The Practical Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life (in 7 Steps)

The Practical Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life (in 7 Steps)

This is the article I wished was there for me when I was in the dark, searching. I found it in bits and pieces of people’s advice, passages from books, online articles and random sparks of inspiration.

I have a personal vendetta against click bait articles, you won’t even know. They have such promising headlines like ‘How to Make a Living with Your Passion!’ but turns out, it’s just another success story about how yet another person took a leap of faith and became super rich and super famous. The details? Nada.

I don’t pretend to know the best way to get there, but these seven steps are derived from my own personal experience of bumbling from one roadblock to another, just in a more structured way. I hope you benefit and if I can help you get closer to finding your happiness, that makes me happy.

 

1. A very good place to start: Taking stock of your current reality

When I was a second-year university student, I ran for Vice President in Malaysian Society and got the post. When I told my dad the news, he asked me, “Why did you do it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t really intend to. But someone approached me a day before the election asking me to try… and it just happened.”

“You said the same thing when you were elected student representative in high school.” His voice had that stern, disapproving tone to it. “You should be careful about being swept away by currents and ending up somewhere you didn’t intend to. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.”

 

This conversation took place almost a decade ago and I doubt my dad even remembers it. It stayed with me, nonetheless. It stayed because from that moment onwards, I became extremely protective of the direction my life took. Wherever I decided to go and whatever the consequences, I wanted it to be a result of my own decision, not because I was unwittingly pushed into it by random circumstances.

To know your purpose, a very good place to start is to take stock of your current reality. Are you doing what you are currently doing because you mainly want to? I say ‘mainly’ because I understand external pressures like hopeful parents (or desperate parents), money, fear and uncertainty exist.

Since you’re reading this article, chances are something didn’t go as planned. Or you never had a plan in the first place and got to where you are by accident.

Now a great myth about purpose and passion that I want to dispel is this: Finding purpose in life does not necessarily entail leaving your ‘boring’ cubicle job and roughing it out in the ‘glamorous, glitzy world of startup’ or selling all your possessions to go travelling forever. BIG NO.

First off, many people love working in boring cubicles. The point of this article is not to go all YOLO and dive off a 30-meter cliff (because you can die). This article is about efficiency, and that means you need to check first if you have actually found your purpose right where you are, you just haven’t realised it yet. If you’re sure you cannot find it where you are, only then do we move on to other options.

Secondly, different people value different things at different times. It’s okay to suddenly not know what you want when you’ve been sure all your life. It doesn’t mean you need to make a dramatic change like people do in movies. That’s stupid. In real life, humans are creatures of gradual change. Too much stress at one go can break you. What you need is time to think and reevaluate your priorities in life.

 

2. What do you value?

To answer the question of ‘are you in the right place?’, you need to know what you really value in life. For this question, I recommend taking out your pen and writing them all down on a piece of paper. It’s important for you to be honest. After all, no one is watching you. No matter how shallow, write it down. I’ll go first.

I surprised myself when I listed prestige as one of the things I value. Choosing to work in CIMB was not an accident. Not just anyone could get in and subconsciously, I appreciated it when people show recognition when I said I worked for the second biggest bank in Malaysia well-known for its performance-based culture, especially on the investment banking side of things. It alludes to a certain toughness and tenacity that I am proud to have a form of evidence for.

Is it shallow? Perhaps. But it’s there. Admit it, embrace your ‘shallowness’ and your specific need for recognition as it is. Denial has no place in pursuit of purpose. I am not here to tell you which value is more noble than which. If you like money, limelight and brushing shoulders with CEOs of blue-chip companies, then that is what you must admit in order to pursue it.

My list has plenty of things in it. Money, prestige, intellect, recognition, love, experience, travel, financial-independence, passion for my trade, publishing a book, drawing, self-reliance, self-improvement, music, physical health, mental health, emotional health, knowledge and more.

As you can see, these are highly non-specific. For now, that’s okay. If you start being specific now, you will find that many of your values conflict and it will be difficult to go on. This step is not about making choices (yet). This step is where you strip your values naked and see it for what your deepest, often unspoken desires want.

Everything that you’ve always wanted in life and in your dreams, write it down. Be brave. The only cost is ink and space in your notepad.

 

3. Can you get what you value from your job?

Now start with a fresh new page and draw a table with three columns like in the picture below:
Column 1: What my job gives me
Column 2: What I get to do in my free time
Column 3: What I wish I had more of

This will organise the things that are important to you in a way that is easy to see what you’re getting and what you’re not.

Column 1 is important because it makes you see the good things that you might have missed about your job. Everyone likes to complain once in a while, but do it often enough, we start believing that our lives actually suck. If your first column caters to a lot of your values, you are one lucky person.

Column 2 is not about what you want to do (because that would be endless). This space is for the things you actually have the freedom and energy to do when you’re not working. This difference is important because for example, some jobs require you to stay within the area in case of emergencies and you need to rush to the office. So ‘travelling to a different country’ is not really an option. Another example is when work takes so much energy out of you, you spend the whole weekend just catching up on sleep. So ‘hanging out with friends’ is not something you can list down in this space when your off days are used just to pay your sleep debt!

Column 3 is for you to write the remaining values you came up with in Point 2 (what do you value?) but could not fit anywhere in Column 1 and 2. This column contains the very things that cause you to wonder if this is all there is to life.

Pay attention to this column. Are these values important or trivial to you? Must you do them now or can they wait? Will you be miserable if you never do them or are they just something nice to have?

Note: It’s okay to write the same value across the columns. For instance, money is something you obviously get from working. But if it’s not enough, you can still put it in the third column. Add a note if you wish, like ‘life would be easier if I had an extra RM1,000 to spare’.

If you see your third column getting a bit long, can you think of ways to move the items to the first or second column? Sometimes, a lifestyle adjustment is all we need. If you’re not getting any exercise because you’re exhausted after work, perhaps hitting the gym at 6.30am and getting it over with before your officemates had even had their coffee would do it?

Adjusting your lifestyle to better accommodate your work and your values should come first before you think of taking drastic measures like leaving your job.

But if you’ve tried everything and you’re sure your job really sucks, now is a good time to start thinking about your dream job.

 

4. Dreaming up the dream job

What will this new venture be? Some people have a vague idea on what they’d like to do. But if you need some help, think of this oft-quoted question.

 

“If money is no object, what would you do?”

 

Imagine you have enough money coming in every month that pays for all your needs and your family’s needs. Rent, car, utility, loans, phone, food, education, gifts, travel etc. You have enough money to buy anything and go anywhere forever. And you’ve already spent the past six months lounging around on a beach, dining at nice places and talking to every person in your locality. You’re sick of doing nothing and it’s driving you nuts. You want to do something, anything.

What would it be?

The first thought that came to my mind when I did this exercise two years ago was to finish my comic book. It’s something I started when I was 12 and something I’m deeply passionate about. Racking my brains to cover plot holes is considered a fun activity for me on a Sunday morning while I sip on my freshly squeezed orange juice and eat nasi lemak.

I’m sure you can come up with something. All those grand ideas you had as a child. To be a film director or to live in the wilderness for one whole year all by yourself. To write a book or have your own cooking show. Whatever you come up with, there’s a high possibility that it is your passion. Basically it is something you envision not getting tired of doing. Even the difficult part is an enjoyable process for you. This is the fun part.

 

The not so fun part is now, you have to do the column thing again. Three columns but this time, for your dream job. When you’re done, you can compare the tables you have for your current job and your dream job. Which one looks appealing? Or which one looks more scary?

There is no right or wrong answer. Only how you feel about it.

If you’re lucky enough to work in an organisation that allows you to take long leave without pay, I recommend taking that. It’s a great way to have the time to work on your passion without losing your job. You also get a real feel of how it’s like to step outside the net of safety and predictability that your job gives you since you won’t be getting any income for the next few months.

If long leave without pay is not available, the only other option is sacrificing your weekends and annual leave to hone your craft and get your business off the ground. It will be tiring but it’s the best way to test how far you’re willing to push yourself for this self-proclaimed passion. This will give you more insight into what your dream job is like. More insight equals more data to put in your columns.

 

5. How do you make the right choice?

Do you choose your current job which you sort of hate but gives you most things you need? Or do you take a chance on something new and exciting that you’ve always wanted to do? Ah, the what-ifs. What a pain in the neck.

Here’s another question to help frame your thoughts.

 

“If you were dying or your loved one were dying, what would you do?”

 

Yeah I know, that escalated quickly. Nothing motivates like a shortened lease on life. I know it’s depressing, but people who can see the expiry stamp on their lives have it figured out. It’s a form of liberation from all the bullshit we surround our daily lives with.

I had some divine help with this question. Sense another personal story coming up? You’re damn right. This happened about a year and a half ago.

 

It was nighttime, around 8pm and the heavy rainclouds were squeezing forth a torrent of waterfall-like rain for all they’re worth. I drove out in my little red Kelisa to go somewhere I can no longer remember. I was trying to merge onto the main road and checked the mirrors multiple times before slowly merging. I saw nothing in my side mirror. Just complete darkness and the deafening pelts of heavy raindrops.

A split second after merging, I saw two huge headlights belonging to a massive one-storey-high truck just inches away from the back of my car. The driver must have pulled one crazy-ass emergency brakes on the slippery road to not crush me in my small car like an insect. The driver then let out the loudest, angriest soul-wrenching honk I’ve ever heard in my life. I felt like my stomach had been pulled out from underneath me and my soul was already halfway out of my body.

At that precise moment when I thought I was going to die, three questions surfaced in my mind. Did I salam my mother’s hand and kissed it before I left the house? Did I kiss her cheeks? Did I tell her I love her? I had an argument with her over something stupid a few days ago and I was worried I didn’t have time to say sorry.

The answer was yes, yes and yes. The argument was resolved earlier and of all nights, I remembered saying ‘I love you’ that night. I saw her smile at me before I closed the front door.

“Okay, I’m ready to die,” I thought.

 

Fortunately, I’m still here. God must really want me to write self-improvement articles 😀

That near-death experience gave me an instant, sharp focus on what really matters in life.

  • Time to spend with my mom, my dad, my siblings and their families.
  • Time to spend with my closest cousins and relatives.
  • Time to spend with my closest friends.
  • Resources to make all the people above happy in whatever way I can.
  • Be on good terms with God.
  • Keep my body in one piece as long as I can. That means exercise.
  • To live my life on my terms.

Nowhere in the list above did ‘deliver a kickass second quarter board presentation slides to Nazir Razak’ ever came up. Not money. Not hatred. Not nice new clothes from ZARA or Mango. Not new gadgets.

Obviously, please don’t go searching for near-death experiences. There are so many articles out there written about and by people who are dying. What they say is true. The things that matter are far and few in between. Why do we need to wait until we’re dying before we start asking serious questions? Ask now.

Once you include the prospect of death in the near horizon, your mind has a way of pinpointing the things you value most. Things that might not be in your list of values in the first place.

If you have a problem deciding between staying in your old job and taking a chance on a new one, thinking about it with mortality in mind might help. You might even decide that your dream job is not so dreamy anymore and you need to come up with a new one.

 

6. Enter ikigai

Ikigai is a Japanese term loosely translated to ‘the reason I wake up in the morning’.

 

 

Simply put, there are four important questions that make up this rather impressive Venn diagram.

  • What you love to do.
  • What you are skilled at.
  • What the world needs.
  • What the world is willing to pay you for.

If you can find something that answers all four questions at once, you are believed to have found your very reason for being.

For the first time in this article, I’ve introduced the needs of others for you to consider.

No man is an island. No matter how much of a loner we think we are, in order to live a fulfilled life, we need to be part of a community who would welcome our presence.

In an experiment done by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin and Michael Norton in 2008, random people on a university campus were given money to spend. Half of the participants were told to spend on themselves while the other half were told to spend the money on someone else. At the end of the day, the people who were told to spend on others reported happier moods throughout the day compared to the people who spent on themselves.

You would think that spending money on yourself would make you happier, but science says otherwise. I can’t explain it myself, but writing these articles for the possibility that one person might find it useful gives me so much more happiness than triple-checking the footnotes in a PowerPoint slide for CIMB’s analyst presentation. One gives me no money while the other gives me monthly income. From the standpoint of the economic man, this makes absolutely no sense.

So let’s put my self-improvement writing job through the ikigai test.

  • Do I love to write about self-improvement?
    Absolutely.
  • Am I skilled at it?
    I think I’m quite skilled at writing, but there’s much room for improvement. I also have a lot of personal experience when it comes to self-improvement, but sooner or later, I see myself taking more concrete actions like signing up for a course or getting a qualification.
  • Does the world need what I write?
    I believe there’s no such thing as too many self-improvement articles. Different writing styles speak to different people. Maybe what I write is exactly what someone needs.
  • Is the world willing to pay me for my articles?
    I believe so, once I have enough articles to flood the web with and done enough marketing to put myself out there. All I have to do is keep improving myself and keep writing, and that is a future I look forward to.

I didn’t answer all the questions perfectly. But I feel good about the coming work that I have to do and the pace and commitment level is something I believe I can sustain. Based on this, I have a good feeling that I might have found my purpose.

In life, it’s very difficult to feel extremely sure about something. There are no divine signs to indicate this is right or that is wrong. We just have to start getting comfortable with getting a good feeling out of something and following it as far as you can manage. If it turns out to be wrong, don’t feel discouraged. It simply means you now know one more thing about yourself.

 

7. To better answer your ikigai questions, you must first know yourself well.

I’ve always been very curious about my personal tendencies. I used to feel quite embarrassed about it as well, because I thought people might think that I’m self-centered.

But as an adult, I realised that while we enroll ourselves through decades of education to specialise in all manner of things, we hardly spend time knowing ourselves.

At a glance, it seems like a strange notion, getting to know ourselves. But we are often our greatest mystery. I’m sure I’m not the only who has trouble deciding what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If we have so much trouble deciding normal things, can you imagine the mental workload required for deciding a career shift?

If you’re lucky enough to have people who care about you in your life that you see on a regular basis, ask them what they think of you. You’d be surprised at how big our blind spots can be. For instance, I like to think that I am calm and cool and collected most of the time, but my parents probably think I am one incident away from being certified as bipolar. At work, I thought I project seriousness and aloofness, but my colleagues say the first thing they think of when they see me is creativity.

I am also a huge fan of good personality tests which we thankfully have in abundance available freely on the internet. Below are some of the tests that I have personally tried.

Myers-Briggs Personality Test
The most comprehensive personality test I know that is available for free online. I highly recommend this one.

Kolbe A Index Test
I took this test a few years ago and you have to pay for it. Personally I didn’t think the test was very useful. Maybe I didn’t know how to read the results properly, I don’t know. But some people raved about it so it might work for some people.

The Bird Personality Test
I had to do this test as part of CIMB’s management trainee programme. I think it’s a rather simple test that quickly tells you if you’re a leader (eagle), analytical (owl), social (peacock) or nurturing (dove). Typically, people can get a combination result like owl-peacock or peacock-dove-eagle. I think it’s useful to see which of your traits are more dominant than the rest. The link that I found is free, but you’ll have to pay to get a more comprehensive report, which I think is unnecessary. There’s so much material out there explaining this test, so just do the test, get your type and go and have a Google.

The best personality test that I have done unfortunately is not available online. When I was still a trainee in CIMB, HR was developing their own brand of tests and they asked my colleagues and I to try it out. The result that came out was so insightful that to this day, I still hold on to that piece of paper. A sentence jumped out at me, saying that my personality is highly geared towards self-improvement. When my dad saw it, he nodded and said, “Sounds like you. You got that from me.” Heh.

 

Conclusion

Let’s put all the seven steps together.

1. You must take stock of your reality. You need to know if you are where you are by choice or by accident. If it’s the latter, maybe it’s not too bad. If the job gives you everything you need, then you have yourself a happy accident!

2. To know if the job is right for you, you must know what you value in life. Get your pen and notepad out and scribble down everything that is of value to you.

3. Draw a table with three columns to represent the values you derive from your job, your free time and the values you don’t get to enjoy at all. Every single value that you came up with in Point 2, make sure you include all of them in their respective columns.

4. Think of your dream job. The more detailed the better. Apply the 3-column process in step 3 to your dream job. When you’re done, compare the values derived and not derived between you current job and dream job. This will help you put both jobs in perspective.

5. If you still have trouble deciding on your purpose, adding an element of mortality into your frame of thought can help you focus on important things.

6. To have a fulfilled life, humans need to feel like they are helping other people. The concept of ikigai takes this into consideration by requiring that your purpose must answer their four questions. If you have an intersection of all four questions, you may have found your reason for being.

7. Taking personality tests can help you improve your odds at finding your life’s purpose. While we spend time learning many things, we are often our greatest mysteries. If there’s anything worth investing money and time on, it is learning to know our strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and biases.

 

If by the end of these mental exercises, you came up with more than one answer, or one very vague one, it’s okay. That’s normal. The next logical step is taking physical action. In the end, no matter how many people we talk to and how many tests we take, we will not know unless we try.

If I had not tried charging people for doing art commissions, I wouldn’t have known how much I despise having to take suggestions on how my art should be like. If I had never gone to Nepal for a photography course, I would never have known that I prefer making videos to taking the perfect, award-winning photos. Life is about trying.

When you choose to do something, it doesn’t mean you are leaving everything behind. No, think of it as a bucket list where you go through a process of elimination. Out of 20 things you can do, you might find that you don’t mind charging money for 3 things. That in itself is a huge discovery.

Now get out there and get started!

Next Wednesday, I will be dedicating a whole post on fear and why it is equally important to consider as much as your dreams and wants.



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