Just How Called Are You?

June 13, 2010

If you look into the history of the word calling in English, meaning the kind of work a person is specifically suited to do, you’ll find out it’s connected to the word vocation. Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, which means to call. Although vocation now is synonymous with career, its early meaning was a specific kind of work that a person was called to do by God.

Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs, this is an important test. When you try to find your calling, are you looking for something that is essential to your fulfillment, something you must do, something that you feel compelled to do by some force greater than yourself, something you were maybe even “designed” to do?

Because if you’re just looking for something that feels happy and nice or entertaining and enjoyable, you might be completely missing out.

Do you think you’re calling is to learn about chocolate because you’re a “chocoholic” and it’s fun to hear about different uses of chocolate in unusual recipes? Maybe chocolate is your calling, but probably not. Maybe you’re just a nut about chocolate (guilty!) and you like learning about history and different cultures (yes, that’s me) and you enjoy adventure (yes again), so these kinds of stories are entertaining to you. Just because a topic engages you and brings you enjoyment doesn’t mean it’s your calling.

But if you think about traveling to exotic places and your only reason is to find the right kind of soil, the right climate, and the right altitude for growing cocoa trees, you’re probably called to work with chocolate. If you find yourself kneeling in dirt, digging up handfuls and lifting them to your face to smell the complex combination of organic material to determine how well cocoa trees would grow there, you’re probably called to work with chocolate. If you know the percentage of cocoa solids and the distinct combinations of background flavors in different cocoa powders and bars of chocolate, and you’re a stickler about exactly which chocolate to use for each specific purpose, you’re probably called to work with chocolate.

I’m thinking about this a lot lately for a couple of reasons (not chocolate, but callings, although I think about chocolate fairly often). One is that I notice how much of my time I spend doing routine things every day. These are things I have to do, like showering and shaving and preparing meals and rinsing off dishes (I have to mow a lot, too, but it’s my labyrinth so I don’t put it in the same category). As I look at the value of my time I notice a lot of it goes to self-care and sorting the junk mail for the recycle bin and putting gas in the car.

Then I notice how much of my time I spend doing things other people say I need to do to help grow my business. A lot of those things don’t feel very important. They’re not consequential. If I just stopped, I don’t think it would matter much. When I’m going through the motions of reading blogs and trying to find some interesting things to Tweet about or mention on Facebook, but I just can’t get into it, I know I’ve gotten away from my calling.

The other reason I’m thinking about this is I’ve realized that many times when people have talked to me about what they believe is their calling, they’re actually talking about a fantasy perfect day. Deciding what you want your life to look like is an important part of life and work design. It helps you respect your natural way of being and get clear about what you value and what you believe. But planning out an ideal day is often a lot more about self-indulgence and comfort than it is about your calling.

When a woman defines her ideal day with a quiet morning at home reading and eating a simple breakfast, followed by a wonderful yoga class, I understand that time for her inner self is important to her. But I’ve heard four different women describe a similar day. Each one has mistakenly concluded that, because she enjoys attending a yoga class, she is called to do yoga. Digging in to how the “calling” would serve other people or become her career, none of these women have had clear answers. They didn’t want to become instructors or to share the philosophy of yoga with other people. They just really enjoyed that part of their day.

I acknowledge there are exceptions to the following, but… You’re probably not called to eat expensive dinners at nice steakhouses, although you might really love doing that, even if you enjoy comparing which one has the best seasoning and which has the tastiest meat and who serves the best side dishes. You’re probably not called to hang out on Saturday afternoons at the movie with your friends and then go talk for a long time at a cool coffee place afterwards. You’re probably not called to have picnics by the river with your sweetheart or your family. These may be great, wonderful, fun things, but they’re probably not your calling.

It’s possible you could turn your interest in upscale restaurants into a profit center writing restaurant guides or teaching cooking classes. It’s possible you could turn the love of movies into creating a social club for movie buffs to share their enjoyment. It’s possible you could turn the enjoyment of picnics by the river into a niche hospitality business, providing custom-designed picnics at parks or organizing day trips for people. But even those things, while they might be fun profit centers, are probably not a calling.

I believe (for now – I am open to being persuaded) that your calling is the thing that gets you by the throat and won’t let you go. It’s the way you see things when you’re not trying to see things in any special way. It’s the thing that you keep going back to, even though you decide you’ll stop spending so much time doing it.

The home designer is automatically thinking that it would have been better for the front door to be placed further back to create a better porch, and the façade of the house could have matched the surrounding landscape if only the owners had chosen a lighter stone, and the dining room off to the side of the entryway seems confined but would be perfect if the back wall were opened up. The creative writer is predicting where the novel or movie or television show is going, feels settled when a scene that “just has to happen” finally happens and feels disappointed when it never does, and is delighted when there’s a new twist on a familiar story line that actually deepens the experience and doesn’t feel like the writer threw in something different just to be different. While listening to a conversation between two people, where one is trying to explain something and the other one is not getting it, the teacher will catch himself thinking of ways to translate information into metaphors or simple descriptions to make it easier to understand. He might step in and try to help explain things, even if he doesn’t know the other people very well. If he feels he should keep quiet and not interrupt, it’ll be one of the hardest things for him to do, because explaining ideas so they can be understood is just what he does.

I don’t think everyone has to find a way to express his or her calling through work. Many people choose a career or a business or different profit center because it is engaging and interesting and fun, not because it’s the thing the person absolutely has to do. But I think everyone has to honor his or her calling and treat it with respect. I think people who aren’t engaged with their calling will feel like life is empty, with little purpose or meaning. It won’t feel consequential. But when they are acting in alignment with their calling, what they are doing will feel like it matters.

Following your calling is not rainbows and sunshine. It’s work – demanding work. You’re not called to have a pleasant day. You’re called to find your core self, develop your gifts and talents, and share them. You’re called to challenge yourself so you continue to grow. You’re called to step outside your comfort zone and take on something that seems really hard. A musician following his calling will keep returning to the piece that he struggles to play. An actor following her calling will eventually choose a role that scares her.

If you’re not willing to commit deeply to something, to say “no” to some things so you can say “yes” to that one thing, you haven’t found your calling. If you’re not willing to struggle with frustration and make mistakes and get better little by little so you can accomplish a goal that seems nearly impossible, you haven’t found your calling. If you’re content to sing the same song, write the same kind of story, design the same kind of equipment, and generally stay at the same level, you haven’t found your calling.

But when something captures you and won’t let you go, when you keep coming back to it because there are always new approaches and new applications to explore and ways to get better, when it’s the pattern by which you understand important things in your life, you’ve found your calling.

May You Know the Joy of Sharing Your Gifts,

Steve Coxsey


2 Responses to “Just How Called Are You?”

  1. Darcy on June 15th, 2010 1:31 pm

    Would you perhaps say that your calling is the thing you just can’t help doing even when you don’t realize you are doing it? Like a fish swimming in water, the fish might be all like, “What is this water you keep talking about? I have no idea what you even mean when you say water.” Like that?

    And here’s another question for you: what if you have something like that but you kind of don’t want to be that thing because of baggage or negative connotations around it? Is it just a matter of reframing and coming up with a better (comfier) word or phrase for it? That doesn’t seem like enough somehow.

  2. Steve Coxsey on June 15th, 2010 9:41 pm

    I know I’m stepping into it here, but… I can’t help it!

    Yes, Darcy, I pretty much believe that — right now at least. I really line up behind Barbara Sher on this. Your calling is what you were “made” to do, and doing what you were made to do is the same as doing what you love to do. Her logic is marvelous. We were all born to do what we love to do because what we love flows from our unique gifts and talents and way of seeing the world. And since we are unique the world (mankind) needs us to do what we love because it benefits others.

    One of the helpful tips for people trying to “find their calling” is to ask friends and family what it is they seem to do pretty well, the thing people will say, “Oh, you should definitely ask Darcy to do that, she’s really good at it.” Sometimes what we’re really good at is so comfortable, like breathing or like a fish swimming, that we don’t realize it’s not the same for everyone else.

    Here’s the stepping in it part. Obviously someone can have a tender spot or a place of sorrow or pain or emptiness connected to their area of giftedness. Expressing your calling can bring joy, liveliness, or maybe just great comfort. Those are the experiences people can have when they will commit to their calling. But there is always the risk of loss or hurt when we commit. When we love deeply we get great reward but great pain when something goes wrong. When we pour ourselves into following our calling we get the joy and the excitement, but we open ourselves up to deeper disappointment and greater pain if difficult times disrupt that.

    It’s a lonely life running from your calling, because by its nature (which is in fact your nature) it can’t let go and move on. It wants to be expressed. At its core each person’s calling is about individual growth (developing it) and also about benefiting other people (sharing it) so there is good in it. Maybe that’s where the key is to making peace with it.


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