You Weren't Made to Do One Thing / by Jennifer Chan

No one emerged from the womb assigned with an intrinsic purpose.

The doctor did not take one look at you and say, with confidence, “You will be a fine race car driver!” or, “I am looking at the forthcoming Youtube sensation of 2030.” Life doesn’t work that way. No baby, child, teenager, or even adult, knows for sure one thing that they are destined to do for the rest of the life, and if they say so, they are deceiving themselves.

The reality is that we make our purpose. It evolves as we get older, acquire more skills, experience more things, and form our values and beliefs.

When I was in middle school, I was insistent that my purpose was to become a writer. I carried a pen and a notepad around with me. I would write in it during class. I would write short stories at home. As sure as a 12 year-old could be, I was sure that I would become a writer.

In high school, I started hearing that there was no money in writing fiction. If you wanted to write and earn a decent living, you’d have to become a journalist. Okay! I said. I’ll become a journalist. Around this time, I began developing an interest in politics. I started writing op-ed pieces for my high school newspaper. I decided that I would major in political science for my undergraduate degree. I was accepted to the University of Ottawa. I thought I had my future all figured out.

And then, at the University of Ottawa, I found one thing that I could not control: other people. Not fitting in, despite loving the program itself, I transferred to McGill University. Being harassed by other students was certainly not within my plans. I had to start anew. I was 18 years-old in a new environment for the second time, and I began questioning everything: what was my purpose, what were my values, what sort of lifestyle did I want in Montreal, etc.

At McGill, I continued taking classes within the political science department. In my second year, I decided, without much thought, to take a few courses in Canadian politics. That led to a course on the Canadian constitution. And that led to a course on the Canadian judicial process. In my last year, I realized that I actually enjoyed studying the law and felt that I should apply to law school.

But, unconventionally, I decided to take a year off before applying to law school. I wanted to work in the “real world,” and be sure whether law school was the right place for me.

One day, while sitting on the patio of a coffee shop in Montreal, I stumbled upon a non-profit organization that was hiring. The job, however, necessitated relocating to a Cree community 10 hours north of Montreal for at least six months at a time. It involved working at the high school in the community, and creating programs to boost student engagement. “What the hell,” I said. I applied. I got the job. And two months later, I was sitting in a van that was carrying me away from everything I knew.

I applied to law school while living in that community. After my contract ended, I left feeling that my purpose was to be a lawyer for youth. I wanted to help minors navigate the legal system.

When I entered law school a year later, I realized that my “purpose” was largely dictated by market forces: who was hiring, who felt my experience was an asset, who would pay enough that I could start tackling my mountain of student loans. I ended up taking a job at a government agency — nothing that involved youth.

While I made great money there, something was missing: purpose. I didn’t feel that I was doing something that excited me. I also felt that my skills could make more of an impact elsewhere. Because I was working at a government agency that handled workplace law, I became more flexible when I was searching for jobs, but had only one requirement: It would have to involve assisting vulnerable communities.

I then noticed that a legal aid clinic was hiring. The legal aid clinic specifically dealt with representing low-income workers who have been wrongfully terminated for raising their rights at work. Despite that it was a significant pay cut, I applied and landed the job. A year and a half later, I’m still at the legal aid clinic. I received several pay increases (that restored my pay to what my old job gave me) and I can safely say that this is my purpose. Helping those on society’s fringes.

The thing with purpose is that it changes.

I never thought that I would be working where I am, but in a way it makes sense: I always wanted to work in a progressive environment that helped vulnerable communities. Through pursuing my interests, beefing up my skills, and seeing where the need was, I found a job that aligned with my values while sufficiently paying the bills. I write all the time at work; I also write on the side.

You need to be strict on your non-negotiables (values), and flexible on the outcome. You don’t know what’s out there. There might be something better suited to you that you’ve never heard about.