Finding Purpose at Duke

I think finding purpose is a lifelong journey, and part of that journey is realizing that things that once brought me purpose and meaning no longer do. Throughout high school, things that brought me a sense of purpose, reflected in a sense of joy and deep satisfaction, were simply stepping stones to getting into college. Using values as a baseline in which to define a life of purpose, I now realize that these things brought me purpose because they fed into larger values I believe in: achievement, growth and excellence. Of these three, only growth has stayed with me throughout my college journey. Part of the reason is that no clear stepping stones exist – college is a bed of gravel in which we must carve our own path.

Growth has given me far more flexibility than achievement or excellence because it is a standard to be measured only against myself, and so is a true value of purpose – something that comes from within me. Achievement and excellence were also short term, serving only to inspire me for short periods of time and leaving me with a listlessness that a true value would have not.

Growth has given me purpose and meaning precisely because it belies the criterion for a “single truth”; a value that must be universally applicable in order to have worth. It allows me to accept that values, passions and the way that people find meaning in their life are inherently individual. I attend college in a world where people are increasingly more and more accomplished, but far more fragile. In this setting, idealism and belief in personal values are not just important, they are also prerequisites to carving a path that is uniquely my own. In order to counter this fragility, my idealism has to be able to stand up to a stronger critique. In essence, it must higher standards than inner values have ever been subjected to. When I look at measuring my growth, I can draw strength from how far I have come, but also motivation to look at how far I have to go.

Part of the problem of finding the values that were closest to me was that little guidance existed. For people older than me, values had already been largely set out for them – a moral pull towards patriotism or a familial push towards duty. Growing up in an increasingly globalized world and moving around in it meant that I grew highly skeptical of ideals like patriotism and duty. I couldn’t swallow or find meaning in values based around “the higher goals of society”. I had been exposed to far too many versions of these values to accept a single one as my truth.

Gandhi once said, “[w]hatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” Through my time at Duke, I have developed a modification of the quote, adapting the quote to reflect how the privilege of my education may well be significant, and that the things I could potentially do at Duke are overwhelming. In contrast to accepting insignificance, I find meaning and purpose in doing things that may seem insignificant now, but trusting that growth is its own end, not a means to significance.   

This article was first written for Ethics 253S: Pursuit of Purpose