My aunt called me around midnight on July 13, 2016. “I am sorry…Your father had just passed away. His body is still at home…” His death came as a real shock to my whole family. There’s no prior warning — he had no serious chronic health conditions. In the subsequent nine months, I asked myself many questions about my relationship with my aging parents (Should I have spent more time at home? What are the things that I regret not saying or not doing with him?) but also my values and priorities. What is really important to me? What really gives me purpose and meaning in life? 

More than a year later, I am now sitting in a different continent (in Hong Kong with my family instead of being in the Bay Area) and pursuing a radically different career. I want to share a few things that I had learned from this process.

1. It’s not easy to be honest…

Being a strategist and coach, it should have been a piece of cake for me to figure out what gives me purpose and meaning. But it’s extremely difficult to overcome the initial inertia because I can’t have everything (i.e., time with family, career advancement, time for myself,…). Prioritization inherently involves tradeoffs. 

Change is also inevitable. I need to make changes to re-align my daily activities or job with my ultimate goals and values. For a long time, I’ve fallen into the trap of going with the flow. Days are often consumed by doing what’s urgent at the moment. There’s no time to ask the deeper questions of where my effort and energy are leading me. If this resonates with you, it may be time to pause and take stock of your values, long-term objectives and visions. 

Pick up a journal and answer these questions: 10 or 15 years from now, who do you want to become? What do you want to say that you’ve accomplished? 

  • What’s your 5-year vision? What’s your mission statement? 
  • If I didn’t care what anyone thought, I would… 
  • If money is not a concern, I would…
  • What excites you? What are your core values? What are your passions? What are your strengths…?
  • Make a list of your peak moments when you feel most energized and when you feel the best : what were you doing, where were you, why were you feeling that way. What do you learn about yourself in the process — your passions or interests? What’s important to you? How do you rank them? What are your priorities? 

It’s ok that it’s overwhelming initially but don’t put off asking yourself the tough questions. Busyness can be comforting when you don’t have to look deep into yourself — to confront old fears or insecurities. 

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

Ralph Ellison

2. Maintain a curious mindset and switch off your self-critical voice…

Turn off the metal detector! Switch off the voice of skeptic and censorship in your mind. Keep an open mind.

Don’t be distracted by the “but’s” or voice of practicality and just stay curious. Sometimes we short-circuit the self-discovery process because we are afraid to venture outside our comfort zones. Self-discovery is often scary because you are not totally sure what you will find “under the hood.” The following exercises may help you to overcome your self-inhibitions:

  • Revisit your childhood and remember what you used to love doing when you were young. What were your dreams then? What did you enjoy doing at age 10? Do you still love doing those activities? If you have stopped doing them, why did you give up?
  • Make a “dream board”: a collage of images, quotes, articles, and other inspirations that reflect who you want to be and what you want to do. What are you learning about yourself in the process?
  • Put together your “bucket list”. What’s holding you back from doing the things on the list?

3. Don’t travel alone…find support and accountability to take action

Once you have figured out your values and priorities then it’s time to take action. Pick 2-3 things, put together a plan, map out concrete next steps to act upon them, and give yourself a deadline. But don’t do alone. Find like-minded people to support you and help you stay on track.  

  • Who do you admire? Why do you admire them?
  • Make a list of friends and family who embody the values you strive for. How do they approach pursuing purpose and meaning? 
  • Meet with them and invite them to journey with you.

Finding our life’s purpose and meaning is a process. Our values and vision change with different life stages and external circumstances. Hence, just as companies go through strategic planning every year to determine their directions and next steps, it’s helpful to pause and reflect upon our purpose and direction at least once a year (if not more frequently).