Living A Life of Purpose

What we can learn from a quote about bricklaying + frameworks from education and experience + expressing and evolving our purpose over time

David Fu
7 min readSep 27, 2020
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One Job, Three Perspectives

“I am laying bricks.”

“I am finishing a wall.”

“I am building a cathedral.”

Read those statements again, and reflect for a moment: what’s the difference between them?

It’s the same job, but what’s different is what the individual has chosen to focus on and how they have chosen to give meaning to what they do.

As a friend shared with me recently, each perspective is usually associated with the following attributes:

  • Chore or project orientation: a focus on material benefits; the job is a means toward a financial end to enjoy time away from work. This person’s desires are typically expressed outside of the domain of work. Or as some sometimes call it, ‘work to live.’
  • Career or progression orientation: a focus on increased pay and promotion or advancement. This person gains high self-esteem, power and prestige or social standing as a result of progressing up the career ladder.
  • Calling or purpose orientation: a focus on the work as an end in and of itself, connected to the greater good. This person feels that what they do (whether at work or outside of it) carries something important

Why This Matters: Education and Experience

I’ve written in the past about skills and mindsets I believe we must foster:

  • self-awareness,
  • confidence through small wins (also called self-efficacy),
  • habits of grit and discipline (the ability to get after it, and to keep getting after it),
  • relationship building (building and leveraging networks and social capital), and
  • imagination.

There are two frameworks that I believe are critical to helping people unlock these mindsets by focusing and finding meaning through purpose.

One I read in an education paper a while ago and it resurfaced in the conversation with my friend: skill, thrill and will.

  • Skill is about your ability to do something.
  • Thrill is about your enjoyment in doing something.
  • Will is about your motivation for doing something.

Helping someone learn requires understanding who they are, and optimally aligning and framing the assignment so that it helps the student unlock the right combination to thrive, especially in more open-ended work like project-based learning. Just as a teacher can use this framework for their students, we can apply this framework to ourselves by reframing them as questions, not too dissimilar from the concept of Ikigai (or at least the Western adaptation or conceptualization). In other words:

  • What skills do I possess? How strong are my skills? How do I figure this out? How do I determine what skills are also valued in the areas I care about (career, helping others, creative arts, etc.)?
  • What do I enjoy doing? When are times I feel energized? In a state of flow? Why do I enjoy doing them?
  • What is the reason I choose to do things? What are my values? When I have felt most energized, what has been the core driver? Do I love doing things creatively?

Two, what I have learned through experience is that to empower ourselves, we are on a continuous journey to reshape and define the above for ourselves. During that journey, we are constantly evolving and testing our hypotheses about ourselves and in the real world through:

  • Choosing what to focus our time and energy on. We set goals, priorities, and make decisions that shape the arc of our journey. We let our ambitions and dreams unfold. e.g., I want to become an entrepreneur. I want to provide a good life for my family. I want to get better, faster, stronger.
  • Planning how we will accomplish our goals and priorities. We select or create a strategy: I’m going to move abroad. I’m going to switch jobs. I’m going to sign up for a marathon to force me to train.
  • Doing the things. We have to put in the effort and the energy to execute. We have to execute our plan, implement our strategies. Consistency, habits and systems help a lot here. We actually move to Nairobi. We switch to a job that challenges us. We start gym’ing daily.
  • Reflecting on what we did and where we’ve come. In order to truly learn from experience, we must reflect. We do this at work all the time through OKRs or KPIs, meetings, analysis, teardowns, debriefs, after-action review (a military term). So why not in our personal lives? We also need to see if what we did was effective, yielded results, or not, and decide how to iterate. Should we:
    > continue progressing (do we just need to give it more time?) or
    > pivot (go back to the drawing board with the choosing or planning?)?

I have developed this framework through continuous trial and error, and observing and empowering countless other entrepreneurs, creatives and changemakers. For another deep dive on someone’s personal operating system, check out this very in-depth post Tim of waitbutwhy wrote about Elon Musk. I also think a comparable framework from the startup world is the build-measure-learn cycle.

How This Expresses and Evolves

In a previous post, I asked you to ponder what makes you feel alive?

I’d like you to reflect again, on how you have defined your values and purpose, and how these have evolved over time.

Here’s some insight as to how I expressed my values and purpose over time, and to dig a bit into how they have evolved:

In 2008: My purpose is to use my good fortune to make the world a better place. I express this through researching international aid and microfinance in sub-Saharan Africa and working with a small startup nonprofit supporting local artisans and musicians.

In 2013: My purpose is to work in education to give people opportunity to unlock their potential. I express this through working with education incubator 4.0 Schools. I feel a sense of obligation due to the opportunity I had as a first-generation immigrant growing up in the US.

In 2017: My purpose is to deepen my impact in education, especially working directly for those have less access. I also want to grow myself by going from coaching entrepreneurs to being one. I express this by choosing to move to South Africa to help grow Streetlight Schools.

In 2018: My purpose remains the same, but I start to see that the vehicle of expression might not allow for the impact to have the scale I envisioned. Nonetheless, the challenge takes a new shape when my cofounder asks me to become CEO. We go through some hard challenges that cause me to grow deeply as a leader. I still fight for scale, but realize that the core of leadership is placing the needs of others, what Streetlight and the core team needed, above my own desires.

In 2020: My purpose is how might we build a lasting educational institution to scale transformational learning experiences? I’ve realized and come to define the core values of my identity as:

  • Doing challenging things which allow me to grow, to empower myself.
  • Taking everything I learn in the process to empower others.

The Latest Evolution: Back To Bricks

I thus see bricks vs walls vs cathedrals not as a binary, black-and-white choice. Rather, if we are so fortunate, we get to choose which priorities and activities allow us to adopt these different orientations in our lives. In some aspects, maybe we just need to get better at brick-laying (communicating, coding, creating, collaborating). In some choices, maybe we do need to consider career advancement more strategically. Perhaps, we do need make a big decision to help us explore, define and refine what gives us purpose and meaning.

Because I’ve defined my core values, and I have some sense of my strengths, skills and experience, I am able to reformulate my purpose at its core around empowering self to empower others. While education is a fantastic way for this to manifest, I’m open to and exploring a wider array of avenues to express my values. And in my last purpose statement, you’ll see that a few new parameters have entered the equation / I’ve become more experienced in understanding how to recognize when these are more possible:

  • Driving something to scale.
  • Driving something that can have lasting impact.
  • Driving something that is new or innovative, hasn’t been done before.
  • (Adding this) doing it in a powerful community of talented, aligned, driven people.

Throughout this journey, as I expressed in my previous post about what I really want, what often makes the above extra challenging is working tirelessly against the tide of what we’re supposed to do, and try to get to the core of what we’re meant to do, as we define it.

We are all navigating parental, societal, cultural, peer, career expectations. And expectations of self. But that’s what makes it worthwhile, and brings us the combined joy of skill, thrill and will: we are trying our utmost to be noone else but ourselves.

My hope is that this post gives some new frameworks and framing to help us all lean into being nobody but ourselves.

PS to close, some helpful questions from my friend to reflect on and explore in finding our purpose:

  1. Does what I do somehow contribute to fixing a problem or a threat to our planet? (think about emissions, energy, water, natural resources, waste)
  2. Does what I do somehow contribute to fixing a problem or a threat to our species? (think about wealth inequality, access to health, food, education, jobs, housing, credit or even other people; or any urban challenge such as transportation, crime, homelessness, drug addiction or the like)
  3. Does what I do somehow contribute to strengthening other people’s work or initiatives around at least one of the topics above? In other words, am I helping other people create impact through their work? (think of coaching, mentoring, teaching, any social good change initiative or movement, community building, etc.)



David Fu | Ever-evolving, global ed & innovation entrepreneur | CEO Streetlight Schools | expansion lead 4.0 Schools | ex-i-banker | Joburg Global Shaper @WEF