Finding Purpose

Today I had the honor of speaking at my alma mater to a group of students who achieved principal’s list during the last quarter. I definitely had a mix of nerves and excitement. Even though my background is teaching, this does not equate to being a gifted or comfortable public speaker. I gradually found comfort in my classrooms, but the big difference is they become safe places. Each of my classes would become more like a big, somewhat dysfunctional family. In contrast, a cafeteria full of 60 teenagers staring at me talk into a microphone is vastly different.

I was asked to talk about passion, life goals, and purpose. My life’s path has definitely not been a straight and simple one, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time (over) thinking about what I was meant to do with my life and always coming up short with finding a clear answer.

I have a rising freshman of my own at home, and he and I often have conversations about careers, life goals, and exactly what he wants to be when he grows up. And right now, he doesn’t have an idea and he tells me he’s too young to plan for the rest of his life… Wise words! Because I think back to always wondering what I wanted to be. What did I want to do with my life? And I never knew for sure. I changed my mind quite a bit, and I might have had five different majors in college. Five! And they really varied: in my 4.5 years in undergraduate school, I spent time as an English, history, art history, early childhood education, and a nursing major. (Hence the extra semester needed to actually finish my final major choice!)

Because of this constant indecision, I have always looked around and wondered how people get to where they are. On the surface it has often appeared like luck, a golden thread randomly woven into their fabric of life. There were many years of my adult life where I sat back in a protective cocoon, wondering when that thread of luck might weave its way into my life, too. It was a frustrating place, one of observation and envy, one of an almost consuming powerlessness.

And it always came back to that overwhelming question: what do I want to really do? I remember being captivated by my senior high school English teacher and her passion for literature and writing and the craft of teaching. She filled the room and shone an incandescent sort of light for us— a weary lot of overachieving seniors, but in the midst she drew out our creativity, our depth of thinking, and the writers we could one day be.

She was the reason I finally decided to teach English. I wanted to be like her; I wanted to fill a classroom with my passion. I wanted to read and write and teach. At least that’s what I thought. I’m an introvert by nature, a fairly quiet person. I work hard to not fill any room, so my experience in the classroom always felt flat. It wasn’t one of passion, but struggle; not a time of joy, but frustration and regret. From that first year of teaching, I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be, yet I stayed for ten years hoping to one day understand that it was what I was meant to do. If I wanted to be like my teacher, I had to.

But that burning question persistently loomed well into my 30s. Two years ago, I was talking to my stepdaughter, then a college freshman, and she was embarking on a similar search as she tried to decide on a major and internships and big life questions. I found myself recanting my choices and paths.

I described my admiration of my teacher; I explained my frustration with the reality of teaching, and my perceived failures there. And what usually happens when we are helping others with their worries is that we help ourselves, too. I found myself explaining to her that admiring my teacher all those years ago did not mean that I was to teach.

Instead it was her passion I should have emulated: the way her eyes sparkled, the joy she held for her work, the momentum she created, the work she gladly put into making a happy space in her life.

I took myself by so much surprise in that statement that I had to pause to allow it to register. I had never thought about my own choices in that light. Rather than living with a sense of listlessness and confusion in what the future holds, I realized that it was up to me to bravely mark the trail towards what will make me most happy. And it didn’t have to look like anyone else’s path. Some people know what they want to do all along the way and some people, like me, might have to try a few things on before they realize what really fits. And neither way is wrong.

At that point in my life, I knew I loved photography. I knew I loved taking pictures of my children and family and capturing our life’s story. There was a quiet part of my heart that thought just maybe I could actually do this as something more than for our family, but it felt so large and frightening that I often tucked it away. Typically I wasn’t in the business of large and frightening decisions.

But immediately after that conversation, I realized my eyes sparkled when I was absorbed in photography. I would gladly put hours of work into learning and understanding the craft, the creative aspect, and the technical requirements. Finally! It was my own interpretation of my English teacher’s incredible passion for her craft. I realized that finally, at 35, I had found what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, and I certainly didn’t realize how hard it would be, but I knew I didn’t have to wonder anymore. It was up to me to take that golden thread and weave it through my own life, build a business, and create something wonderfully fulfilling.

Today has been full circle in many ways. To my surprise my Timehop app showed me this morning that I published parts of this blog two years ago today. And even though I honestly wanted to be sick driving to speak this morning, knowing that it was two years ago that I was brave enough to set into motion my photography dream made me feel a little braver in encouraging others to stay the course towards their dreams.

I ended my brief and somewhat shaky-voiced speech like this:

Some of you in this room may know without a doubt what you want to do. You might have a path plotted out from here until you’re my age, and that is amazing. Some of you might be more like I always was. You just might not know for sure what will be next for you after this chapter in your life is over. What I’ve learned along the way is that there isn’t one right path for any of us. Whichever place you find yourself, I urge you to search for the thing that makes your eyes light up and build your life around it. Fill the room with the part of you that shines and inspires others, and all of us will end up exactly where we are meant to be.

And I think that’s applicable no matter our age, no matter our place in life. No matter how lost or restless we feel, there’s a path for us to follow. It might be straight and simple or it could be convoluted and winding. Neither is more successful; neither is better; neither is correct. Because there’s beauty to be found in both the decisive and the indecisive.

Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray. -Rumi

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