Finding, Building and Refining Purpose Over a Lifetime

Jul 17, 2021 | Writing Life

​​Purpose is a thing you build, not a thing you find ~ John Coleman

In my recent op-ed for the Straits Times, I wrote about the value of work and the worth of an individual. In it I recalled an interaction that happened over twenty years ago in California. When I took my baby daughter for her routine immunization, I witnessed scenes of distress and bouts of crying from infants who had received their childhood vaccines. 

“You make babies cry”, I told the nurse, half joking, half-anxious as I held my squirming baby in my lap. 

“I make babies healthy,” she replied cheerfully. She had no doubt that her work, although not very pleasant for her little wards, was important because it served the best interests of children and society.

Being clear about the purpose behind what you do everyday is a great way to build commitment towards your job and derive satisfaction from all the hours that you spend at your job.

What about writing

I have spent the last seven months writing my book and as I get into the last trimester of bringing it to life, there’s so much to be done. On any given day, I am interacting with several people who are contributing their energies to giving shape to my project. On some days I have things under control and on others, I feel burned out.

What is the greater purpose behind all this torture that I seem to have inflicted on myself I wonder?

Last week a question from a perceptive reader stopped in my tracks.

“What is the goal for your book?” she asked.

I had never considered this question directly. 

What is my goal for my book

I have written about why I chose to write this book. I have talked about why I think this book is necessary given its cultural context. But had I articulated a specific goal for the book per se? No.

When faced with the question, the answer came quite naturally. 

My book is my first offering to people who are considering, going through or have obtained a divorce. 

Even though it won’t be a mass market bestseller, I want it to reach its intended audience. I want it to resonate with readers. It may not be declared a literary gem or become a critically acclaimed prize winner. 

Then why bother?

My book may not be great literature, but my story is an encouraging tale. 

The goal of the book is not to generate huge profits, but to create small ripples of change.

Defining success

I would consider my book to be a success if it can become a conversation starter. I would consider my goal to be achieved if my story can help people talk freely about the subject of divorce, especially in a culture where it is actively ignored. 

By sharing my story, I want readers to know that it is normal to harbor doubts, to be confused and unsure about the future when walking away from a relationship that is not easy to break. 

The point of having the book out in the world is to let readers know that they can choose to move ahead with the confidence that someone else who has walked the road ahead of you has made it through.

For me, the book is not the end, it is the beginning. As I learn more about editing, book design, publishing etc, my days lately have been very different from the calm mornings not so long ago when I simply wrote for fifty minutes

Finding, building and redefining purpose

Just the act of bringing forth a book has taken me on a path of learning that has asked me to face the question of my purpose. My purpose is getting refined with each step that reveals another fork in the road where I must make choices. 

Recently I was reminded that purpose is not something that sits by the wayside, waiting for us to show up. Purpose is embedded in the work we do. For some people and at certain times it reveals itself easily while at other times, it is our job to invest our work with a sense of purpose.

Bringing up my daughter was the central purpose of my life for many years as I strived to make a good life for the two of us after my divorce. For a short while this year, writing this book gave me a sense of purpose, over and above the other things that make up my day. 

Last week, my daughter left home to pursue graduate school in the US. Her departure marked a change not just in her life trajectory, but mine as well. Purpose does not remain stable over a lifetime and oftentimes we may find meaning in many of the things we do. The goal of a lifetime though is to stay tuned to the inner and outer workings of our life and find purpose in what we do.

Writing this book has been a goal that is close to being accomplished. The book will soon be out in the world. Whether it achieves its goal of inspiring and reassuring all those who need to hear its message, remains to be seen.

Photo credit Ranjani Rao

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