What is the purpose of my life?

— A framework for answering life’s biggest question

This framework was initially shared as a talk at Yale University.

Last year, I quit my dream job at Google because I had finally uncovered the purpose of my life.

I had been searching, on- and off-again, for 34 years. The last stretch was accelerated by the raw pain of burn out, and traversed three continents. Fortunately, I encountered some remarkable teachers and teachings. I found maps and guides. And these are what I want to share with you.

So, how did I start to tackle the Big Question: What is the purpose of my life?

This question plagued me in my teenage and college years. At that age, it wove its mire through long, sleepless nights, as I tried to declare my major and choose my career. But tried as I might, I could never find “the big answer.” I thought it impossible — a rite for the lucky few, struck either by lightning or blessed by the clarity of a well worn path.

What is the purpose of my life?

  • What, and who am I?
  • What is my mission? What is my calling?
  • What am I on earth to give? What am I here to contribute?
  • What can I give? What are my talents? What is my gift? What value do I bring to the table?
  • What can I bring to a situation or a group of people that I am uniquely equipped to bring? What, because of my unique background, experiences, interests, or ideas, makes my contributions in any given situation valuable?
  • What am I good at? What skills or talents do I have?
  • What gives me energy?
  • What, when I’m doing it, makes me feel alive?
  • What makes time dilate (go by really fast, or slow down?)
  • When do I feel flow?

This line of questioning does the following:

  • It presumes that we are focusing on your purpose, not necessarily just your career, job, or work. Your purpose is when you get to spend your time on your mission. There’s a difference.
  • It presumes a subtle but important difference between one’s purpose and the meaning of life. My answer for the meaning of life is quite simple (ask me about it if you wish; I came upon it during my vipassana); however, a purpose hints at directing your life and energy towards something.
  • It presumes one wants to live a fulfilling life, and I’ve defined a fulfilling life as one in which I have a positive impact on others. Thus, contribution is a key component. (I’ve always felt that my life is one of service. And indeed, all my personality tests return this trait — I love helping others.) Yours may differ. One of the questions on your question tree might be, “What do I find fulfilling?” or “What does a fulfilling life look like?”
  • It derives what you are good at not from external feedback, or what you’ve been rewarded for in the past, but with parts of you that can’t be faked. You tend to enjoy yourself when you are doing something you love. You tend to have fun. When you have fun, your perception of time changes (it starts to whizz by!) and you feel energized. These are not trivial matters, they are valuable signals. The things that excite you are not random. They are connected to your purpose. Follow them. (N.B. External feedback can also be very illuminating, since it takes time for many of us to see ourselves clearly. One helpful activity is to ask five people who know you well (friends, parents, professors), “What do you see as my strengths?” and notice if there are any patterns.)
  • It suggests that you should be doing what you are good at, i.e. leading with your strengths. While there is virtue in improving on your weaknesses, what will ultimately set you apart is excelling. A good goal is balance. So long as you aren’t so unskilled in one area that it negatively impacts your ability to succeed overall, you can always supplement your weak links by working with a complementary team. When we can lead with our strengths, however, it is easier to access flow. We were given our gifts so that we could give them away. Hone these, and work will never feel like “work.”
  • Facilitating workshops & public speaking (teaching, inspiring, communicating new ideas)
  • Learning
  • Creating
  1. What do you do?
  2. Who do you do it for?
  3. What do they want or need?
  4. How do they change as a result of what you give them?
  • My answer: I’m Amy. I’m a woman, a daughter, an immigrant, a curious soul, a seeker, a listener, an adventurer.
  • My answer: I solve problems, teach, help others, present, pitch, perform, listen, write, learn, connect, build new things, diagnose issues, connect ideas, champion others, break rules.
  • My answer: I found that I cared most deeply for a) anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life, b) professionals that work too hard and burn out, c) anyone who’s healing from heartbreak, and d) women. My heart bleeds for these people. Yours could be: impoverished youth, people in third world countries who don’t have access to clean water, senior citizens, anyone who suffers from hunger, people who have cancer, or as broad as mankind.
  • My answer:
  • For anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life, they need help and access to HOW to do this. They need guides, and maps, and the courage and inspiration to know that it’s possible.
  • For professionals that work too hard and burn out, they need tools and skills to bring their bodies and minds back into balance. They need to reclaim a healthy lifestyle, to heal, and to nurture their energetic capacity to perform.
  • For anyone who’s healing from heartbreak, they need to be able to be in their pain, reclaim a sense of self, strengthen their forgiveness practice, and most importantly, learn how to love themselves and others again.
  • For women, they (we!) need people & systems that champion our self esteem and confidence, and immediately usable skills and tools to succeed in the workplace.
  • My answer:
  • For anyone who wants to live a fulfilling life: They lead a fulfilling life.
  • For professionals that work too hard and burn out: They are high performing and healthy individuals.
  • For anyone who’s healing from heartbreak: They love wholeheartedly.
  • For women: They have a confidence that draws from a deep well of self love, and they succeed in the workplace.

Beethoven may have uncovered his purpose at age 3 because he was lucky enough to come in contact with a piano. But what if he hadn’t had access to one until he was 30, 40, 50?

Your instrument is out there. Go encounter it.

Remember, it’s a continuous process. Trust in your inner teacher, for as cliche as it might sound, the answer truly does lie within.

The world needs your inventions.

Good luck.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” — Marianne Williamson

“I like things to happen. And if they don’t happen, I like to make them happen.” — Winston Churchill

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” — Confucius

“What you seek is seeking you.” — Rumi

The framework above is what worked for me, but your mission is to find what works for you. There are many out there. For example, one of my favorites is Ikigai. It comes from Japan, and translates into “a reason for being,” like the French raison d’être. I used to have a print out of this on my desk. It was a constant reminder to notice and learn, both about the world and myself. And it reminded me: I am not alone in this search. And neither are you.

I love humans, channel my unflappable optimism into sci-fi, and reflect on all matters of the heart