part is narrowing down what the next next step is (because my passions are so diverse). Right now I’m doing a lot of praying and self-reflecting.

I’m thinking of channeling my entrepreneurial spirit by opening a philosophy youtube channel or taking my writing to the next level and becoming a freelance copywriter (later to work my my way into fundraising). I’m also thinking of becoming certified to be a teacher in the states. If America is too hot for my blood, I can apply to an international school abroad again or open my own school. Lastly, I’m also thinking of trying to join the foreign service to be a diplomat while working a job (there’s no limit to how many times you can apply!).

The sky is the limit.

So Zack, what about my purpose?

I realize I still haven’t answered your questions about your purpose. But it’s not exactly a 2 + 2 type of question. Nor do I wish it was, and nor should you. The beauty of finding your purpose is only you can figure it out. If it were determined for you, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Through much of history, you would usually follow suit with your family’s occupation. For example, if your parents were farmers, you’d be a farmer too. If your parents were shoemakers, you’d be a shoemaker too.

Luckily we live in an age today where we have so much freedom to self-actualize, especially with the creation of the internet. It never ceases to be amaze me all the good work people can do with just a lab top and an internet connection. In my journeys I’ve met people doing non-profit work from the comfort of a coffee shop, setting up schools in underdeveloped countries like Nepal, doing missionaries in Africa, etc. I hope we can inspire each other to do amazing things with this life.

In conclusion, I’ve been trying to find my place on this earth for some time now, and I’m still learning where I belong. For the moment, all I know for sure is that everyday when I get up, it’s for my students. It’s the smiles on their faces that brings that effortless sense of joy to my life. It’s their laughter that provides all the “thanks” I could ever ask for. Staying grounded in the present is the anecdote to my anxiety about the future.

Rather than to think of our purpose as something grandiose such as being a teacher or an activist, I think it’s better to be simple and humble (there’s less room for failure). I like to think my purpose right now is to be a friend to the world. That’s all I can honestly consider myself to be. But with perseverance, one day perhaps I’ll be able to call myself something more. But until that day comes, I’ll just keep chugging along doing what I know best: bringing joy to those around me.

That is perhaps the greatest purpose of all.

Pass on the good message.

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If you found this post interesting, insightful, or if you have advice on finding your purpose, comment below.

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