This question is one of the two big questions in life. It is a difficult post for me because it is very personal. A person’s chosen purpose in life strikes to the essence of what and who they are. Even worse, my life purpose is not even very original or particularly memorable.
As a senior citizen well into my season of Social Security benefits, I have seen my life purpose change over time. Marriage, children, a change in circumstances, or even a passionate vocation or avocation can redefine a life purpose. Often, it is just plain difficult, almost impossible to reduce a life purpose to a catchy slogan or even a turgid mission statement. So, with all these caveats, here goes.
Over the past few years, I have been blessed with opportunities to help other people. Because I am a deeply committed DIY, the phrase “help other people” has never fit well with me. It is just a weak verb. For similar reasons, I don’t want to “make life better” for other people. That’s their job, not mine.
After a few days of grumbling and working with a thesaurus, I came up with a purpose that seems to fit me. I want to make tools that people can use to make their own lives better. I don’t want to do anything “for others.” Sometimes a person gets stuck, and may not see how to climb out of a metaphorical hole, move past the giant metaphorical rock in their life path, or something else. What if the person in the hole suddenly noticed a ladder or the person blocked by the rock found a fulcrum and a long lever? Then that person could fix their own problem and move forward.
These metaphors are pretty well-worn, and much clumsier than “teach a person to fish.” I like technology and tools resonate with me much more than fishing poles. So this is my life purpose for this season.
When you build tools, you need to define the purpose of the tool and the eventual user. For family and close friends, this is pretty easy. The hard part is getting out of the way of the person actually using the tool. I also want to build tools for more people, perhaps people I may never know or even meet. Who are they and what tools do they need?
My wife worked as a speech therapist for 30+ years and strongly identified with her kids. They often had problems with speech, emotions, self-control, and anger all mixed up together. Sometimes they had a broken family, or even no home, just a series of short-term stays in the living rooms of friends or cousins. Often they had trouble just sitting at a desk for hours at a stretch. She still has a strong drive to help them. I decided to work with her to make some tools for them.
Our first project was to set up the Strike a Spark Scholarship at Laney Junior College in Oakland for people who want to learn to weld. Devon’s kids often go to junior college because their academic records do not fit university admissions criteria. Often they struggle to find the money for supplies and even small tuition. Welding in particular requires expensive supplies, such as sticks, gas, stainless steel test plates, and personal equipment. This trade is a good fit for a kid who does not sit well at a desk. In short, a welding scholarship is a tool that Devon’s kids might need.
This scholarship was our small, first step on a well-traveled path. Many people have gone this way before and done much more than we ever will. We are just beginning, and hope to enjoy our own journey on this path.
A scholarship fits my definition of a tool, and the scholar has to do some work to find it, earn it, and then use it. Maybe we will find other tools we can build.
The universe provides, and the universe gives you signs. Sometimes you start down a path and just run into obstacles. Sometimes you start on a new path and everything just works well. The universe usually does not give you big, blinking, neon signs, but the hints and small signals are often there if you are looking.
When my wife and I started down this path, along with all the expected difficulties, we saw pretty clear indications that “making tools for people …” was a path that suited us and fulfilled us. It echoed the three pillars of my mother’s life: faith, family, and finances. We have been blessed with personalities just cantankerous enough to write our own life scripts and to change them when our lives changed. We will tell you how this new script works in a few years.