Photo by Clark Tibbs

Searching for Purpose

Reflections on my first 30 years

In second grade my teacher invited parents to come to class and share their professions, of course describing them in ways that second-graders can understand. While I don’t remember the specifics, I have to imagine there was a firefighter, a doctor, a lawyer, etc. Our project for the week was to think about what we wanted to be when we grew up and to draw a scene of us in that profession. She then collected all of the drawings and shipped them off to be turned into plates (Why plates? I have no idea). The culmination of the project was a presentation to the class, showing our plate, and describing what we wanted to be.

I said I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I drew myself in the middle, with animals all around the edge of the plate — birds, dogs, cats, even an iguana. While somehow the plate has survived to this day, the dream of becoming a veterinarian has not. In what now seems like a long chain of random events and decisions, I find myself as a Product Designer at Facebook (more about how I got here).

My career so far has been jumping from one product or company to the next, thinking a new job title or salary will lead to happiness. It wasn’t until this year that I began to question this strategy. I started asking myself…

“Is the work I do personally meaningful?”
“Am I helping people or making the world better?”
“How can I use my skills to create social impact?”

I wondered if these thoughts were a step-change in my personal growth or simply a one-third-life crisis — the product of over-working and tirelessly climbing the career ladder.

The more I thought about my year, however, the more these thoughts came into context. My challenge for 2018 was to read or listen to 52 books, or one per week. Deciding on a book each week didn’t seem particularly insightful or pattern-forming. In retrospect, the list of books was eye-opening; a window into what was becoming important to me:

  • “The Power of Now”, “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics”, and “The Year of Less” have been leading me down a road of mindfulness and minimalism, slowly chipping away at the blind ambition and mindless consumerism that so often lead to feelings of inadequacy or emptiness.
  • “Dreams From My Father”, “The Audacity of Hope”, and “Becoming” have reinvigorated my belief that real change, however slow, can come from bestowing power upon those who truly care.
  • “Man’s Search for Meaning”, “Find Your Why”, and “Thirst” have inspired me to finally search for what it is I’m here to do.

And yet I know how fortunate I am to even be having these realizations and the desire to act. I am lucky and privileged in ways many others are not. I am white, male and heterosexual. I grew up in a nice neighborhood with a family that loved and cared for me unconditionally. I attended a top-ranked university and have since worked for amazing companies doing great things. It is likely because of this great fortune that I am starting to realize my need to give back. I have what feels like a sudden and lasting urge to do things for others, and not for myself.

If you have gone through a similar change or have had these thoughts, please comment and share your experience. While I am at the beginning of what feels like a long journey, here are the things I have done.

Create principles for your life

As a designer, I develop product principles which guide the design process and help the team make hard decisions. It stands to reason that the same principled approach would lead to a happier, more purposeful life.

Although I have likely, and unconsciously, lived by certain principles, it isn’t until you write them down that they can begin to take hold and you are able to put them into practice.

#1 Minimalism

For me this is an easy one. As a designer I gravitate toward simplicity. Decluttering and removing distraction makes for better products, and in my experience, a better life. In practice this means fewer, but higher quality possessions, cleaner and simpler food, and closer friendships.

With any good principle there is a healthy struggle with that principle’s antithesis. For me, the antithesis to minimalism is nostalgia. Nostalgia is what drives me to eat comforting foods that are bad for me and to hold onto objects that conjure memories but no value.

#2 Equanimity

As a student of meditation, I have seen the benefits of equanimity. It has given me a mental calmness that translates to less stress at work and more presence at home and with those I love.

But if equanimity is the acceptance of what is, then ambition is the grasping for what can be. This is the antithesis that I struggle with the most. I have always been an ambitious person, but at the expense of finding real purpose in my work or personal life.

#3 Curiosity

This is what drew me to product design, what compelled me to finish 52 books in a year, and what has led me down this journey of self-reflection. As long as I can remember I’ve loved learning and have lived by the kaizen principle of continuous improvement.

Of course the opposite of curiosity and the humility that comes with it, is pride, or the sense of inadequacy you get from a lack of knowledge. Staying humble and striving to learn and experience new things is how I try live my life.

Start with your hobbies

It is difficult and rare to match up your personal passions with what pays the bills. I look forward to one day working for an impactful, socially-conscious team or company that is making the world a better place. And while I am taking steps to make that a reality, for now I am using my personal time to explore the things I love and how those things can have greater impact.

Think about the things you’re naturally interested in. For me it’s: making and growing my own foods (kombucha, gardening, bread-making, etc.), exercise, and meditation.

I look forward to discovering how I can make a difference with these activities.

Give time and money

If you have more time than money, give time. If you have more money than time, give money. If you can spare both, by all means give them both.

After a marathon binge of “Thirst” (in which I finished the book in two days), I dedicated my birthday to charity: water in the form of a Facebook fundraiser, and became a member of The Spring, their monthly subscription program. Between the fundraiser and the monthly subscription, over 50 people in need will have clean water next year. These are real, tangible results.

As for time, I do plan to volunteer locally, but I’ve always considered it a more scalable and efficient use of time to volunteer my skills. I have done product design and strategy consulting for profit for many years but now hope to offer my talents to organizations pro bono (Scott Harrison, let’s chat!).

Clearly I don’t have this all figured out, but it has certainly been a year of learning. The small ways I have started giving back have already felt more rewarding than the last decade of work and I intend to pursue that feeling.