Oliver Page

The many faces of living with purpose

11 March, 2023
Faces carved into the Bayon temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

When I graduated as a doctor, I thought I’d won the game of life. I now possessed the golden ticket to a life of purpose and meaningful service. Finally!

But purpose doesn’t work that way.

It didn’t take long for feelings of incongruence to rear their head when I began to work. After years of study and emotional investment, I was supposed to be in my element. Why then, did I feel so unmoored? Why was I adrift from my authentic self?

While I enjoyed the pace of work, the team camaraderie, and the opportunity to support those going through a hard time, most of the time I felt distinctly ‘off-purpose’.

I could imagine how the corporate grind might feel empty, but medicine? How could medicine leave me feeling so bereft of purpose? Unable to wrap my head around it, I fell into a spiral of guilt and self-blame.

In reality, I was trapped by an obsolete worldview. I was seeing purpose as something objective, something outside myself to be acquired through work and work alone. I didn’t realise two things:

  1. Purpose must be generated. Wherever we are, we can cultivate it from within. This isn’t to say our activity is irrelevant when it comes to purpose. Just that the what is at least as important as the how.
  2. Purposeful living is multifaceted. We can channel our purpose through aligned, passionate activity which doesn’t tie in with our paid employment.

In the rest of this post, I’ll explore these realisations in a little more depth.

Purpose must be generated

Purpose is an inside job. It emanates from the most authentic part of us.

In my experience, I recognise purpose as that sense of being plugged into this moment; viscerally connected to everything and everyone around me. In other words, purpose is inextricably tied to my way of being.

If I slow down, I’ll remember that I’m only ever doing one thing at a time: opening the car door. Hugging my mother. Making the bed. Turning on the laptop. One moment at a time – that’s all there is.

When I see my actions as a means to an end, divorced from the present, I lose touch with the transcendent purpose that wants to emerge from within. All I need to do is notice it.

We can do no great things, only small things with great love.

~ Mother Theresa

Purpose doesn’t depend on the grandiosity of our doing.

This is something I couldn’t wrap my head around while working as a doctor. I thought the work itself would instil in me a sense of purpose. But I made the mistake of using outside-in thinking.

Whether I’m washing the dishes or giving CPR, I can choose to show up with love and presence. Equally, I can choose not to. Only I can know if I’m channeling my purpose through loving action moment by moment. As I’ve said, purpose is an inside job.

But here’s the paradox: the activity does matter too, even though I just implied it doesn’t. I must generate purpose from within, while simultaneously finding appropriate outlets for it. Outlets which align with my most deeply held values. How far I succeed in this determines whether I can feel truly at ease in the world, and the degree to which my love is amplified.

Some environments and activities facilitate this expression of love, while others slam the brakes on. This is something which I’ve been learning through experimentation and contact with the external world.

In this way, purpose directly reflects my inner work as much as it is informed by my outer work. It’s an ongoing, two-way, cyclical process.

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Living with purpose has many faces

So we need to find suitable channels for our purpose. But which to choose? How can we achieve the impossible of making a comfortable living and working towards self-actualisation, especially in such a corrosive sociopolitical climate?

One thing I’m realising is that purpose is channel-agnostic. Anything at all can be a conduit, as long as it allows our purpose to flow unimpeded.

This means unlearning one of the most harmful myths about purpose: that it’s only for real if it makes us money.

Life itself is your career, and your interaction with life is your most meaningful relationship.

~ Michael Singer

We often talk about life purpose in the context of paid employment. Hardly surprising – the gears of modern society demand our obsession with buying and consuming.

While I’m beginning to pierce through this conditioning, it continues to live on in me. When someone tells me what they do for a living, I sometimes notice myself making a quiet snap judgement. “That doesn’t sound very meaningful”, I might hear a voice say.

When I stepped away from medicine, I brought these judgements along for the ride and turned them on myself. Although I discovered a nascent passion for writing, part of me felt it was pointless (purposeless) until I could find a way to monetise it.

This soon began to poison the well. My early writing was infused with neediness. Desperate for this to be my ‘thing’, I resorted to clickbait headlines and inauthentic ‘how-to’ articles. Some of them attracted traffic, but I was left feeling hungry for more.

Gratefully, I was able to take a sabbatical in Southeast Asia. Reflecting on my life, I began to repair my wounded relationship with ‘work’. That meant recognising the risk of seeking purpose through paid employment to the exclusion of all else.

Would you bet your life savings on a single stock and then expect it to yield you a comfortable retirement? Of course not. Likewise, if we only cultivate purpose through a single arena, we’re playing a risky game. When our sense of purpose is tied to paid work, what happens if we’re made redundant or forced into early retirement? Many become sick or suicidal in such cases.

In the same way, many of us put an enormous burden on employment to provide everything we feel we’re missing in life:

  • Purpose and meaning
  • Identity and a sense of self
  • Self-worth and self-esteem
  • Competence and accomplishment
  • Community and belonging

We can apply the same reasoning to any area of life.

For instance, if your ‘one true purpose’ is to be a nurturing parent, what happens when your children are no longer children? Many parents, failing to cope with this, actively work against the maturation process of their adult children.

How do we live purposefully without putting our entire self on the line? By diversifying. Instead of channelling our purpose through work or parenting alone, we might look to subtle, often overlooked realms of activity for nourishment, fulfilment and meaning.

At the time of writing, I’m trying to do that more than ever. While I’m still committed to channelling my purpose through work, I’m also interested in applying it in other ways, such as:

  • Articulating my thoughts on this blog
  • Working on my personal growth
  • Expressing myself through piano
  • Volunteering as a grief supporter
  • Resting with intention
  • Having fun