This is the first in a series of posts on finding purpose and meaning in busy lives.
What are you trying to do with your life? Where do you see yourself in 30 years, 20 years, 10 years, 5 years, 1 year, or even a month from now?
For most people, these questions give us pause. They makes us stop, think, and even feel a void. You begin to ask yourself: “What do I really care about? What is my purpose? What’s my why?”
My Personal Journey with Purpose
When I think about purpose in my life and reach back in my memory, one particular memory sticks out. I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade, when my dad was talking to me one night after he came home from work. He shows me his hands and they’re rough, callused, dry, and bruised – they’re the hands of a carpenter. And he says, “Work hard in school, so that you’re hands don’t look like this. So that you don’t have to work like me.” It’s a simple statement, but I internalized it. My dad had my brother and I regularly do projects with him, so we knew what it was to labor. It stuck with me all the way up until college. It really pushed me to do everything that I did to the best of my ability. I studied in a consistent state of flow for years with my goal in mind.
Once I got accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, I carried that mindset of working hard forward with me, but I added more to my purpose. One of the first things that you do when you show up for plebe summer (USNA’s boot camp) is memorize the mission:
The mission of the United States Naval Academy is to develop Midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically and imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of Naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government.
It’s a mouthful, I know. Every night, the detailers (think drill instructor types) would make us blast the mission out of our faces. Over time, I internalized this too. “My mission is to develop to assume responsibility.” I took it seriously not just for myself but for others as well. As you move up each year, you mentor the classes below you. I grew to love spending time seeking self-improvement and love helping other people grow as well. I sought out opportunities every year to do just that. My sophomore year I was a Training Corporal, my junior year I was a Training Sergeant, and my senior year I was a Company Commander. Every year the focus was on helping develop the new incoming classes. We owed it to everyone who went before us, to the American people, and to the people who we would eventually lead to give our best effort. I truly believed and embraced that purpose. There were definitely times that I struggled and questioned what I was doing. Was I actually helping develop my people? Were my actions right and effective? Being there was difficult at times, but the people, the relationships, and the focus on development were fulfilling.
After I graduated, I became a Marine and was assigned as a Logistics Officer. My work revolves around planning, providing services (transportation, maintenance, engineering, facilities, and many other random areas), and enabling other units to complete their missions. It’s hard/thankless work most of the time as you don’t always get to see the direct results of your efforts. Often times my work enabled someone else to do the practical end of their job. If you’re shooting, my people are bringing the ammo, maintaining the weapons, and providing transportation to get you there. After a few years, it becomes a grind; supporting one exercise or operation after another. A few really late nights a week add up over the years and soon you’re saying, “Damn, we’re training and supporting over and over, but why?” The question isn’t ever fully answered; its briefly satisfied and it fades… but it always comes back. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job sometimes, but it can be tedious and tiring over time.
One policy that was implemented early in my time in the Marines was something called a weekly “Lieutenant Led Discussion.” A Lieutenant is a junior officer in the Marines – usually they work in lower-level management positions managing 20-100 people. Units were ordered to have their Lieutenants conduct weekly discussions with their platoons/sections. The topics weren’t set. We just had to do them. Different people had their opinions of it, but I personally loved it. Previous to that I had always found myself “too busy” to do discussions (other than military related training) with my platoon and honestly the thought hadn’t occurred to me. But once I got the order, I put my heart into teaching the Marines about something that I thought would be useful to them in their lives. I found new ways to make it engaging for them by building discussions that worked primarily off a set of questions coupled with content that I had researched in the week between our discussions. These discussions and the one-on-one conversations that I had and still have with Marines are my favorite thing to do at work.
In the midst of my time in the Marines, I married my lovely and passionate wife and we eventually had our son.
My marriage and the birth of our child both drastically refocused my own personal purpose. It wasn’t just me or us anymore. We had this innocent and helpless person to love and support. His development has largely consumed our focus and given us daily purpose. Every day and every interaction are chances for us to help him learn and grow. For us, having a child has been challenging, rewarding, and fulfilling. Especially when we get to see him take a new step or solve a new problem:
Over time, my life focus has changed many times and, like everyone else, I have times of doubt; times when I question why I am doing what I am doing. In my own personal self-exploration, I have found that the one thing that has remained a constant passion for me is development. I love to learn and teach; no matter the topic. I enjoy delving into deep ideas and sharing them.
Writing this blog is fulfilling and purposeful for me. That’s why I do it. Most people don’t sit down and write a 1,000 words unless they enjoy it. I see my blog as means to share my thoughts, observations, and hard-learnt lessons. My goal in writing is self-exploration and to help people quickly learn something it took me a while to learn. When I post an article I hope that maybe the content I produce can help someone struggling with a problem. And the process of writing helps me to better understand myself.
Over the years, I have questioned my purpose, changed the focus of my purpose, and accepted that my purpose/purposes will evolve with the different phases of my life.
Observations on Purpose
Finding purpose is easier for some than others. Some of us literally know we want to be astronauts from early childhood. A classmate of mine from college wanted exactly this – to be an astronaut. So, in college he studied Aeronautical Engineering and doubled down his efforts completing both his Bachelors degree and Master’s degree in just 4.5 years. Now, he’s a Navy jet pilot with dreams of to becoming a test pilot. After his Navy career, he told me he’d try to get a job with NASA and make his dream real.
When I asked him why he wanted to be an astronaut, he said:
“Umm that’s a good question. On a simplistic level, I’ve found aviation and spaceflight fascinating since I was a child. On a deeper level, I think part of it is the desire to be part of mankind’s continued exploration of our environment. Humanity is an innately curious species, we have a desire to explore, uncover, and learn. It’s that urge to see what’s over the next ridgeline, river, or sea. In past centuries, this has meant searching for a New World or a Western Passage. In our century, this spirit is best embodied by our pursuit of the cosmos and the mysteries that lie therein. As an astronaut, you sit at the apex of this exploratory spirit, while being a highly trained operator who interfaces with advanced technology on a daily basis. The combination of these things makes the job highly appealing to me.”
The rest of us generally start asking ourselves these questions about our future and our purpose in late adolescence and we struggle to find answers. We can spend years without thinking about our purpose or without committing to something worth while. We get too caught up existing in the daily grind of work, play, and meeting our basic needs. We can become so disenchanted by the consistent struggle to find purpose that we turn our backs on exploring our purpose. “I’m too busy living for that bullshit.” Until your laying in bed at night looking at the ceiling wondering why you put up with the same old shit at work day-in-day out for years. “I don’t really enjoy this. Why am I doing it? Is this really all there is to living? Wake up, eat, work, sleep, repeat, weekend, party, repeat, etc.
What is my purpose?
Quite frankly, there is no one answer, fix-all purpose for all people. We can only really answer the question through our own personal self-exploration. The best answer I can give you is that your purpose in life, is the one you choose. It doesn’t have to be one purpose. Your purpose can mature, sharpen, and refocus over time. Your purpose should be something you enjoy; something that makes you feel whole.
What do you enjoy doing? What feels natural to you? What’s something you would do for free?
What do you value? What you care about?
Thank you for reading! Please comment below and share a story about your own journey with purpose. If you liked the post, please share the with a friend or subscribe to my blog for updates on when I post.
In my next post, I will continue to explore the nature of purpose and how understanding its relationship with people and their lives.
Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and don’t represent Marine Corps’ or Navy’s positions or opinions.