I remember being 20 and completely not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. Ahead of me lay many paths: Which one would I take? Which one should I take?
Then I quit university, stumbled into opening a cafe, tried and failed at a whole bunch of things in between (publishing a magazine, starting an online publication, hosting a radio show, launching a travel bag, etc) and then ended up, six years later, unexpectedly becoming a professional photographer.
Never at any point did I stop thinking about what I would and should do with my life.
Even until today.
A few months ago I had a bit of a crisis. I couldn’t stop thinking about whether photography is THE thing I should do with my life. Yes, I love photography and I love being a photographer, but sometimes it does feel like there is something… missing. It’s almost like there should be something more, but yet there isn’t.
Photography is a great medium through which to make a difference in this world. That’s why many photographers work on documentary projects about issues they care about. But so far I haven’t been able to do the same. It’s not that there aren’t issues I care about, but which issue do I care about enough to base a documentary project on? Things just haven’t worked out in this aspect.
And as a commercial/advertising photographer, my work can be quite exciting, working often with big brands and sometimes celebrities. But at the end of the day, my commercial work is about helping my clients to make money. It’s not a bad thing – it can feel satisfying especially if it’s for a company I admire – but eventually, I have to be honest about the fact that doing this doesn’t give me a huge sense of purpose.
And so that’s how I fell into my little… existential rut.
Stumbling into purpose
When I started writing this blog three months ago, however, something changed.
I care very much about good photography, but on a daily basis I realize I care and think much more about issues intersecting creativity and business; I obsess about whether there is a path someone can take that allows him to go from zero to creative success; I think a lot about what it takes to live a rich, fulfilling life doing what one loves, on one’s own terms; I also think a lot about happiness and how to live a good life as both a creative and a human being; etc.
These are issues I care deeply about, even more deeply than how, for example, I can develop better photography techniques. Which is why when I started writing about these topics on this blog, I unexpectedly found a sense of purpose and meaning that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.
Let me tell you, it’s a pretty awesome and magical feeling.
The beauty of purpose
Then you realize: purpose is on a whole different plane.
When you find something that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning, you wake up excited everyday wanting to jump out of bed and get started immediately (which is how I feel about writing here).
I think this comes from the fact that, with writing to share and help, it feels like suddenly I am no longer looking inwards but outwards at the world, and so now doing feels much more like giving.
When I receive emails and messages from people who read this blog who tell me about how some of my articles have influenced them or changed their life for the better or helped them to change their mindset or gave them affirmation to continue fighting for their dreams, I become even more convinced that giving is infinitely better than taking. (In many aspects of my life, I often feel like I am not good enough at giving. So in a sense, with this blog, I get to give in the way I know how.)
Suddenly it became clear to me why it was perfect that I’d quit school multiple times (a story I will surely write about someday), battled depression and anxiety, started a failed cafe, and become a photographer.
If my life hadn’t unfolded the way it did, I wouldn’t have been able to write the articles I write today. I would have no experiences and no stories of failure to share. I wouldn’t be able to write about the path that took me here, and the painful lessons I have learned along the way that I can now share as a gift with the rest of the world.
The beauty of knowing where to go
No, I’m not about to hang up my camera and transform into a full-time writer, but if I was utterly lost as a 20-year-old, now, some ten years later, I can safely say that I am much more certain about which path I should be on in life.
Now I know for sure that I should keep working at my photography. I’m (pretty) good at it, it puts bread on my table, I am still excited about getting better at it, and I do genuinely love the feeling of holding a camera in my hands and making good photographs.
But I also know now what gives me a sense of purpose and meaning beyond taking good photographs, and that is to give freely.
Specifically, to give freely by writing for this blog and teaching you, my readers, everything I know about how to live an awesome life on your own terms doing work you love.
I think of this as my mission.
(Not that I will not embark on other journeys in future, but for now, this feels like a good path to be on.)
How to find your purpose in life
“What should I do with my life?” is a question that is open-ended and has as many answers as there are people in the world.
But here’s a few things I learned:
(1) Having a Big Vague Goal in the long term is important. Having a Big Vague Goal is to have a vision of the kind of life you want to live. Maybe, ultimately, what you want is freedom to chart your own path, wake up whenever you want, not having to answer to a boss. Now all you need is to do whatever you can to pursue this Big Vague Goal. But try not to…
(2) Set a concrete 5-year or 10-year plan. I honestly think plans are a myth, especially long-term ones. We have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. We also don’t know if one year later – or even just six months later – our feelings about something might change. As Bruce Lee said, be like water. Allow yourself the space and flexibility to change your plans as circumstances arise.
(3) 6-month to 1-year plans are cool though. It allows you to break your dream or your Big Vague Goal down into concrete, doable tasks; knowing exactly what to do also allows you to move forward instead of becoming paralyzed by inertia (due to the despair you feel at how seemingly far away your dream is).
(4) Set goals and put all your mortal resources into achieving them. Say you want to become a successful freelance designer. Your interest is in UI/UX, but you have no portfolio. Why not set the goal of getting at least 3 clients in the next 6 months, so you can start building your portfolio? I don’t know how you are going to do it, but you are going to find those three clients. Remember, whether you are starting a business or trying to become a successful freelancer, it’s fundamentally about getting clients – people who are willing to give you money in exchange for something valuable you can offer them. Can you find just THREE people in six months who fit that bill? If you can’t, perhaps you should consider moving on to doing other things. (Or you’re not trying hard enough.)
(5) Passion + skill + the value you can give others. Keep this holy trinity in your mind. All the time.
(6) What if you don’t even know what to pursue? Maybe you are passionate about five different things and you want to pursue all of them. I am a huge fan of the “try and fail and try and fail” theory. Feel free to pursue each of them. Enjoy failing. That’s how you test if one of them fits the passion + skill + value holy trinity I mentioned in the earlier point.
(7) Don’t have the illusion that you can only be happy making a living doing what you love MOST in the world. A lot of the world’s happiest people have hobbies that they are passionate about outside of their work. It’s possible to be the happiest lark in the world if your third biggest passion allows you to build a successful and profitable freelance career, giving you lots of freedom to do what you are most passionate about on your own time. That is sweet, sweet balance.
(8) Whatever it is, your journey to figuring out the question “What should I do with my life?” is surely not going to be straightforward. Don’t give up. If you ever give up, you do yourself and you do life a disservice. I believe successful/happy people are successful/happy because they have this Big Vague Goal in their head and they don’t give up until they get there. Of course, by the time they arrive, their Big Vague Goal has often evolved and now looks very different from what they had first envisioned. That’s because it’s been refined by their life experiences, like a raw diamond now polished to reveal its stunning beauty. What doesn’t work has been filtered out, leaving behind what works.
(9) Have faith. Faith/belief is also known, more commonly, as positive thinking (doesn’t sound quite as mystical, does it?). I have always believed that I can do whatever I set my mind to doing. I also have always believed that anything is possible and achievable. This positive mindset actually warps reality because it modifies my actions (never forget that, with our free will, we are actually Superheroes in disguise who can create and move things and change reality, as if reality were… play dough). If I don’t believe that I can achieve the goal of eating five bowls of ramen in a row, I won’t even try. But if I believe wholeheartedly that I can do it, I will try. And that’s how I will realize I have the potential to be a professional competitive eater. Who said our minds can’t alter reality? (But if I try and fail, that’s okay too. Then I move on to my next dream of becoming a professional pole dancer.)
(10) Finally, like my yoga teacher said, there is no goal. Our life journey is the goal itself. Understand this and you will arrive at a whole different plane and realize just how awesome sauce life already is.