Like many Millennials, I hit my 20s wanting to “change the world”.
I joined political campaigns and volunteered at non-profits, trying to engineer a way I could be a full-time humanitarian.
I’m one of those report stats that say: “Millennials will work for peanuts if you give them something they believe in.”
I served a year with Americorps and worked at a blood cancer charity thinking it would fulfil me.
Well, it did for a while, but a hunger soon kicked in… that desire to do more.
I’d find myself looking out the office window thinking, is this the best I can do? Is this what saving the world looks like?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely what it looks like.
Change doesn’t happen by chaining ourselves to oak trees as we protest deforestation. It happens in offices, courtrooms, labs and in the seemingly mundane micro-moments that contribute to the whole.
Change is slow and deliberate. It isn’t always picketing and revolutions.
The fact is, I was doing good work.
My activities contributed to the organisation’s bigger mission. I know that. And as someone who lead a team, I preached that.
But while I was doing good work another question emerged. It was a question I never asked myself before:
How much of an impact could I really be making if I felt dissatisfied?
Does making a change require self-sacrifice?
Does it sometimes mean doing things that stifle your full potential?
Or could bringing a change in the world look completely different?
So, I did what any other ridiculously-idealistic person would do: I moved country looking for answers.
I was 26 and figured, if I’m gonna migrate and change career paths, now’s a pretty good time.
All those articles are right when they say your 20s are for figuring things out and taking risks (hey, 30s are too but there’s definitely less pressure to have your shit together in your twenties which makes it prime stomping ground for experimentation).
When I moved to Singapore, my plan was: write, find a way to make an impact, figure out what I want to do and what lights me up.
In other words, it was a freakin’ loose plan.
I had the luxury of giving myself “time to explore” because I spent the last 3 years saving every penny I earned.
I knew the day would come when I had to buy my freedom.
The story would sound great if I said one day I just decided to quit my job and travel the world – but the truth is, I planned for that shit.
No matter what people tell you, freedom costs money. And taking big risks and leaps require preparation if you don’t have the luxury of rich parents or a generous spouse.
(Reality check: I was single and from a working-class household. No “just follow your dreams” chants here – save those for rich kids. To all the other kids: hustle your way to doing what you want in life).
So even though I decided to migrate on a “whim”, I knew the day would come.
I wanted to escape and give myself a year or so to “figure things out”. I knew I needed money to do that, so I stacked away ’em bills, waiting for an opportunity to arise.
But then came the millennial dollar question:
What the **** do I do with my life?
To give myself direction, I listed my passions and strengths:
How I finally managed to carve a path for myself from that list is a simple recipe: part (relentless) trial and error, part patience (with resources to justify my patience), topped with a generous dose of self-forgiveness.
Ie. Not so simple after all.
Whenever I run workshops today, at least one person always asks me how they can find their purpose in life.
The answer is as simple as it is complex.
(Geez, thanks Dr Seuss)
People talk about “finding your purpose” as if it’s some destination you arrive at.
Like once you get there you’ll plant your flag, sound the trumpets and colonise a new land of I’ve finally joined the ranks of certainty and self-assurance.
It doesn’t work that way.
Life is a constant dance with ambiguity. Even with a sense of purpose, you will spend half the time wondering what the hell to do next.
(Disclaimer: life purpose and business purpose are two different things: your business purpose incorporates elements of your life purpose, but ultimately, it’s a business – so it’s far more concrete and specific than your life purpose, which is a lot broader and meandering because you’re a human freakin’ being.)
Purpose comes from a sense of fulfilment.
Ergo, to find a sense of purpose, you have to find what fulfils you.
And the only way to do that is by trying different things; by trying things you think you’ll love but end up hating. By trying things you think you’ll hate and still end up hating.
You have to go through the messy (very messy and inaccurate) process of getting to know yourself. It’s only by understanding your strengths and motivations that you can find satisfaction – and for many, it takes time, wrong turns and rerouting.
When I quit my job and left England, I told everyone I was leaving to travel and become I writer.
Only (I had failed to consider) being a writer isn’t a straight shot: there’s being a journalist, novelist, columnist or a business writer, creative writer, script writer, copywriter etc.
My logic = I loved to write, therefore I’d love each role.
But when I got my first gig writing for a magazine, I hated it. Being a professional writer wasn’t what I imaged it to be – I had to kill my own style and adopt a new one. The very thing I loved about writing (creative expression and honest opinion) was murdered by rules and objectives.
I became unhappy very quickly.
Cue existential crisis.
Holy shit, I always wanted to be writer, now I am one, I’m even more dissatisfied than I was before.
It was terrifying – what if I was chronically dissatisfied? What if work sucks no matter what you do and I was trying to find a pot of gold at the end of an illusory rainbow?
Sharing my woes with a friend, her words came as an antidote, “Just because you dislike one style of writing, doesn’t mean you can’t find another. There’s all different nurses and engineers. Even doctors have their own specialities, you just have to figure out which one’s yours.”
I felt less of a failure, but still confused.
But confusion is part of the process.
You’re unclear until you’re clear. You’re dissatisfied until you’re satisfied. You’re lost until you’re found.
Oh, polarities of life.
It turns out the magazine gave me an opportunity to further understand my likes and dislikes, which is ESSENTIAL for identifying what you want (and don’t want) in life.
Liked: having a platform to share my thoughts with the world
Disliked: being told what to say or how I should think about things
Liked: the combination of desk-work and field-work
Disliked: having my productivity measured by time instead of output
Liked: seeing my name in print (ie. a sense of recognition and tangible accomplishment)
Disliked: the topics I wrote about didn’t feel meaningful
[Lesson: sometimes what you think you want isn’t what you *really* want. What you really want is version 2.0 or something completely different. And that’s okay. It just means you need to get back up and try again]
So I got back in the ring and continued to try different things, tapping on my strengths:
I mapped out CRM systems, I joined start-ups and oversaw the communications, I gave local causes more visibility, I interviewed people and wrote about the entrepreneurship scene.
In that chaotic, aimless period of trying everything that caught my interest, something (finally) happened: I began to hone in on the things that felt both easy and enjoyable. I saw where there was a demand for my skills and how I could help people. (I also got burned a number of times, occasionally cried myself to sleep and learned a ton of things I’d never repeat – alas, that’s the fee for living with your heart wide open).
But the mindfuck of it all?
It wasn’t at all what I expected.
Fulfilment and changing the world wasn’t the picture I expected: I wasn’t saving babies in Africa and feeding the homeless. I wasn’t living in dungarees, with dirt smeared on my face as I lifted rice bags.
Instead it looked like a home office.
It looked like hugging my clients. Like having the time to spend with my parents. Like fundraising for charities and making donations. Like taking trips to an orphanage because I can afford to and because I have a network who’ll contribute. Like making up the rules for how I live my life as I go along.
Once I started to follow what brought me joy (accepting that sometimes joy is a fickle thing that punches you in the face), things fell into place.
I started writing about the things I was interested in.
People read my blogs.
I started to tell people’s stories.
People sought me out to tell their stories.
I started charging people.
People started calling me a storyteller.
Then I started calling myself a storyteller.
And before I knew it, I had a full fledged business and carved out a niche doing what feels 100% natural to who I am.
“Hi I’m Amanda. I’m a big bohemian nerd and tell stories for a living. I listen to people and connect the dots. As a result, folks build awesome brands that stay true to who they are. Their confidence soars and so does their business. How ’bout them apples?”
Okay, I don’t mean to be so flippant.
I’ve spent years honing my craft and learning the ropes. I invested in myself, my skills, training and business.
But somehow, by offering something that felt natural and enjoyable, I inadvertently found myself in service to others.
My clients look me in the eyes and say “thank you” like they mean it.
Sometimes they cry or say I changed their life.
Sometimes they laugh at me and call me a goof.
The point is, I stumbled into my sense of purpose.
I set off to be a writer, and became some kind of hybrid storyteller/strategist building a business from that naïve place of “I just want to do something that brings me fulfilment”.
(Which, incidentally, is the same place as “something that’s aligned with my sense of purpose”)
Purpose happens at the cross section of:
What you enjoy doing (meeting your core motivations) + Being in contribution (‘cos as humans we’re wired that way, we need to feel like we’ve made a difference to someone’s life) + (If it’s your job/vocation) Being able to sustain/get paid for it + Being able to grow/evolve/develop along the way (embracing your sense of authenticity and transient nature)
‘Cos here’s what no one tells you: you never completely arrive.
The bells won’t start ringing and angels won’t start singing in the wake of you “finding a sense of purpose”.
What will happen is that you’ll have a shit-load of clarity around what makes you happy in life, how you can attract more of it and how you can make the world a better place in the process.
You’ll start to identify your truth and what rings true for you.
As in, new words/concepts/truths will become (for lack of a better description) “activated”.
(My activated truths: awake, open, loving, bold, real, authentic, alive).
Five years ago, the word “authenticity” didn’t mean anything to me – apart from, you know, Cheesy (with a capital C and an eye roll).
Today, because I’ve confronted who I am and what I believe in so I can create a life and business that brings me joy, authenticity has taken on a new meaning for me. It’s become… well, activated. It’s no longer an intellectual concept, but rather something I deeply connect to.
Now it means: having the balls to find and articulate who you are (and all your preferences and aspirations). It means self-examination and being clear about what belongs in your life and what doesn’t. It means finding alignment between your actions, words and desires.
It also means embracing change and knowing that change part of the deal.
Because some days you’ll feel more fulfilled than others.
Sometimes, in an attempt to grow your purpose, you’ll take a detour and realised you’re no longer fulfilled.
Then you’ll backtrack or try something else that brings you more in alignment.
It’s a continuous fluctuation.
‘Cos contrary to how its often pitched, finding your purpose (and changing the world0 isn’t black or white.
There isn’t one way or “right way” to make an impact.
One thing I know for certain, though?
The more you follow your joy, the bigger your light and capacity to make a difference.