I knew my purpose in life from a very young age. Or so I thought.
I graduated highschool with a clear goal in mind and entered college with a determination to fulfill my purpose in a specific way. I would study my chosen profession and begin a lifelong career that would accomplish my goal of helping people.
Three years into my field and mid-way through my twenties, I realized I had lost my original sense of purpose, and myself in the meantime. I knew I had to make a change. Unfortunately, I had no clue what to do instead. I had never given myself the chance to consider other options or career paths. I didn’t even know how to begin.
Thankfully, my younger sister had just come home from a self-made semester abroad travelling with Workaway. She eagerly shared tales of working on cocoa farms in Costa Rica, riding chicken buses, and having adventures while learning new skills. It seemed like a good way to invest my time while figuring out what to do next, so I decided to give it a try too.
Here are some of the lessons I learned about re-discovering my purpose after a year of volunteering with Workaway:
1. It’s okay not to have all the answers
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Sometimes we have to be brave enough to collect the questions without immediately wrestling for the answers. Sometimes the questions themselves are more important; they’d lead us down hidden pathways to solutions we could never experience if we had not had the courage to ask in the first place.
2. Your purpose has many expressions
“Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”
I knew I wanted to help people and to have a positive impact on others’ lives. Yet, I had no idea how many different ways this was possible. Travelling illuminated the simple ways I could live my purpose- by sharing a meal with a homeless woman on the street, teaching a young student how to improve his English, or dancing in the rain with children from a local village.
When I realized the core values of connection and compassion were the most important to me, I was able to feel fulfilled in everyday conversations and simple interactions.
3. Rest is productive
“I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly.”
-Henry David Thoreau
In Western culture, we often get a bad reputation for taking breaks or going on extended vacation. We’re taught to measure our productivity through tangible and instant results. However, allowing ourselves to have leisure time actually fosters brain development and improves creativity, leading to new ideas and clarity of thought, helping us to find (or re-define) our purpose in life.
4. Being is just as important as doing
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”
Who are you without a to-do list? What are the qualities of your character that make you unique? What makes your heart sing, your body feel energized, your mind sharp and focused? A lot of us have defined ourselves based on what we can do, our skills, our work experience, or our education.
This is only part of who we are, an outer expression of the desires and dreams that really motivate us. Through experiences like Workaway, we can develop a deeper understanding of what brings us true joy, enthusiasm, and meaning beyond our job description.
5. The Purpose of Life is to Live it
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
One day I was expressing my fear of returning home after a year of travel without knowing how to answer all of the questions I knew people would begin to ask. “What do I say when they ask me what I’m doing with my life?” I bemoaned to an eighteen year old volunteer from New Zealand while we weeded a flower bed.
He paused and looked at me with laughter and wisdom far beyond his years. Smiling, he gave a simple reply, “Tell them you’re living it!”
Travelling abroad and volunteering with Workaway wasn’t a magical potion that suddenly made everything clear in my life.
Yet, it gave me the confidence to be okay with a certain level of uncertainty and mystery. It taught me to be flexible and patient with the journey. It allowed me the opportunity to realize how much I loved nonprofit work and teaching. It gave me time to write and reflect and listen to what made me truly come alive and the courage to chase after it.