Sam Holstein

How To Find Your Purpose

First, let’s talk about what a purpose is not.

A purpose is not some mystical, magical assignment that the universe assigned you but left you to suss out on your own. It’s not something you always love to do, every day, no matter what. A purpose is much less metaphysical than that.

Simply put, your purpose is why you get up in the morning. A purpose gives you meaning.

“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something.”

Harold S. Kushner

A purpose that will give you meaning (and thus, make you happy) lies at the intersection of three things:

  1. Your skills
  2. Your interests
  3. What the world needs

1. Your Skills

What are you good at? Are you good at math? Science? Art? Golf? Tap-dancing? Spinning plates? Explaining obscure metaphysical concepts to your friends? Playing video games for sixteen straight hours? Drinking? Make a list of all the things you’re good at, regardless of whether or not they matter or they make money or are embarrassing.

What are you talented at? Are you able to pick up new sports easily? Come up with puns? Make things work on a computer when no one else can? Organize a closet? Make a list of all the things that just come naturally to you — again, regardless of whether you think they matter or make money or anything else.

2. Your Interests

Most people have a list of interests ten miles long. You probably do as well. I’m not asking you to list every single thing you’re interested in.

What you should list here are only things that put you in a flow state — the kind of things you could spend 8 hours reading about or doing and not even notice. For most people, this list is incredibly short.

Unfortunately, I’m about to make it even shorter. You are not allowed to include watching TV, playing on your phone or playing video games. These activities are engineered by highly paid behavioral scientists to be as addicting as possible, so if you can spend 8 hours a day doing these things, it doesn’t mean it’s an interest of yours, it just means some behavioral scientist in Palo Alto did their job well.

3. What the World Needs

This is the easiest list to make because the world needs a hell of a lot of things. The world has some basic needs, like world hunger being eliminated, prejudice being dismantled, and education that’s available for everyone. The world also has some more specific needs, like tutors for struggling college students and someone to help me figure out how to do a squat without my knees coming over my feet.

We all want problems to be solved, but we don’t care about all problems equally, so we can’t just make a list of all the problems we can think of. Instead, make a list of all the needs of the world that bother you. What problems do you find yourself thinking about in your spare time? What problems do you find yourself daydreaming solutions for?

Wait, What About Money?

You may have noticed that at no point did this framework involve money. That’s for a reason — if you look closely, you’ll realize in the twenty-first century you can make a living doing pretty much anything. Professional plate-spinner? Found them. Professional pimple-popper? Found her. Professional pitbull breeder? Found him too. Whatever insane career you want can be had.

But will I be poor?

Will most of the careers on your list make you a billionaire? Probably not. But, any career can support a middle-class lifestyle in America if you play your cards right. I’m not saying you’ll get there overnight, or even that I know how to get there, but I know it can be done.

In fact, thanks to supply and demand, uncommon careers are usually more likely to make you a millionaire. Consider writing: The average writer does not make enough to support a middle-class lifestyle. But the writers who hit it big hit it so big they get movies made from their books and spend their days flying from convention to convention in glee. Accountants may be guaranteed a middle-class income, but that’s all they’ll ever get1.


Once you’ve made your three lists, ideas will begin to come together in your mind. I hesitate to give you a step-by-step description of how this happens because the best ideas aren’t produced by step-by-step formulas but instead spring organically from the soil of your mind.

But how do you know which idea is the right idea?

You try on out and see how it fits.

If that sounds extremely time-consuming, that’s because it is. Finding a purpose is a little like dating; you will know when you’ve found what you’re looking for, but until you do, you’re just dating one person after another and seeing how it goes.

So get out there and try different stuff. Think your purpose might be painting? Buy some paints. Think your purpose might be volunteering overseas to build houses for the impoverished? Sign up for habitat for humanity in the west and try out volunteering before quitting your job. Think your purpose might be coding? Make an account at codecademy.com.

It may take a while to hit on what’s right. I started blogging when I was 16, but I didn’t decide writing was it for me until I was 22. In the intervening years, writing was just a hobby I used to burn off steam.

What made me realize writing was it for me was going through this process. I had tried out several other lines of work: starting tech businesses, freelancing as a project management consultant, freelancing as a web designer, and freelancing as a graphic designer. All of them were fine jobs, but like dates that don’t click, they taught me more about what I didn’t want than what I did2.

So, that’s all there is to it. Pick something and try. If you like it, keep doing it. If you don’t, don’t. That’s it.

How do you know when you’ve found it?

You’ll know when you know.

In case that isn’t enough for you:

Some people believe that they will know when they’ve found their purpose when it fills them with a never-ending sense of bliss and joy. That is not the case. I’m honored to call myself a writer, but there are days when writing sounds like the worst thing in the world. I look at my computer screen, and groan, and wonder why I’ve chosen a career with such a dim earnings outlook when I had several very financially lucrative paths available to me, and then look at the screen again, and I type one word, and I stare at it angrily.

But at the same time, there’s nothing else I could imagine doing. It’s like those old love stories; you know you’ve found the one when the idea of being without them is so horrible it makes you never want to love again. If I had to give up writing, I’d probably just give up on trying to find a purpose altogether and start working purely to make as much money as possible.

Another way I know writing is for me because I’ve stopped dreaming of alternative worlds where I’m a rockstar, astronaut, or some other high profile career. Instead of fantasizing about being a rockstar, I fantasize about writing a famous profile of her (a la Frank Sinatra Has A Cold). My life has fewer possibilities. Now that I know what I am doing, those might-have-beens are gone forever. I will never be an astronaut. I will never be a rockstar. My finitude presses down on me in a way it doesn’t press down on people for whom the entire world is still their oyster.

This closing down of options is a natural part of life. As our remaining time grows shorter, the list of things we could possibly do grows shorter as well3.

Some people’s instinct is to fight this and keep their options as open as possible, but this is self-defeating. Consider someone who keeps switching their major at college and doesn’t graduate for seven years — sure, they kept their options open, but seven years later when they are finally graduating and most of their peers have begun retirement accounts, can you really say they are better off for it? By trying to choose everything, they choose nothing.

The reverse is true as well — by choosing one thing, worlds of possibilities open up. By committing to one person and getting married, you open up the possibility of buying a house, having children, and starting a family. By committing to one career, you open up the possibility of obtaining a level of excellence that redefines your trade.

Astronauts are great examples of this: anyone who wants to become an astronaut must commit themselves to that career path very early. Future NASA Mission Specialists obtain bachelors, masters, and doctorates in their chosen field of study before they can even apply to be astronauts. If they’re accepted, they must complete another four years of study to travel in space. Future NASA pilots pursue careers testing dangerous military planes at extremely high altitudes and must excel at this before they even apply to be astronauts. In short, Future Astronauts don’t mill around wondering if perhaps they really want to be a programmer or a novelist or a horse breeder. They have no time to mill around wondering. If they want to be an astronaut, they have to get serious now.

But if you don’t know what your purpose is yet, don’t stress about the fact that you haven’t gotten started. Start looking for it now, and take the journey one day at a time.

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Footnotes

1: Not that there aren’t people whose purpose is accounting. We’ve all met people who love their accounting jobs. I just needed an example of something most people are sure isn’t their purpose.

2: The dating metaphor goes even further: just as there are many possible partners with whom you can be blissfully happy, so too are there many purposes with which you can be blissfully happy. You are not hunting for the right purpose, just a right purpose.

3: However, don’t let your anxiety about aging make these options seem even more limited than they are. The founder of Starbucks founded it when he was fifty-six and a janitor. If it’s not too late for him, it’s too late for you.