A moment that nearly caused me to fall flat on my ass and gasp, was when my four and a half year old asked me, “Daddy, what is my purpose in life?” The conversation that followed went something like this;
Daddy: What do you mean Valentino?
Tino: Well you help all those children, and you get to be the boss.
Daddy: Um, okay, I guess.
Tino: Papa gets to teach kids to dance.
Tino: What can I do when I grow up? Can I be a Fire Fighter?
Daddy: Tino when you grow up you can do or become whatever you desire in your heart to do. A dancer, a firefighter, a musician, an artist or…
Tino: Or I could make robots? And the robots could put out fires too, and then I could make robots that could do all kinds of work.
Daddy: Yes you very well could.
It was when my son turned four that his interest in robots started, in fact, he does not say robots, he emphatically says robotics. He asked me if he could take a class to learn to build robots, so I replied with yes of course, but first he must learn to read. I explained that there are a lot of instructions that one needs to learn to build robots and so that he would need to first learn to read, so that he could read the instructions. With that information, Tino has been hell bent on learning to read. In fact bedtime stories have become quite a bit longer as he wants to take the time to read and sound out many of the words. His determination is beautiful and he is already giving me a glimpse into his ability to motivate himself and set his mind on a final outcome.
When I was very young I had two passions. I had an infatuation with elephants, African elephants specifically and I wanted to be a performer. The more I learned about elephants, the more I studied them, in fact, not only did I study elephants and their habitats, I learned about poachers and the situations that put them in danger. My passion for these great animals led to a distinct intuition that I would someday go to Africa, not only to be with the elephants and walk among them, but I would experience their world. I never let this go, it dominated every self-chosen learning project that I did through my whole elementary and middle school experience.
The desire, wherever it came from, brought about my reality. I attracted to myself the opportunity to go to Africa on a very special project right out of college. The first country I stepped foot in was Zimbabwe, a place known for its beautiful and free roaming elephants. I remember when the doors to the plane opened upon landing in Zimbabwe, it was an airport where you walked down the stairs of the airplane on to the runway to walk to the airport terminal. The heat and stench of the country immediately filled the plane. I took one step off the plane and threw up from the odor. The situation in Zimbabwe had been pretty bad as they were at the end of an awful 5 year drought and the smell of rotting carcasses in the hot sun had created a foul smell that permeated the entire area. It took some getting used to. On the long drive from the airport in Harare to Bulawayo on that first day, our combie (van) came to a halt when a magnificent heard of elephants crossed our paths and just stood there. It was the perfect welcome and in that moment I felt at peace and at home. I had anticipated this moment from the time I was four years old. I got out of the combie and wept as I walked into the herd. (FYI the only danger with a herd of elephants is a stampede or a singular elephant on their own).
I spent nearly eight years in Africa in over 10 countries during that time and whenever things got really hard, really tough or I felt threatened, an elephant would always seem to cross my path and I could reconnect with the reasons that brought me there.
Finding your purpose is an amazing thing. I remember my father and the many discussions we had (sometimes arguments) about what I would be when I grew up. He had one desire for me, to become a doctor. I had other ideas which conflicted with his. It was the singular point of discord that ran the gambit of our relationship. For him it really was not about my becoming a doctor, rather it was a symbol of the success of a father who was an immigrant, who worked his whole life so that I could be educated and successful, this was his purpose. He had no other purpose, everything he did, was so that I could have the better life. The life that he envisioned for me, the life that validated his hard work and more importantly his honor. When I did something that displeased my father, it brought dishonor to him.
I never told my father I was going to Africa. I knew it would kill him and he would forbid me to go, being afraid for my life. After about two weeks of being in Zimbabwe, I decided it was time to let him know. (Okay I know now that was a stupid decision). Making an international phone call from central Africa at that time was not easy, but we did connect after three days of waiting to make the call. I remember it so clearly. “Dad, so I am calling you from Africa.” Dead silence. “Dad? Dad?” I could hear him crying on the other end of the phone, and then he said, “Please don’t die there, I would never see you again.” “I won’t die here, I promise you,” I said, knowing very well the chances were actually pretty high given the circumstances.
My father who could barely read or write found a way to write a letter a day to me while I was in Africa. They would find me in bulk and I would go on a reading binge as he daily expressed to me in broken English how much he cared for and loved me. In the end, he told me that he was so proud of me that I followed my dreams and that I lived my purpose.
I have always admired individuals whose life were organized around a central vision and seem to have endless energy to devote to that vision. Knowing what you want in life, and why you want it, can be surprisingly difficult for some people. I have been blessed that opportunity and purpose have come to me simultaneously throughout my life and have matched my personal vision. I know this can be rare.
I pay close attention to my son and his determination to have a vision even at four years old. I know from my own experience, that given the encouragement, along with his own determination, he may find his own African Elephant one day and know he has realized his own dream.
– Dean Wong