I’ve had a gnawing, grating feeling since I graduated college. This feeling I couldn’t shake. This feeling I kept pushing deep, deep down. This feeling that, to this day, creeps up on me and stops me in my tracks. This feeling is that I’ve lost my purpose.
Before you can understand why I, and so many others, live with this dilemma, we need to jump back to the beginning.
Most of us were mere babies when we enlisted – 17 and 18 years old – and we had no idea what the world was like, our place in it, or how much power we have over it. We went in young patriots looking for discipline, excitement and to right the wrongs of September 11. But what was not expected was purpose.
Those early seedlings of purpose came with responsibility to the guys on our teams, in our companies. As we trained and became more disciplined in our craft, those seedlings were cultivated, and purpose continued to grow within us. And when we deployed purpose was all we knew. It became all we were and all we did.
Purpose takes on different meanings to different people: function, aspiration, meaning, reason, etc. To me, purpose is more than a function (e.g. the purpose of a hammer is to pound, therefore the hammer’s purpose is that of function), it is a reason for being and doing, an aspirational view of our infinite abilities as living, breathing people.
That purpose continued to grow and carried us through. If we were training host-nation Soldiers and Marines, our purpose was to make them better, stronger, to do what needed to be done. If we were providing medical assistance to local civilians, our purpose was to improve their lives, enabling them to work their land and provide for their families in peace. If we were playing soccer with children, our purpose was to offer a glimmer of fun to transport them out of the world in which they lived. Our purpose was our job.
Blissfully unaware of our purpose in the world, and unable to even define it, some of us decided to leave the military. To leave behind all we had known outside of childhood.
In an instant it was gone.
Many of us excitedly left the military, went to school and started professional careers. We started families, made new friends and went on with life.
And here we are today, with that gnawing, grating feeling that we’ve lost our true purpose. That feeling that we somehow don’t fit the norm because we learned lifelong lessons by not just understanding our purpose, but by experiencing it in full color. We learned at young, young ages what it means to live. We lived our lives working for something bigger than ourselves.
But when all we knew of our previous lives was purpose, life in a professional career can be disheartening. Helping militaries become better and helping displaced civilians thrive has been replaced by increasing productivity and improving the bottom line. From helping people live better, more free lives to helping people make more money. From discussions on strategic objectives to discussions on workplace politics. If you’ve lived your purpose once in such a profound way, it can be hard to deeply feel meaning in the business-driven world.
This solitary obstacle has made me a better person who values what purpose means and how purpose feels. I was brought up in a world of purpose and learned what matters, what I value and what makes a difference. The difficulty comes with the daily dissonance I feel between what I do for purpose and what I value as purpose.
But the beautiful thing is that purpose changes. Much like our youthful ignorance in the military, many of us are blissfully unaware of a shift in purpose. In my experience it’s been obvious, but undefined, and therefore unrecognizable.
Mindsets have to change. Maturation must occur. Hardships must be faced. And with this, purpose becomes defined not by what we do, but by why we do it.
Moving from my younger self where the world was still small and somewhat simple, to my older, more experienced self where we see things in complex detail, I've learned the what for me is merely a tool to act upon the why.
It’s been with this realization that I’ve found comfort in what I do for a living, because my purpose isn’t to increase productivity or increase the bottom line, it’s to provide the best life possible for my family and to be the man my friends and family have to come to know and love. And by succeeding at one, I succeed at the other.
So, yes, I remain painfully aware of my own existence and impact on the world. In a way it feels like the military has ruined me... but in the most positive, profound way possible. It’s ruined me by forcing me to challenge the status quo. It's ruined me by not allowing me to take solace in trivial environments or disputes. It’s ruined me by making me better.