On Finding a Purpose

FIND A PURPOSE

To get a job, write your story instead of a resume

I am 61 years old and I have been doing paid work since I was 16. I’ve been a grocery clerk, camp counselor, film projectionist, sound man, light man, cameraman, freight loader, computer programmer, teacher, operations research analyst, manager, salesman, writer, consultant, and for the last 30 years I’ve been a securities trader and hedge fund manager.

Yet I have only once gotten work by answering an ad. Even then I was turned down at first, but it led to a different job six months later after I established a relationship with the hiring manager who had first said no. And I’ve never been asked for a resume until after I received an offer, and then only because HR always needs something to put in their files.  I haven’t needed a resume to get work because my resume doesn’t reveal my work. I am my work, and to know my work you need to know me.
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Here are some things I’ve discovered about finding worthwhile work that have helped me, and that might help you.

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Lead a thoughtful life

The secret of a well-written cover letter is to learn to write well. The secret of an interesting resume is to have done interesting things. So do interesting things and learn to write about them. Ben Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” You might do one or the other but it is better to do both; that’s what Franklin did.

Learn to think. Reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a good place to start. He says, “Writing is thinking on paper.” In order to think deep mathematical thoughts you must write formulas, and similarly you cannot think deeply about much else without writing words. Learn to think mathematically because otherwise you cannot say you know how to think any more than you can say you can drive a car but can’t turn left. Likewise, saying you can think without knowing how to write is like saying you can’t turn right. If you live long enough and you only go straight ahead, then eventually you’ll drive off a cliff.

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Get your story straight

Resumes are your life in bullet-point form. The story of your life is more interesting than can possibly be expressed with a list of sentence fragments. Skip the resume and write the story.

Good stories also have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In your case, you are in the middle.

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But in the middle of what?

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To figure that out, write your story so far. This isn’t a what-I-did-last-summer exercise, so stay away from “first I did this and then I did that…” Good stories have a plot and a theme. What has been your plot been so far, and what is your theme? Make your story interesting and uplifting. If you haven’t been able to do that yet then keep at it because your story is interesting and it is uplifting.  Your story doesn’t need to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it needs to inspire you, and it will inspire you once you find your theme and where you are in your life’s narrative arc.

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If you need help then you might consider finding a “narrative therapist.” Frankly, I don’t know much about this brand of psychotherapy and the Wikipedia entry sounds like a bunch of PhDs began using big words for simple concepts so that they could charge more and get an insurance company to foot the bill. That said, their motto is plainly put: “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.” I say amen to that.  Problems are the spice of life, so stop fretting about them and figure out how to weave yours into a compelling story.

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A cheaper alternative to therapy is to take a memoir writing class. I did that. It wasn’t life-changing, but it was life-revealing. Another good book is Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, also by William Zinsser. The idea is that, while facts are facts—and you don’t want to mess with them too much—crafting the story of your life is not an exercise in reporting. It is about creating a narrative, and the difference between a news report and a narrative is meaning. It is your job to invent the meaning of your life and then fit that meaning in among the facts.

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If all else fails, you can try Zinsser himself. About a year ago I was stumped on a project. Then I read this on Zinsser’s blog: “Many younger writers have taken me as a mentor. They just look me up in the Manhattan telephone book. ‘I know how busy you are,’ they say, assuming that I spend every minute writing at my computer. I tell them I have many ways of being busy, and this is one of the ways I like best.”

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So, I looked him up in the Manhattan telephone book and wrote to him about my plight. He invited me to his apartment. I brought sandwiches and he helped me debug my thinking. He is a good man.

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William Zinssser is in his 90s, and he told me that much of his life has been spent giving people permission to become who they are meant to be. Of course, with the possible exception of your parents, spouse, kids, and boss (plus everyone else vested in the status quo), it is easy to find people who will give you permission to be who you are meant to be. Hell, I give you permission and I don’t even know you.

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But who are you meant to be?

Find your purpose

When I was a teenager, my dad told me that it is a sad fact that very few people know their life’s purpose. The funny thing is that he never told me his purpose even though it always seemed like he had one. I didn’t think about it much until three weeks into engineering school when I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer so I started acting depressed. Luckily, a philosophy professor spotted me and said, “You’re just having an existential crisis.”

For those of you who haven’t had one yet, they occur when two things happen: 1) Nothing comes to mind when you ask yourself, “Why do I exist?” and 2) You realize that getting drunk is just a delaying tactic.

So I transferred to Rutgers University to study mathematics. My dad’s purpose had a lot to do with being a sculptor and very little to do with making money and that meant I had to work between 25 and 35 hours per week to pay for it all.

Working helped tremendously, and not only because it left no spare time for an existential crisis. Harvard professor Richard Light says in Making the Most of College that students make the most of college when they work their way through.  While he reports this as a fact, he doesn’t explain why it is true.

The reason has to do with purpose, and as highfalutin as my professors were, the best were only good at impressing upon us the need for a purpose, but offered no clue as to how to get one. I did not find purpose in school, but I found it in my work. My initial motivation for taking a job usually had to do with making money, but invariably I came to realize that while nobody needed my homework to be done (no matter how interesting it was), the stuff people paid me to do had to get done (regardless of how boring it was). Being needed felt good and that gave me a sense of purpose.

By Brooke Allen

 
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