I keep seeing articles of various sorts about “Finding Your Purpose.” I think they’re about the wrong thing.
Nowadays, we’re all supposed to find our purpose in life: the fundamental reason we were born, the thing we are supposed to do. I think some people have a purpose, but most people don’t. If they had a purpose, they wouldn’t have to find it — a purpose isn’t something you find. It finds you.
I have a purpose: I don’t remember a time before I knew that I was a writer. My first published poems are from high school, in the high school literary magazine. I published poems and short stories in the college literary magazine. I was in a literary and debating society. I was an English major. In law school, I worked on a novel at night and published poems in a professional poetry journal for the first time. While working as a corporate lawyer, I wrote poetry while eating lunch and hid novels in my desk. When I realized that corporate law would never allow me to write seriously, I quit a job in which I was making $100,000 a year (that’s not a typo) the month after my last student loan was paid off. The month after that, I started graduate school. That year, I lived on a $10,000 stipend.
Having a purpose makes things easier in some ways. It immediately sets your priorities. I knew the important thing was for me to learn as much as possible about English literature, so I went to graduate school. Making money was . . . not even secondary. It was nothing, if I could not write. My law firm was full of people who didn’t particularly want to be there, but they didn’t know what else they wanted to do either. So they stayed.
No, if you have a purpose, it will find you. It found me young — it might find you later in life. A purpose has its own timetable, its own agenda.
What you want to do, in the meantime, is follow your road. I think that’s a lot easier than finding a purpose. With a purpose, you think, is this it? Or this? And of course it’s not, because if it were, you would know. But a road . . . you’re already on a road. Now you have to decide whether it’s the right one.
I think we each have a road, and I think we know whether it’s the right road. I think we can sense it. Have you ever been on the wrong road? Been in the wrong town, profession, relationship . . . You knew, didn’t you? You either knew and admitted it to yourself, or knew and hid it from yourself, but secretly knew underneath. You could feel the wrongness. I think following the wrong road makes you feel sick. That’s how I felt when I was a corporate lawyer. I knew it was a road I had not chosen for myself, an road I was following because other people wanted me to, because they very much emphatically did not want me to follow the road I knew was right. I felt that wrongness the day I arrived at law school.
The thing about your road is, it’s not always easy. It’s not always straight. Sometimes, you will twist your ankle on the stones. Sometimes, you will fall in the mire. But that road is always yours. You may sometimes doubt it, or hate the lessons you’re learning along the way. But it will feel authentically your own. Even the lessons you hate will feel like your lessons. You will own that road. You will own the doubt and wrong turns. And sometimes those wrong turns will lead you right. Sometimes they won’t, and you’ll make mistakes, and have regrets, and feel a sense of shame. But those will be your mistakes, and regrets, and shame. At least you won’t be feeling anyone else’s.
Your road may look completely different than what anyone else thinks it should look like. You may have to say, “But it feels right to live on an organic farm,” or “But I want to be a senator,” or “I know, I never thought I would be writing comic strips either, but here I am.” Or raising sheep dogs. Or raising kids. Or running a hardware store. Who knows — well, you do, or you will, once you get there. The thing about a road is, it’s not a destination. You may only be able to see a few steps ahead at some points. You have to trust your instincts, that feeling in the pit of your stomach. If you can only see a few steps ahead, well, take those steps. Maybe then you’ll be able to see a few more steps . . . And you have to be honest with yourself about whether or not it’s your road. No lying, no “It’s a perfectly good road, and my parents like it, and my friends like it, and everyone approves of me being on this road, so it must be the right one.”
I honestly don’t think you can live a meaningful, fulfilling life walking anyone else’s road.
Somewhere along that road, you may encounter your purpose. Or maybe not. But you’ll be traveling along a road, and the road will be yours. And that’s the important thing.
This is me on the road behind the Stone House, at the Stonecoast MFA Program, where I was teaching this summer. That day, it felt like my road, the road I should be walking along both actually and metaphorically. I owned that road . . .