Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…..Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. – Steve Jobs, 2005
What is success? I have been asked this question a couple of years back by my therapist.
Back in the university days, my friends envied me; I knew what I wanted to be – a criminal psychologist. And I worked hard towards that goal. After one lecture, I approached my professor to take me under his wing for my assignment and driven myself hard to enter the prestigious honours program, just because one of the modules offered was law and criminal psychology. Needless to say, I was one of the 38 out of 200 students who got in. Guess what? I hated it. After that, I was clueless what I want to do with my life. I graduated with honours and became a clinical psychologist at a local hospital in the neurology department (not exactly my choice but I will try anything I got my chance on). Testing elderly patients day after day, preparing reports to confirm their dementia and presented their cases every Tuesday during department meetings, where basically one psychologist (I am not spared) would get targeted and humiliated real bad by one of the Neurologists (my boss), are very far off from what I really want from my life. That’s where I learned to grow my elephant hide to hide my true emotions. I got buried deep inside myself in order not to feel. And I got lost.
I never showed my true feelings so nobody could tell I was deeply disturbed working for that sadistic boss. So it was a surprise (to everyone but not to me) when I decided not to renew my contract and left the hospital and subsequently, my birth country soon after. I moved overseas to become a tour agent instead. And since I have been dictated by the events in my life: marriage, birth of my son, divorce, being a single parent. I stopped asking myself what I truly want in my life since coming to Istanbul. All I can think of what is going to happen tomorrow. I would take whatever was offered to me. It was until recently, I was offered to relocate to Israel to be a translator and a tour agent. Again. But this time, I paused to think. Frankly speaking, I had lost passion for my work. I truly hated my job with my heart and soul. Even worse, I am starting to hate my life. I am nowhere near answering this question: what is success? I felt like a total failure and a big fraud all this time. But then, this is the same struggle almost every adult goes through (so I am not alone afterall): “What do I want to do with my life?” “What am I passionate about?” “What do I not suck at?”
There are scores of online tests out there in the internet world, trying to find your “life mission”. Just type in “life purpose test”, and you’ll get a whole bunch of online tests, helping to figure out what to do with yourself. The idea is born out of a belief that each and every one of us is born for some higher purpose and it’s our cosmic mission to try to find it. Some lucky ones may simply stumble upon it, but the majority of us (the unfortunate ones including myself) have to go through crisis after crisis to find it. Why not simply click a few buttons, and viola, the internet will figure it all out for you. Isn’t internet perfect and wonderful? It saves time too!
Uh-uh, life doesn’t work that way. Trust me, I have been down that rabbit hole and I’ve gotten even more confused. “You are always so busy! Stay still, otherwise they (the cosmic universe) won’t be able to download information into your head, and you will go running for nothing again.” My friend chided and offered me a zen approach to life – do mediation and yoga. She flew half a world across to cheer me up at my lowest point in time. The problem is, I don’t know how to chill. And so I tried to drown myself down with half a tub of ice cream in the cold weather of Istanbul and came down with a cold so bad I was forced to hole up at home. And so my time for reading and reflection begins.
The truth is this: we exist on earth for a predetermined period of time.During that time, we do things. Things that are important and things that are unimportant. Those important things give our lives meaning and happiness. And the unimportant ones basically are created to pass time. So when people ask, “what should I do with my life?”, basically they are asking “what can I do with my time that is important?” Which adds meaning and happiness to our being. Probably we can start asking ourselves (and myself) these questions.
1. What shit sandwich are you willing to eat?
Here’s another life truth: everything involves sacrifice.
Everything comes with some sort of cost. Nothing is pleasurable all the time. It’s impossible. So the question you should be looking is: what struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate? Ultimately, what determines our success is our ability to stick with something we care about that we are willing to endure the rough patches and ride out the awful days.
G.Richard Shell listed out a six lives exrecise in his book, Success, Your Way: Do What You’re Meant To Do, in which you are asked to rank the order in your preference: a successful teacher but her daughter ran away and refused contact with any of her family; a rich, accomplished banker who runs a charity work but is a single parent by choice; a wealthy investor who holds parties all the time but never marries; a stone mason who is not rich but he lives near and close to all his children; a tennis pro who adopts her children but never has enough time to spend with her children; and a nonprofit executive who quits his high paying job when he decided to “heed God’s call”, and plans to move his family, despite strong protests from his children, to rural Africa for his volunteer work. There are two sides to success: inner harmony and outer accomplishment.
In each of these six lives, something is missing, either family harmony or outward achievements, and we live our lives trying to balance between the two. It is worth noting which parts of your life – your hobbies, your career, your passion, your interests, your volunteer work or your family – speaks out to you more. If one of these lives speak much more clearly to you, then it may be telling you something about the direction you want your life to take.
What unpleasant experiences are you able to handle? What shit sandwich do you want to eat? Because we all get served one eventually. Might as well pick one with that fat tomato.
2. What is true about you today that would make your 10-year-old self cry?
When I was a child, I loved to draw. My first cartoon I imitated was Snoopy. Then I graduated to Garfield and his sidekick, Odie. I loved to collect Garfield comic books so that I can draw the parts I love about him – his food. I would draw for the sheer joy of it and gave away whatever I drew. And people loved it.
For some reason, I stopped. The major reason being my parents opposed to me taking my drawing further. Being the typical Chinese family, drawing or cartooning is deemed a dead-end career. My father would shut the topic down by asking a rhetorical question: have you ever seen a cartoonist becoming rich? (Of course, one of them is Jim Davis, creator of Garfield. He has a net worth of $800 million! Oh why didn’t we have internet when my father asked me that idiotic question). But I didn’t know much then. Out of soul-crushing disappointment, I tore up all my work and threw them away, determined to wipe away all traces of memory of how much I loved drawing. When I became an adult much later, I am amazed to find out my friends actually kept my drawings. It never occurred to me how much my drawings meant to them or how much they loved them.
We have a tendency to lose touch with what we loved as a child. Social pressure, familial pressure and professional pressure squeezes the passion out of us. We are taught that the only reason to do something is if we’re somehow rewarded for it.
It wasn’t until recently I rediscovered my love in drawing. At first, my friends mocked at my immature cartoon when I first posted up on my Facebook: I can draw better than that when I was 10! Did your son drew that? That was the encouragement I’ve gotten. But it didn’t deterred me. I kept drawing and painting, and posting them shamelessly up my social media. Until one day, some people left messages to say they look forward to my cartoons and encouraged me to try publication. I am still sitting on it.I never believe my works until my friend and I stumbled on an Arts gallery. Upon looking at one of the canvas, she remarked to me, “If this (bad quality) can make it into a gallery, you totally can make it.” It gave me hope that day.
If my 10-year-old self were to ask my 39-year-old self, “Why don’t you draw anymore?”, and I would reply, “Because I am not good at it”, “Because I didn’t go to school for it”, “Because nobody would buy my works”, or “Because you can’t make money out of drawing”, I think my 10-year-old would probably cry.
3. How can you better embarrass yourself?
Before you are able to be good at something, you must first suck at it and have no clue what you are doing. And in order to suck at something, you must embarrass yourself in some shape or form, often repeatedly. That’s where most people fail to progress – they try to avoid embarrassing themselves, precisely because it sucks. If you avoid doing anything that could potentially embarrass you, then you will never end up doing something that feels important.
Right now, there’s something you want to do, something you have been thinking of doing, something you fantasized about doing, and yet you don’t do it. Reasons? “My friends would make fun of me”, “If I fail, I would look like an idiot” or “I am not good enough”, then chances are you are avoiding something you truly care about because caring about it scares the shit out of you.
Great things are usually unique and unconventional. Therefore to achieve them, we must go against the herd mentality. And to do that in itself is scary.
Embrace embarrassment. Being foolish is part of the path to achieving something of great importance. The more a major decision scares you, chances are you need to take the action and go for it.
Which means I need to get my shit together and send in my publication. Which coincidentally my friend did on my behalf. I simply sent him my works and he did the introduction. Screw looking stupid.
4. How are you going to save the world?
The world always has a few problems. If you see the news, the “few problems” usually means “everything in this world is fucked up and we are all heading towards annihilation.”
So pick a problem and start saving the world. There are plenty to choose from. Education, economic development, domestic violence, mental health care, government corruption, racism, terrorism, civilization displacement. Find a problem you care about and start solving it. Obviously, you are not going to fix the world’s problems by yourself. But you can contribute and make a difference. And that feeling of making a difference is ultimately what’s most important for your own happiness and fulfillment.
In fact, it can start as simply as at home. For starters, me refusing to bow down to my ex husband’s violence is a major step for me. Subsequently, my challenge broadens to keeping my son in a good reputable school he enjoys. Every night, as I lay my head onto my pillow, I am contented to know I am making a difference in my, and my son’s life.
5. If you had to leave house all day, every day, where would you go and what would you do?
Complacency is our biggest enemy. We get into our routines. We distract ourselves. Nothing new happens. We don’t sit and think what we want. Until some crisis strike.
What most people don’t understand is that passion is the result of action, not the cause of it.
Discovering what you are passionate about requires a full time trail-and-error process. It is like a full-contact sport, none of us knew exactly how we feel about an activity until we actually do the activity. That’s how I know I could not make it in criminal psychology. I hated the lessons. And now I’ve lost my passion in tourism. But hey, at least I gave it a shot.
So where would you go and what would you do? Whatever strikes your fancy, write down a few answers and then go out and actually do them. Dance class? Chess class? Drawing class? Get another degree? Learn to parachute? Take the advice from Nike – Just do it.
6. Imagine you have a kid, what would you be to become a hero in his/her eyes?
My son loves to buy his favourite chicken rice from a particular store. One day, the owner, trying to strike a conversation with him, asked: what would you like to be when you grow up? My son’s ambitions vary greatly, like the unpredictable weather of Istanbul. One day he wanted to be a footballer; the next he would fancy himself to be an artist/painter; for a period of time, he wanted to become a dinosaur archaeologist; and once, he actually wanted to be a vase maker, just because a beautiful vase can fetch an indecent amount of money (whoever gave him that idea?). So that day, he aimed to be an artist again. Why? He reasoned his mother is an artist (why would he assume that?) so he aspires to be an artist (like his mom) one day.
What is your legacy going to be? What are the stories people are going to tell behind your back? How would you want to be remembered? How can you start working towards that today?
When people feel like they have no sense of direction, no purpose in their life, it’s because they don’t know what’s important to them and they don’t know what their values are.
And when you don’t know what your values are, then you will take on other people’s values and live their priorities instead of your own. This is a one-way ticket to unhealthy relationships and misery island.
Discovering one’s “life purpose” boils down to finding those one or two things that are biggest than yourself, and bigger than those around you. To find them, you need to get out of that door and explore, take the time to think beyond yourself, to think greater than yourself, and think what makes you a hero in the eyes of your 10-year-old self.
Because your life is constantly a work in progress. We will be constantly working on the art of our lives, until the day we die.