All my life I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I did well in high school, scored high enough on the right tests, and could choose whatever path I wanted. I was ready for the final piece of the “success” puzzle: to find my purpose in life and take my place as a “grown up.” There was just one problem: I didn’t know what I wanted.
I declared majors in everything from pre-pharmacy to accounting to early childhood education. Nothing ever felt exactly right. By pure chance, I stumbled into a job in education where the combination of working with incredible people and doing work that I believed in made my time there magical. I got lucky. After so many years of searching for my purpose, it seemed to have found me.
But the only thing that never changes is that everything eventually changes. After seven years at the job I thought I would have forever, it was time to move on.
I felt lost. Again. And mad. Because this isn’t how ‘finding your purpose’ was supposed to go. By that time I was rapidly approaching thirty. After ten years of seeking what was mine to do in the world, I should have figured it out by now. I shouldn’t be back at zero. I shouldn’t still be starting over.
But I was. So I took a leap in another direction. I went back to school and became a licensed massage therapist. I loved being in school. I loved my classmates and teachers. I loved feeling challenged and growing in a new direction. And I enjoyed the work.
And I still didn’t feel like I’d found what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Child #2 arrived and I decided to take my time returning to work. I’d never imagined myself a stay-at-home mom, but I had learned from my first-born how quickly time passes, and the urge to savor these precious moments with my littles brought a new perspective to my priorities.
And I’m loving every precious, sanity-sacrificing minute of it.
And… I still can’t stop wondering what I want to be when I grow up.
Last week, my grandpa got very sick very fast. Family rallied in the ICU, some of the hardest working people I know dropping everything to be there. And I started thinking about how lucky they were to have the kind of jobs they could step away from when they needed to. So they could show up. Be present.
And then I got to thinking about how lucky I am to have the time and space now to focus on people. My kids, obviously. But other people, too. We visit old co-workers. We schedule play-dates. We make treats for other people and surprise them. Instead of having every moment full of things on my “to-do list”, I have the space in my brain to remember to text people on special days or hard days. (I still don’t always do everything I mean to, but I do more than I did before.) What a blessing, to have the space to spend your energy on the things that really matter: people.
For the first time it occurred to me: What if the thing I am meant to do with my life isn’t a job? What if my “purpose” isn’t something I’ll ever get a paycheck for?
All along I’ve made the assumption that my “purpose” will manifest itself as a job that will pay me. So often, that’s how we recognize adulthood, that’s how we measure success. But maybe my “work” to do in the world is something different. Maybe it’s not about what I want to do but rather about who I want to be in the world. Maybe my “purpose” in life is something I can do no matter where I work.
Sixteen days after my grandpa was admitted to the hospital, I sat in the second row of the church at his funeral. They didn’t talk about where he worked or how he made his living. They talked about the way he treated people. The way he helped people. The way he was always true to himself.
And I realized I’ve had it backwards all along. I’ve been looking for the job, the work, the purpose, assuming that what you do becomes who you are. Assuming that I had to find what I would do in order to find who I truly am. But really, it’s the other way around: who we are becomes what we do. And in hindsight it makes perfect sense: The first step in finding my purpose was to find me.