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Not sure of your purpose in life? Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin shares how things were not always so clear to him

by Gabriel Ong // June 22, 2020, 12:01 pm

TCJ - Purpose - feat

Tan Chuan-Jin interacting with residents and students. Image source: Tan Chuan-Jin's Facebook page.

Many years ago, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin remembered trying to discern God’s will for his life as he contemplated if politics was the right career choice for him. 

But as he gazed ahead, it was all rather opaque. 

During a recent Instagram live conversation organised by impossible413, the former Brigadier-General offered deep insights on discovering one’s purpose in life and shared from his journey thus far.

Regarding the “big step” he had mulled over – his entry into politics – Tan revealed that he spoke about this decision to his late pastor who then pointed him to the stories of Moses and Joshua in the Bible.

Recounting the gem of wisdom he had received, Tan said: “Imagine when they were young and looking forward. Did they envisage themselves becoming those giants in the Bible? Probably not.

“But God unfolds each person’s life in the way that He unfolds it, in ways that we can’t even imagine.”

His pastor’s advice? Instead of looking forward, look backwards. Look at how your life has unfolded, because the trajectory of your next few steps could well be an extension of where things seem to be leading.

Tan shared that as doors began to open in his career, he asked himself these questions: Do I make the decision to close it? Or should I just keep walking until the door closes?

LOOK BACKWARDS SO YOU CAN LOOK FORWARD

While Tan’s path had not always been clear, what did become increasingly discernible over the years in the Army and in public office was his passion for service and leadership. 

And so as the doors opened, he decided to continue on the journey in faith, as it took him into politics.

Even when his roles changed – from being a Cabinet Minister to Speaker of Parliament – he shared that the things that were important to him still hadn’t changed.

“I was clear about the things that I believe in,” he said. “I just carried on doing the same things, but in a different capacity.”

Tan Chuan-Jin’s farewell run with staff from the Ministry for Social and Family Development, the National Council of Social Service and SG Enable before taking on the role of Speaker of Parliament. Image source: Jamie Koh/Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook page.

Urging young people to be more focused on what they are working towards rather than to tunnel in on a dream job, he offered this analogy.

If someone wanted to become a doctor because they wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, would their dream to help others be crushed just because they didn’t score good-enough grades at A-Levels and make it into medical school?

Tan shared that while we tend to idealise jobs when we are young, a job is not an end in itself. Instead, the question to ponder when it comes to career is, what is it in service of?

“When you understand that and work backwards, suddenly your options are a lot more open,” he said.

If one’s objective is truly to make a difference, one can always do so in other ways, Tan pointed out. 

His tip: Start with the end in mind, and be very clear about your purpose.

SOMETIMES YOU JUST GOTTA MAKE IT WORK

The 51-year-old father of two also took the chance to challenge millennial mentalities and mindsets, addressing the YOLO concept in particular.

He said: “Today you often hear: ‘You only live once, you must pursue your passions, anything is possible, live out your dreams!’

“I don’t disagree with it. But at the same time, I’m a bit wary because I don’t know whether we are setting ourselves up for failure.” 

Tan’s point was that life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. What that means, is that our journey can often pan out in a manner or way in which we don’t expect.

So while he acknowledged that pursuing one’s dreams and passions is important, Tan also questioned if we could learn to accept God’s plans for our life, regardless of how it unfolds.

Tan Chuan-Jin at the 25th Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth (CSPOC) in January 2020. Image source: Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook page.

After all, we can take encouragement in the fact that “God works in mysterious ways”.

“So rather than pursue your passion, I believe that perhaps the key is to be passionate in whatever you do,” mused Tan.

He challenged if we could embrace what we are presented with – even if it’s our fourth career choice – and “make it work”.

This is not about going through the motions or doing the bare minimum.

Instead, as people who know God’s precepts, making it work becomes a matter of being faithful to the way he has called us to live and the job that we are in, knowing that there are still things that we can do, he explained.

KEEP THE END IN MIND

Tan also spoke directly to the working crowd, reminding everyone of the need to understand what really matters in our lives.

The obvious proxies we have about our work are things like titles and salaries, but a useful exercise is to imagine that we are on our deathbeds and thinking back on how we have lived. 

“Deep down inside, all of us know what will ultimately matter,” Tan surmised. “And yet we’re chasing after the things that don’t matter.”

That is the perspective from which we should work backwards, he said, adding that having clarity would keep you from having a mid-life crisis where you realise you had wasted the last 20 years.

How do I discern God’s will for my life?

While this can be difficult or unintuitive for those just starting out in their careers, Tan encouraged us to do so because our mindset towards work and our expectations of life can have a big impact on our sense of contentment and happiness.

Emphasising the importance of introspection at every stage of life, he dropped a truth bomb: “Sometimes we are fixated on things which society imposes on us. Or we claim society imposes them on us, but the truth is actually we kind of want them.

“We go after them, and our wants and desires create a lot of envy and anxiety. But we always externalise it because it’s never our fault or problem – it’s always ‘society has failed'”.

As he brought his career reflections to a close, Tan spurred viewers to work through these issues, because doing so can bring about a more purposeful life.

EMBRACE THE JOURNEY

But at the end of the day, he, too, recognised that we have finite control over our own destinies. 

Tan admitted: “Life’s journey will still unfold. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m not going to remain Speaker forever. Who knows what’s going to happen, right?”

And yet we can take every step, knowing that it’s in God hands, he said.

“You may not know the specific steps and which particular track to take… But you know how you should walk and the things that you need to remain consistent in,” Tan concluded. 

In other words, it’s what you do on your journey that’s perhaps more important than the route you take. 

THINK + TALK

  1. What are the things you care about the most? What are some of the core beliefs and convictions you hold on to?
  2. Trying to discern the next steps for your career? Look at how your life has unfolded by drawing out a timeline of significant events that have shaped you over the last decade. That might offer some insights for the path you should take.
  3. What do you think your purpose in life is?
  4. Are you able to surrender your dreams and passions to God?
About the author

Gabriel Ong

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.