To find your purpose in life, you must go on a journey of self-discovery.

‘Sometimes the warrior feels as if he were living two lives at once . . .There is a bridge that links what I do with what I would like to do, he thinks. Slowly, his dreams take over his everyday life, and then he realizes that he is ready for the thing he always wanted. Then all that is needed is a little daring, and his two lives become one.’

—Paulo Coelho

Harry thanked me for the insights. Wanting to take the conversation further, he asked, ‘What do you think is the key element needed for self-improvement and competition with oneself?’

‘If there is one thing that I think is the foundation of growth, it is understanding who you are. You can only compete with yourself if you have a clear idea of your potential, your capacities and certainly your limitations,’ I replied.

Harry listened with great interest as I elaborated the concept further.

Understanding Ourselves

We have to understand ourselves to be able to compete with ourselves. What are our tendencies? What do we like? What do we not like? Where do we want to be in the future? These are only a few preliminary questions we need to answer to succeed. And this process of inquiry begins our journey of self-discovery.

We know by now that giving and receiving gifts can strengthen our relationships. One story about giving gifts which I find hilarious is about a couple on their wedding anniversary. A woman told her husband as she wished him, ‘I just dreamt that you gave me a beautiful diamond necklace. What do you think it means?’ she asked him. ‘You’ll know tonight,’ he said with a smile on his face. Her eyes lit up in anticipation. That evening the husband came home with a beautifully wrapped present and gave it to his wife. Could it be what I dreamt of? she thought to herself. Delighted, she opened it, only to find a book entitled The Meaning of Dreams!

I used to always wonder why one would put in so much effort using fancy paper, bows and ribbons to wrap a gift. Why can we not just give the gift upfront to the person whom we want to express our love for? I came to the conclusion that if we offer a gift to someone without wrapping it, there is no element of excitement involved. Concealing a gift creates suspense, and when it is opened there is excitement and thus great joy. Not only does the person who receives the gift feel happy but so does the one who gives it.

In the same way, everyone has been gifted with special talents and skills. Every individual has something unique in them. If God were to reveal that talent to us straight away, from the very day we were born, there would be no excitement in our journey. God covers our talent, skills and potential only so that we have the chance to discover it. And in the process of doing so, in trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives, there is a tremendous sense of satisfaction. Self-discovery is not a one-time event but an ongoing evolution, and as life goes on we discover how much we are capable of achieving.

Have you ever played ‘pass the parcel’ as a child? A classic at birthday parties, the game is centred around a prize wrapped up in a large number of gift wrappers. Between each layer of wrapping there is a smaller gift. As the music starts playing, the parcel is passed around a group of people, in anticipation for the music to stop. When it does, the person who now has the parcel in their hand removes one layer of wrapping paper and claims the small prize. The same process continues until the penultimate wrapper, when all the small prizes are gone and finally the main prize is revealed to the one who holds and unwraps the last layer.

Now, what has this children’s game got to do with understanding ourselves? We need to unwrap multiple layers before we can actually discover our true potential. The further we delve towards realizing our potential, the more layers we start to uncover, and with every layer we come across smaller gifts that were hidden within us. We do not have to wait to experience happiness until all the layers are taken off and the large gift—our true potential—is revealed to us. The journey itself is very exciting and brings deep satisfaction. When I think about this, it reminds me about the story of my young friend Sairaj.

Blueberry Cheesecake

On a surprisingly cool evening in Mumbai, I was invited to a Gujarati family’s home for dinner. They had been pleading with me to come for months, and Gujarati mothers can be very persuasive. So on their fifth invitation, I obliged.

Both parents in the household were working professionals: the father was in a leading position at Standard Chartered bank and the mother was a professor of physiology at a medical school in the city. They were as busy as I was, but I noticed they always took time out for two things: spirituality and their son, Sairaj.

You can imagine the spread of delicious Gujarati items on offer. From dhokla to undhiyu, and from khandvi to shrikhand, they had not spared any efforts. As I sat down, I enquired about Sairaj, their son who had just completed his tenth-grade exams.

‘He should be down in a moment,’ the father said. ‘He is so excited to see you.’

‘I heard he did very well in his exams,’ I said.

‘Yes, he works very hard,’ the mother said, as she told me his marks. At that very moment, Sairaj walked into the room. He greeted me with a big hug and sat next to me at the dinner table.

‘Your mother was telling me that you got 93 per cent marks this year and that you did exceptionally well in mathematics and science!’ I said.

Sairaj blushed. He was humble despite his academic achievements.

‘Thank you! I’m excited for the next year,’ he said energetically.

‘What stream have you chosen for the next year?’ I asked as Sairaj’s father forced more dhokla on to my plate.

In India, children usually choose streams of subjects depending on their marks. Typically, children with very good marks choose engineering or medicine. I expected Sairaj would follow.

Sairaj looked at his father and then looked down. ‘I am choosing commerce,’ he said. The expressions on his parents’ faces changed. Why had he chosen commerce instead of the other streams, when he was capable of doing well at them? Stereotypically, commerce did not have as much scope in India as the other subjects did.

‘That’s great,’ I replied after a moment. I always try to encourage people’s decisions and dreams. ‘What will you do in university, then?’ I asked.

At that moment, Sairaj’s mother brought out a blueberry cheesecake on a crystal plate.

‘Many people do not know this but the base of the blueberry cheesecake, which is made from graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter, has to be baked at a high temperature for one hour!’ Sairaj said.

That was an odd change of subject for a sixteen-year-old boy, I thought.

‘You then have to chill it for another hour so it stays firm like it is on the plate,’ Sairaj said, and then went on to describe the chocolate mousse that was setting in the fridge, and then shifted to savoury snacks like the dhokla and khandvi on the table. When he was doing this, you should have seen the expressions on his parents’ faces. Can you imagine what they must have been thinking?

‘I want to get into a career of hospitality and catering, after I finish commerce,’ Sairaj said, after a short while. The mood in the room changed again, with his parents’ faces also changing. Their expressions were not what one would expect—they were of great joy and happiness, all through!

‘I know what Sairaj wants to do with his life is not conventional. I told him he might want to take after his mother and that medicine might suit him better. However, he refused and kept cooking and cooking and cooking,’ his father said elated. ‘I couldn’t be happier, because he has found his passion in life, and I get to eat delicious desserts after work!’ he laughed.

‘Naturally, we were concerned that being a chef won’t make him as much money, but he loves what he does and he is good at it. India is a growing country with so much scope for being an entrepreneur,’ his mother added while cutting me a slice of cheesecake that was clearly too big for my stomach.

‘I am going to help him with the business side,’ his father said, beaming.

‘It seems as though you have it all figured out,’ I said, excited by the unique future that was ahead of Sairaj. I would not be surprised if this boy ended up opening a chain of five-star restaurants all over the world!

On the way back to the ashram after dinner, I thought to myself that if someone chooses what they love to do, there is no stress in their life. As they say, ‘If you do what you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.’ However, in reality, the majority of people are doing what they do not love to do, day in and day out.


Just like Sairaj, we all need to find purpose in our life, which has been linked with longer and happier lives. There are many psychological models that can aid us on our path to living fulfilling lives, one of which is the Japanese concept of ikigai.

Ikigai has no direct English translation, but is understood to mean ‘a reason to live’ or having purpose in life. It comes from Japan, the country with the highest number of the most elderly people in the world. The island of Okinawa has an average male life expectancy of seventy-eight and an average female life expectancy of eighty-six!

According to Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist from Toyo Eiwa University, the word gai originates from the word kai, which translates as shell. He says that in the Heian period (794–1185) shells were considered extremely valuable. Therefore, gai now means to have ‘value in living’.

According to this concept, to find purpose in life, you have to answer four questions, just as Sairaj and his family did subconsciously: What do you love?

  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need?
  • What can you get paid for?

Finding balance between the four areas may be the route to having a life that one looks forward to living. Not everybody’s purpose will appear to have an impact on the course of the world at first—it could be something as simple as Sairaj’s was.

‘However, not everyone is as young as Sairaj,’ Harry laughed as we were edging closer to more familiar parts of Mumbai. We had just passed some expensive designer shops. ‘If you have a lifestyle that is linked to wearing such expensive clothes,’ Harry pointed to the displays in the window, ‘then it is hard to change your existing career and do what you love. At one point, I wanted to work with nature, as a conservationist to protect the environment, but that would not pay well,’ he confessed.

‘You do not need to give up everything or make dramatic changes to start living your purpose. Your purpose does not necessarily mean your job either,’ I replied.

‘So then what do I do? I do not have any children yet, so I know that I can make time,’ Harry added.

‘You have to act on two things. The first is, love what you have to do. We all have to pay bills, maintain our lifestyle and work in the jobs we are already in. For most people, this work that we may not be passionate about is around 80 per cent of our lives. Therefore, we might as well start loving it! Which parts of your job do you love? Focus on those parts.’

‘I suppose I like working with other colleagues on client projects,’ he said.

‘Then try and focus on that,’ I said. ‘The second thing is, make time in life for what you love to do. Start adding conservation and the environment into your life. Explore India over weekends! Research which forests or areas need help and how best you can help!’ I said passionately. I did not know much about helping the environment, but he understood my point. ‘We tend to waste our time off work by doing mundane things that bring us no satisfaction: window-shopping, eating out at the same places, and so on. There is a whole world out there to explore, and many people who feel the same way. We have to take a calculated risk to start adding what we truly love to do, our ikigai, into our lives.

Maybe one day what we love to do and what pays the bills can be the same if we really work on ourselves!’


  • We should understand ourselves to know what is meaningful to us, and what we want to devote our time to. This can be done by understanding our purpose, which takes dedication and patience.
  • Discovering our purpose is exciting, just as opening a gift gives the feeling of anticipation and joy. Reaching our purpose in life is a journey, not an event.
  • The Japanese have a model called ikigai or a ‘reason to live’, which is composed of four traits we need to understand: What do we love? What are we good at? What does the world need? What can we be paid for? Sairaj and his family discovered that for him early on in his life.
  • If we are older and have not yet figured out our purpose, we can follow the principle: love what we have to do and do what we love to do.

Note: To help you find your ikigai, you can complete an exercise in Appendix 2 (Ikigai Worksheet).




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