TWH#47: How Do You Find Your Purpose?
The elusive path to getting aligned with what you’re here to do.
Disclaimer: this week’s post is autobiographical, a little on the longer side, and not technical at all. You’ve been warned. 😉
Earlier this week, I found myself marvelling at how fulfilling my work is most of the time. And it got me thinking: did I happen to find my purpose? That elusive thing everyone talks about as so important?
To be clear, it’s no nirvana. I have not arrived. There’s still good days and days that kind of suck. But the highs aren’t so euphoric anymore, and the lows aren’t so depressing either. Most of the time, it’s a feeling of contentment, a peace of mind that can only stem from some sort of alignment.
I’ll spare you the spirituality.
It got me thinking, though. How the hell did I get here? Me, who’s always been an anxious worrier, who felt others had an identity and I didn’t, someone who so often felt… less than.
They say hindsight is 20/20 and it’s kinda true. So I decided to look in the rear view mirror and try to piece together, high-level, what might explain having arrived at what I consider a fulfilling life at the tender age of 39. This will necessarily be a very incomplete post with regards to the question it aims to answer. But I hope the insights I do manage to convey are helpful to you in finding your own gift.
🔀 Choice Points
First, some facts.
Looking back on my recent history, there are a few key decisions that had radical implications in whatever followed in my life.
First, after finally having had enough of barely making ends meet, I decided to move abroad from my native Portugal to quirky Berlin, Germany. I moved on the very first day of 2015. All I carried with me was a backend developer contract to join a young, fledgling startup, and a big ass luggage with as many clothes as I could fit—besides a few books, of course. Those first few months were phenomenal, working as I was in interesting technical challenges with smart people, in a company that just kept growing.
The second decision came about a year later when I said yes to the opportunity of leading a team of… one other developer who, little did I know, was about to be fired. I was blessed to eventually be assigned three other devs who were fantastic people, making my first experience as an engineering manager a very rewarding one. Thanks to them, I was not only not shocked back to individual contribution, I actually fell in love with the challenge of leadership.
Fast forward a couple of years, after much learning (and grief) going through the famed “hypergrowth”, I made the decision to leave my (then) girlfriend behind—as in, do the long distance thing—and move to Vienna, Austria, for my first VP Engineering role.1 What I experienced there over the next couple of years (aside from the many roundtrips to Berlin), was of tremendous learning value, all of which I had the opportunity to leverage later in another small scale-up back in Berlin.
Finally, about two years ago, I finally admitted to myself I had fallen out of love with the technology challenge, I had gotten utterly bored of operational meetings, and that my passion for developing individuals was deeper than ever. I listened closely to that feeling, threw caution to the wind, made up my mind to step out of the engineering leadership game completely, and embraced a career as a full-time, independent leadership coach. Virtually everyone who knew me, when learning of this switch, congratulated me on my “courage”, told me it just “made sense”, or that “they always suspected this would happen one day”.
I thanked each of them, but secretly thought to myself: “Courage? I’m not so sure.”
Although their validation made this feel right, I didn’t feel particularly courageous. I was just doing what felt like the right thing to do. In some ways, deep inside, it just felt… inevitable.
🎯 What Are You Aiming At?
The Britannica Dictionary has 3 definitions for ‘purpose’:
the reason why something is done or used : the aim or intention of something
the feeling of being determined to do or achieve something
the aim or goal of a person : what a person is trying to do, become, etc.
I have come to believe that all of us are wired to seek our purpose—our aim. We are constantly in the process of becoming, whether we realize it or not. And that we don’t truly have peace of mind until we find and live according to whatever that is. It’s like a hole we’re all born with, waiting to be filled, and nothing else but our gift will do.
Living and working without that can be draining. You are literally at odds with yourself. Depending on the degree to which this happens, it can be the expressway to some form of burnout.
They say that when the student is ready, the master appears. At some point in my engineering leadership journey, I came across an executive coach who literally changed my life without him knowing. There are precious few resources on Khalid Halim online, but one day I came across this phenomenal conversation with him. In it, he shares the backstory of his personal mission which he describes as “I gotta fix the way we work before my kids grow up and go to work one day.”2
This was a “quake moment” for me. Despite not having kids myself yet, it put into words something I had been feeling inside for years at that point. I didn’t know it at the time, but the clarity it gave me set an internal process (a purpose) in motion for me that culminated in eventually stepping into leadership coaching. Fixing the way we work became the mission I subscribed to, one that is meaningful to me beyond comprehension.
🧭 Purpose Compass
While I’m sure I thought a lot about those career decisions at the time, today I recognize there were some deeper forces at play inside me.
Portuguese neuroscientist António Damásio, author of Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, argues that emotions are an integral part of the decision-making process, providing crucial information that guides our choices. He believes that emotions and reason are not opposed to each other but rather work in tandem to help us make optimal decisions.3
In retrospect, I recognize I was being guided by three main emotional forces:
Minimize regret. Morgan Housel wrote, “Regrets are a dangerous liability because their final costs are often hidden for years or decades. And decisions that are easiest in the short run are often the most costly in the long run.” All the decisions above took the option that was hardest in the short run (leaving my parents, moving away from my girlfriend, letting go of a well paid VP Engineering job). But if I imagine myself a few years into the future, how much would I have regretted not having tried this thing? Ultimately, the pain of moving to a new country alone (twice) and leaving loved ones behind was overridden by the anticipated future pain of never having tried it.4
Prioritize growth. I was endowed with an insatiable curiosity, for which I am very grateful. They say curiosity killed the cat, but I can only say good things about it (and, by the way, my cat is incredibly curious and is still around, 12 years later). Looking back, every major career decision I made was driven by the curiosity about what might await on the other side, which luckily has always smothered the equivalent fear of the unknown.
Self-belief. Curiosity overcame fear because of an undying belief in myself, and the confidence that I can learn whatever—what is usually called “growth mindset”. This is a tricky one, though. It’s weird to hold the polarity of simultaneously feeling “never enough” and the undying belief that “I can for sure figure it out”. This is probably where strands of psychology that believe the mind is split in different parts probably are on to something.
Again, these guiding principles have all gotten clearer to me only in hindsight. Now I can’t “unsee” them. And I hope you can’t either.
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😌 When It Feels Right
Becoming a coach feels like the best thing I could have ever done. But it got worse before it got better. As I have shared previously, the vulnerability required to strike out on my own and face all my imposter syndrome led me to an anxiety disorder. Coming out of it, having dealt with a lot of the limiting inner monologue, allowed my purpose to shine.
Today, it’s rare for me to have a bad day. Most days, I wrap up work and contemplate for a few seconds how incredible it is that I get to spend my days helping real people, reading and writing. I can draw a straight line from all of this to my state purpose. It feels neatly aligned not only with who am I but with whom I strive to become.
American psychiatrist David Viscott once said:
“The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.”
I can confidently say that through the winding road of my career I discovered my gift (helping, developing others, coaching), I’m constantly working on it (studying, reading, learning from others, learning from my own clients), and I’m in the process of giving it away (by teaching, and hopefully inspiring others to be better people and better leaders.)
I can’t ask for anything more.
✅ The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, the reason I was able to somehow gravitate towards my purpose was that I didn’t stay put. I was somehow always nudged towards the next thing that felt right, propelled by a bunch of enabling factors such as luck, good people, and great supportive parents. And I was blessed to have, yes, the courage to keep moving, learning, and iterating.
Going through life, it felt borderline aimless, random, chaotic. In hindsight, I now see it was a lot less so.
If you feel that something is missing, that work should feel different, that you have this uncanny feeling that your full potential is not being tapped, that you are a cog in a machine you don’t feel inspired by… the odds are that you are right.
Trust you gut, it’s there to protect you. Listen to its guidance, find your enablers, tap into them, and do what it takes to just keep moving forward. Keep making harder choices, keep experimenting, keep listening and reflecting. Keep learning and growing.
The score takes care of itself.
🌍 Purpose Lives Anywhere
You might be thinking, “I don’t know what my purpose is and I don’t know how to find it!” Or, “Easy for you to say, but I’m stuck with this shitty job here. Nothing I can do about that.”
Purpose, like essentially everything else, lives in the mind. As such, it’s malleable. If you can’t change your circumstances (and I would argue that, in most cases, you actually can), you can always change your mind.
I’ll leave you with a story you may have heard before:
After the great fire of 1666 that leveled London, the world’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral.
One day in 1671, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold, one crouched, one half-standing and one standing tall, working very hard and fast. To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” The second bricklayer, responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” But the third brick layer, the most productive of the three and the future leader of the group, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.”
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Until next week, have a good one! 🙏
All good. We eventually got married.
I was lucky to actually later have the chance to meet Khalid over a video call and let him know how he had changed my life.
In some sense, this probably also comes from wanting to disconfirm the old story in my mind that I’m not enough.