Forget Perfection, Live a Purposeful Life Instead. Here’s How to Start

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Once in school, my teacher, Puan Fatihah, returned our artworks after a week of grading. Our assignment was simple – we had to create a car wash poster.

I was excited. Finally! Creating the car wash poster required lots of crayon shading and missed hours of Little Lulu, so I was looking forward to the outcome.

My classmate, Jing, proudly held up her poster, showing-off the ‘A’ at the top right corner. Her artwork wasn’t half-bad. I was sure I could get the same grade too.

When Puan Fatihah handed my poster, my heart sank. It was graded ‘C’.

When I asked my art teacher about it, her reply affected me deeply. “You used cold colours, Cheng Sim. If you used warm colours on your poster, like Jing did, you could have gotten the perfect A.”

The perfect A.

In the years that followed, chasing for perfection took a toll on me because I felt I wasn’t good enough.

I remembered being upset over things like flunking my accounting paper, failing my first driver’s test, and being rejected from my dream university.

These events seem silly now but back then, I felt I could have done better.

After years of attempting and failing miserably, I stopped chasing perfection. First, because it’s exhausting, and second, because it’s downright impossible.

I mean, nobody’s perfect. There’s an infinite number of things we can do better, and not enough time to improve on all of them.

In fact, I’ve learnt that there’s more to life than chasing perfection. It’s called living with purpose.

The best thing about living with purpose is that you don’t have to change who you are, but you do need to be more honest with yourself. The more authentic you are, the better you’ll be in finding your real purpose. It’s about understanding what moves you and makes you soar.

Want more meaning and purpose in your life? Here’s what you need to do.

Follow your values

What’s valuable to you?

Having a work-life balance, embracing self-development at work, or achieving inner harmony in your daily life?

Take a moment to list down the things that matter in your personal and professional lives. Writing a list of personal values is similar to figuring out the qualities that resonate with you.

Back when I was fresh out of school, my first part-time job was as a secretary in a legal firm. From nine to five, I managed a number of administrative duties such as preparing sales and purchase agreements, documenting meeting minutes, and buying my boss’ snack plate from KFC.

It was an okay job, but my most hated task of all was cold-calling potential clients.

See, I’m an introvert. The idea of speaking to another human being I don’t know makes me squirm. But the idea of making completely unsolicited calls to total strangers all day long? It was enough to make me want to curl up into a ball and cry.

After only a month of stuttering over the phone, I resigned.

Several years later, my lecturer made us create a list of personal values. Embracing creativity turned out to be one of mine. It hit me – no wonder I hated making those sales calls! I’m a creative person!

Knowing this, the list became my compass in finding the things I truly enjoy. One of them is writing.

When you start to create a life around your values, it naturally leads you to the next step.

Discovering your career goal

For some of us, our career is driven by the things we receive after working for a period of time.

After working several years in a company, you might approach your manager for a raise, a senior role, and/or bigger bonus.

But here’s the thing about using salary as measures of success in your career – you lose your grasp on things that really matter, like job satisfaction and happiness.

To have purpose in your career, it’s important to ask what you can do to serve others. That’s when you develop a sense of duty and meaning. Having purpose isn’t about what we can do for ourselves, but what we can do for others.

Real estate agents help others to find their dream home. Teachers educate students to become future leaders and thinkers. Ramly stall owners satiate our hunger pangs past midnight.

Every job has a purpose.

For me, I used to think that my part-time job as a pharmacy sales assistant was mundane.

All I did was arranging new stocks, scanning price tags, and shadowing customers (we know you hate being followed, but our manager made us do it).

That was until my senior, Athirah, shared that being a pharmacy sales assistant is more than just arranging supplement bottles and cosmetic products.

“You have to communicate with people every day and ask what you can do to help. You’ll be surprised how meaningful this small gesture is,” she reminded me.

“Little things matter, like helping others to buy a good product for their skin, a suitable multivitamin for their mother, or the right sanitary pad for a clueless husband,” she laughs.

She was right. At the end of the day, having purpose is not about what makes you happy. It’s about finding the aspect of your job which brings happiness and value to others.

When you develop a sense of purpose in your career, it’ll be easier to hit the alarm and arrive early to mop the floors before the pharmacy opens.

Another aspect that’s crucial to having purpose is,

Live in the moment

Our mind does this weird thing where it overthinks. We’re constantly bothered by our past and worried about our future.

The funny thing is, thinking about the past and future won’t change anything. The only thing we can control is what’s happening right now.

Are you living up to your true values? Are you doing the things that make you happy? Are you spending enough quality time with your family?

You’ll be surprised how powerful it is to be mindful of what you’re doing in the moment. Once you do something which aligns with your values and goals, it’s like a giant weight has been lifted off you. Suffering becomes momentary pain. Sure, you might not be happy with where you are now, but at least you’re on your way to your goals – and that’s more than any of us can hope for.

When you learn to live in the moment, you’ll naturally fall into the next step, gratitude.

Be thankful for what you have, always

Gratitude is my favourite way to practise mindfulness every day. It is the simple act of giving thanks for everything we have in our lives.

Sometimes, it’ll take a while for us to jump out of bed. During these moments, while I convince myself that I need five more minutes in bed, I’ll take the opportunity to give thanks.

I’d start by being thankful for the small things like being able to spend another day with family, being able to help a new client with content assignments, or even having the occasional luxury of sharing my morning coffee with an old friend.

It takes a couple of tries to make gratitude a daily habit. When it becomes a morning ritual, it’s easier to wake up and look forward to a brand new day. It also helps me to get through bad days.

Remember, it’s all about appreciating the little things in your life, instead of worrying about what should, could and would have been.

Exploring new things

What’s the one thing you want to do or try today?

While skydiving and rock climbing sound great, you can scale it down to activities or opportunities you can do instantly. It can be as simple as sampling a new lunch menu.

Give that nasi lemak burger a try, learn to make kombucha from scratch, or ask your grandmother how to hand roll a cigarette (I never had the chance to).

These days, my creative exploration revolves around art workshops. It’s easy to spot them in Bangsar and Kuala Lumpur. Once or twice a month, I’d challenge myself to try something new like pouring art or expressive line drawing.

Along the way, I picked up a few tips. So far, I learned that painting a face purple is acceptable in expressive art, writing calligraphy requires a lot of patience, and wearing a white top during charcoal drawing is a no-no.

Most importantly, I realised how happy it makes me feel.

Exploring new things allow you to find the things you love and don’t love. You just need to give it a chance and try.

For example, I realised that spoken word isn’t my thing after attending a local event. Same goes to running a marathon (I have poor stamina) and watching squash (I have short attention span).

But I know other forms of creativity make me excited like writing and painting, which led me to my next experience in finding my purpose.

Accepting that challenges develop your purpose

‘Everything happens for a reason,’ says my mother (and every other inspirational quote on Instagram).

There’s a reason why certain events, situations or relationships didn’t turn out the way we hoped. It is because there’s something better lined up for us. At first, it may not seem like it, but it’s true.

After graduating from college, I went through every writing job opportunity in the city because I was excited to become a full-fledged writer.

Even though I had a solid resume and the enthusiasm to learn, no one wanted to hire me. “Sorry, we need someone with writing experience,” said an interviewer, while sliding my resume back to me.

It was heart-wrenching.

After being turned down from countless job interviews, I almost took up a job offer as marketing executive because the dream of becoming a writer seemed out of reach.

Still I didn’t give up. I decided to do something about it. While my college friends joined the workforce as management trainees or junior executives, I took a step back.

At 24, I applied to become an editorial intern at a publishing house in Kuala Lumpur.

Initially, it was embarrassing. Imagine being the oldest intern among 21 and 22-year-olds! Plus, my web editor was younger than I am!

Instead of caring so much about my age, I sucked it up, pushed my ego aside, and worked my ass off. Later on, I learned that no one cared if I was 24 or 42. They cared about my work ethic above everything else.

My web editor and junior writers may be younger than I am, but their experiences in print and online media were incredible.

During my three-month internship, I learned more about the publishing world from these young writers than a semester in college.

Aside from brushing up my writing skills, I did a bunch of intern-ish tasks too. I remembered interviewing a street magician for an article, sampling food in Ramadhan bazaars, and calling every bar in Kuala Lumpur for their happy hour promotions.

It may seem like insignificant tasks, but these experiences gave me real-life training in interviewing, reporting and fact-checking. It’s fair to say that the three-month internship provided the foundation I needed to become the writer I am today.

I was offered a job after my internship and continued working for them for two years.

Looking back, the months of failed interviews and turned-down applications made sense now.

Final thoughts

Leading a purposeful life isn’t easy, but it is possible.

Following your values is the best way to start. Find out what matters to you in your personal and professional lives. Salary or job satisfaction? What do you see yourself doing long term? How does this job help develop you as a person?

Once done, take the next step.

Discovering your career goal keeps your purpose in perspective, which is often lost when you’re chasing for a bigger role or higher salary.

Think about the aspects of your job that brings value and happiness to others instead.

Then, learn to live in the moment.

Regretting your past and worrying about your future contributes nothing to the life you’re living. You can only control what’s happening right now, so practice gratitude to focus in the present.

The next step is to explore new things.

Bungee jumping and skydiving are great, but start small. Whether you’re listening to songs outside of your favourite genre or signing up for a language course, exploring new things will allow you to continuously discover yourself.

Lastly, you must believe that challenges help you to develop your purpose.

Any setbacks are designed to test your will. When you persist regardless of the challenges thrown your way, it’s a sign that the path you chose lives up to your true purpose in life.

Just take a step at a time, and it will lead you to a purposeful life.

Wanna read more stories like this? You can check out How to Fall in Love with Yourself When You’re Not Feeling Good Enough and 5 Lies I Stopped Believing Which Helped Me Grow in Life

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If Cheng Sim can have it her way, she would live in a penthouse with an imaginary cat named Genghis. Since life has a sense of humour, she resides in Subang Jaya where she deals with their infamous traffic and subpar bak kut teh instead. She doesn't wreak havoc, but she writes at
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