How Traveling for a Year Helped Melissa Uncover Her Purpose
I first met Melissa (Mel, to me) when she applied to join a @remoteyear program.
Remote Year is a program that takes people who work remotely on trips around the world for a year. I was running the admissions team conducting hundreds of interviews, listening to people share their stories, get deep into the hard parts of their life, and tell me that there just had to be more to it all.
Mel was in her early 20s, and one of the youngest people I’d spoken to about Remote Year.
Contagiously energetic. Entrepreneurially-minded. Self-aware. Full of potential.
As a former corps member and current staff member at @teachforamerica (just like me!), she’d been working relentlessly fighting for educational equity, but was looking for a chance to focus on herself after a few years of strenuous work.
I could completely relate to Mel’s urgency to find space for herself. I had come straight out of the Teach For America world into the Remote Year world as well. The community, the challenge, the professional opportunity, the adventure: it all made sense.
I felt her underlying fears, her worries about not finding clarity even after taking this giant leap.
“Finding yourself” is a different kind of pressure, one that creates an ache within your soul.
If you don’t know who you are, then how can you live the “right” life?
If you don’t live a “right” life, then what’s the point?
Over the next week, we’ll be exploring Mel’s journey toward finding her purpose (hint: it’s not over yet!), and discussing the lessons she learned from every step and misstep.
As you follow along, consider the ways in which each chapter of your life has built upon the last to create your story.
Perhaps, like Mel’s, your narrative is more of a zig zag than a straight line.
If you’re still doing the work to define your purpose, try to find that connecting thread between the scattered points.
The answer may just lie in the aspects of your life that you’ve been absentmindedly living while you’ve been searching for deeper meaning.
If you took a quick glance at my story, you might think that big things started happening in my life when I joined @remoteyear.
I want to keep it real, so let me take you back to two years before that, when things *actually* began.
When I was graduating from college, I didn’t know what to do with my life.
I found @teachforamerica, and thought that it would be a great way to gain some experience in the world of education, while pursuing a graduate degree in the same field. Decision made, I packed my bags and headed to Baltimore.
There, I had a student in my classroom who is still a huge part of my life. She was in third grade, and she confided in me that she had a very rough home life experience.
We became very close, and I was actually able to be her advocate and stand up for her in the court system to get her out of that unsafe situation.
Now, she feels like her life’s purpose is to become a lawyer to help other kids like her, and I feel like I helped her find that passion within herself.
Her life could have gone one way, and I helped her choose a different path.
I loved being able to light someone else’s fire, and help them find for themselves what makes them unique. I realized that I’m really good at doing that for children.
Helping them find that confidence and that purpose for themselves gives me my purpose.
I always look back at that moment as a turning point where I realized “THIS is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
When I’m stuck, I ask myself, “How can I channel that strength and confidence so I can say, ‘This is exactly where I’m supposed to be’?”
After a few years of teaching, I knew working with children was what I was supposed to be doing with my life, but I also knew my current job wasn’t realistic for my mental sanity or my mental health.
I knew that if I kept teaching and didn’t take any time for myself I would completely burn out, so I spontaneously decided that I was going to go on @remoteyear.
I called my best friend and told her, and she said, “Shut up, I just paid for Remote Year!”
It turned out we’d both applied, put money down, and were going on the same program together.
My whole life was falling into place. I was so lost before, and then that happened, and it was like, “Okay, THIS is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
I refer to my time on Remote Year as my “Finding my Ikigai” year - a little cheesy because my program was called Ikigai, but I digress. Ikigai is the Japanese term for your purpose - or your ‘reason for existence’.
I wasn’t working a specific job that year, so I had a lot of time to overly participate in everything. I went to every professional development event, met every person, got mentoring advice, launched businesses.
I got to lead a lot of community events and realize that I loved fostering communities, coaching, and teaching other people.
I also realized that I’d always been really insecure that I was so young, but had so many older thoughts and ideas. That year gave me confidence and a sense of purpose when even people double my age still cared about my ideas and took my advice.
Nobody else gets that opportunity to travel the world and find out what they want to do with their lives at 23.
My whole year on Remote Year - that is what defined my purpose journey. I literally spent the year eat-pray-loving, finding myself.
I’ll never take it for granted.
I’ve always put so much pressure on myself to find my purpose, so much so that it almost developed into this anxiety.
I’d think to myself, “I don’t want something to happen to me before I can find it.”
I know I have so much potential to contribute to the world, and I haven’t done it yet. If something happens to me now, I’m going to leave the world without ever having left my mark.
That’s what drives me, but it also overwhelms me to the point where it stops me from moving forward.
I spent so long trying to figure out what my niche was. I had a travel blog, then I had all these businesses that I started and never finished, and all these domains that would sit idle because the websites I was making weren’t exactly what I wanted them to be.
One day, my dad was at a conference and he sat next to a woman who said she was an executive function coach. He called me and said, “I found it. I found your thing.”
He was right. It’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do, but I didn’t know it even existed.
I’m starting my own executive function coaching business now called Scattered Solutions.
I’ll be helping students who struggle with impulse control, planning, prioritization, following directions, staying focused, and getting organized.
I tell myself that everyday I’m doing something that’s getting me closer to living my purpose.
I’ve been realizing that I can do it in much smaller ways too, and it doesn’t have to be this huge successful company that I run.
If I can just have one meaningful conversation with someone once a day, that alone could change the world.
I’ve always worked for purpose-driven companies.
First, I was a @teachforamericaparticipant, and then I worked for their corporate office.
After that was @remoteyear, which is putting so much positivity into the world, then @successacademy, which is doing amazing work for the urban children of New York.
Each of those companies had a great mission that connected to my purpose.
But in the day-to-day, nothing was lighting my fire.
I didn’t love what I was doing, but because I thought I was living according to this greater purpose, I tried to convince myself that, yeah, this is what I want to be doing.
Even though the day to day didn’t feel right, and I wasn’t actually happy, I told myself that this was the right direction. It had to be.
I was forcing it. Hindsight is 20/20, but when I look at it now it’s so obvious that I need to have that mental energy and excitement and passion that’s driving me toward my purpose.
Even if the overall mission of the company I’m working for is connected to what I want to do, it has to feel like I’m fulfilling that day to day.
Now that I’m working on my own business, I feel like I’m using my creativity to its fullest potential. I finally have that freedom to do exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be doing, to inject my purpose into every minute of my day.
I always joke that my life has no line, that it doesn’t flow.
I taught for two years, then I traveled the world, and then came back to teach again, and now I’m getting back into that phase of focusing on myself.
It’s been a zig zag.
I’ve been trying to figure out a way to describe my story so it makes sense, but I’m now realizing that the zig zag is the whole point.
Sometimes I still feel like a hot mess express, but I’m just kind of owning that all of my hot mess is what makes me relatable to the people I work with.
People don’t want to be coached by someone who has their shit together. They want to learn from someone they can relate to. That’s the kind of thing I’ve been learning to own as a good thing instead of beating myself up about it like it’s a bad thing.
If I’d never taken those leaps of faith, had those experiences, built those relationships, fostered those communities, I 100% wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.
I wouldn’t have the confidence to build this business and see it through, to not be so scared that there was going to be something or someone preventing me from achieving my goals.
There’s a Tom Petty quote: “You belong somewhere you feel free.”
That’s been my mantra lately. It’s helped me figure out that the place where I’m the most comfortable, happy, safe, and successful is where I’m most free to be myself and express my ideas.
I used to be embarrassed when someone would ask, “What do you do?”
Now, I’m learning to own the zig zag.
It’s so easy to get anxious when it feels like your life doesn’t have a specific direction.
We’re told from a young age that we need to choose a path and stick with it, that the way to be successful is to have a plan and see it through.
It takes a brave soul to buck that convention, to follow their intuition and seek out the paths that are calling to them without worrying about finding their way back.
Mel’s story is a shining example of the ways in which a zig zag storyline can actually be beneficial to a purpose journey.
When you’ve accumulated varied experiences, you better understand what feels right to you and what urges you to try something new.
If you can’t see the forest through the trees, then try to actively look for the connecting threads between the chapters of your life.
What values are present throughout all of the choices that you’ve made?
What questions did you answer at each step of your journey so far?
Who were you surrounded by when things felt right? How about when things felt wrong?
In all your favorite parts of your story, what are the pieces that are similar?
The people? A place? A physical activity? A certain sound or scent that permeated the air?
Make a list of these standout memories, then feel for the flashbacks that light up your brain with joy.
It may not be where you end up, but it’s a great place to begin.