Dan Parris on Finding Your Purpose

What breaks your heart? What makes you come alive?

Thirty-one-year-old Dan Parris has spent the last five years traveling to more than 100 universities nationwide asking thousands of people these two questions. His goal: to help them find their life’s purpose.

At just 23 years old, the St. Louis native founded Speak Up Productions with the idea to use media to speak up on important issues in the world, giving a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves. With this in mind, Dan shot his first documentary, “What Matters?” The film casts a spotlight on poverty and the journey he took with two friends from St. Louis to Africa living on $1.25 a day.

We sat down with the man behind the lens, to hear his thoughts on running his own business, his life after a near-death experience, his aspirations for St. Louis and how others can make a difference.

How did you become interested in film?
“I’d always wanted to make movies since I was a kid. As I got older, I realized I wanted to make movies to help people discover the meaning of life. Even as a 15-year-old, I felt like I had a lot to say. I wanted to use media as a tool for change. I didn’t touch a camera until I was 19. After high school, I lived in Switzerland for a few months. I came home for Christmas and got a camera and started shooting videos with my friends. A few years and many videos later, in 2008, my dad convinced me to start my own business before I graduated college.”

“What Matters?” focuses on the issue of extreme poverty, not just here in St. Louis but worldwide. Why is poverty such a close cause to your heart?
“While shooting video for my church, I had the opportunity to go to Africa to a place called the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s the second largest slum in Africa where 1 million people live in 2.5 square miles. I was there for a week, and I met people who were living on $1.25 a day in extreme poverty. I made a video of my trip and knew I wanted to return to Africa to shoot a documentary. I wanted to know how there were people living on $1.25 but I could buy a $4 coffee. How do we live in these two worlds simultaneously? I invited some of my friends to go on this journey with me.”

Your plane crashed while shooting “What Matters?” You’re lucky to be alive. What happened and how has it changed your overall outlook on life?
We were in Africa flying over a slum to get footage, lost altitude and struck two power lines. I was sick for about 10 months, crushed 40 percent of my vertebra and had to have 10 inches of my intestine removed.

The Plane Crash - WEB

What I realized during the crash is that my life is not my own. I’m not in control of it. Most of the time, we feel in control of our lives. Especially here in the U.S., we have a lot of privilege to be able to control our destinies and have what we want when we want it. I can order something online and have it within two days by just hitting a button. But, in that moment, I realized that I wasn’t in control of my life. Life goes up and down, and you need to find contentment in both the good and the bad. You have to let go of the control of your life and believe that there’s a storyteller who’s writing a bigger story; and whether you’re part of the conflict, the redemption, the happy or the sad part, you’re part of a story and it’s going to be a powerful one.”

You ask two questions at the end of “What Matters?” What are they and what’s your goal in asking them?
“We’ve been traveling to universities for five years speaking to college students. We ask them two questions: What breaks your heart, and what make you come alive? What they find at the intersection of those two things defines their purpose. Aristotle once said: ‘Where talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation.’ It’s a new take on that 2,500-year-old idea of how to find your purpose. And we use our film as a tool for helping people find theirs.”

What’s your personal answer to these two questions?
“What breaks my heart is young people without a purpose because at one time in my life, I was a young person without a purpose. What makes me come alive is film making and public speaking. I use film and public speaking as a tool to help others find their purpose in life.”

What do you believe holds young professionals back from pursuing their passions?
“We all focus so much on money. We put money above purpose. I could do a very different job and make a lot more money than I do and have a lot less job satisfaction. We tend to choose careers based off money or some other influence outside of our purpose instead of who we’re meant to be or our inner workings. When people live according to their purpose, our city is a better place. People are more happy, satisfied and content.

There’s also a lack of support. A lot of people don’t have people in their corners that believe they can do big things. There are a lot of naysayers. What most people don’t realize is that we have the power to start a movement in a day. Within a day, I can build a team around a cause. Within a day we can have a logo, a website, a rally on social media and news representation. That could all potentially happen in one day by one person. The power we have – all of us has – is massive.”

What advice would you give someone wanting to raise awareness about a particular cause? Where should they start?
Educate yourself. Spend time with the people or the issue that’s suffering. Go there, live with them. It’s the idea of not coming in like a savior but as a partner – figuring out how you can serve those people and build on what they already have and be an asset to them.”

Photo credit: Carrie Slemme.

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Abby Downs

Abby Downs is a St. Louis native and professional writer. If she doesn’t have a pen in her hand, it’s a camera. When she’s not busy combining these two loves, she can be found binge-watching 90s sitcoms, trying new cheeses and planning her next big adventure.