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The Myth of a Calling

Alongside the myth of “the One” that our culture espouses, we’re also inundated with the pressure to find, pursue and live out our “calling.”

Alongside the myth of “the One” that our culture espouses, we’re also inundated with the pressure to find, pursue and live out our “calling.” The culture says: “If you’re not living out your dream career, you’re settling. If you have a regular job, you’re not fulfilling your potential. Follow your bliss! Live your dreams! The world is your oyster! Go make it happen!”

That’s great in theory, and I’m all for people living a life that is aligned with their passions, but there are several holes in this philosophy that arise when it shifts from theory to actual life with actual people, like the following:

1. You don’t know what your passion is.

2. You believe that if you changed jobs or careers you would fill the empty place inside of you.

3. You believe that there is only ONE career that is your calling. (For more on this, watch this TED talk.)

4. You believe that your worth is dependent on living your “dream job”, and that if you’re not pursuing or living it, there’s something wrong with you.

Many of my clients struggle because they feel pressure not only to pursue their dream job but to know what their dream job is. They may have some inkling of an idea of what would bring more fulfillment, but it’s not fully formed. And the reality is that even if you know what your dream job is, it’s not always possible or realistic to achieve it – or doing so may come at a great cost.

For example, I have a client who has a good job in finances, but has dreamed about being an anthropologist*. While she doesn’t love the daily grind of commuting into the city and working in an office building all day (she’s highly sensitive-creative-spiritual like most people who find their way to my work), she’s also aware of how many positive factors her current job affords her: a stable income, a consistent schedule, a reliable work community.

The “follow your bliss” culture says, “Get out of the office building! Follow your passions! Life is short! Don’t spend it doing something you don’t love!” But it’s not as clear-cut, black-and-white as that. In order to become an anthropologist, my client would have to quit her job, go back to school, and spend five years working toward her PhD, which might likely involve living someplace like the Amazon or a remote desert for a period of time. That all sounds fine and good until reality comes into the picture. And the reality is that she and her husband just bought a house, she’s in her early thirties and is planning to start a family. Does it really make sense to uproot all of her stability in favor of “the dream job”?

Furthermore, this mindset promotes the belief that if you land in the “perfect” career of your calling, you will finally rise above the pain of life. It whitewashes the reality that life includes pain, and there’s no escaping that. There’s no such thing as a perfect job or career. I have many clients who struggle because they feel pressure to start their own business and are reluctant to walk away from the stability of a consistent paycheck that comes when you work for a company. This is a valid concern, for the reality of running your own business is that it comes with stressors of its own.

And I have other clients who have spent their life pursuing their creative passions and are now in the late 30s or 40s and wondering if their time has been well-spent. As one client, who is a creative genius and has spent the last twenty post-graduate years pursing his passion without consistent financial success, said, “The idea of going to an office every day and receiving a paycheck every two weeks sounds pretty great right now. I just want to support my family!” With each decision in life, we must weigh the blessings and the challenges, and ultimately decide which way we want to go while keeping in mind that there is no pain-free or stress-free solution.

Our culture puts inordinate pressure on us in so many ways. It’s like we’re living in this invisible pressure cooker that’s constantly demanding more and different and better: more money, a better job, a different partner. We may not even know exactly what this more and different and better looks like, but the silent yet insidious message is that we’re doing it wrong in some way, that we’re fundamentally broken and that if we just changed the outside – the partner, the house, the job, the city – we would “ding-ding-ding” get it right and find that ever-elusive dangling carrot of happiness.

I often think about simpler, and probably saner, times, especially around work. I think about how the expectation  was simply to take over the family business. The blacksmith father taught his trade to his blacksmith son. The tailor passed down his skills and created an intergenerational trade. Or the postman who delivered the mail took pride in the simple task of delivering the mail. There wasn’t angst about choosing your job or career. You simply followed in your father’s footsteps, or learned a trade that contributed to the small village in which you lived. And that was that. And I have a suspicion that when people lived in smaller, interconnected communities where everyone knew each other, the job was less about the job and more about connecting with neighbors and friends. So the key factors that employment offered were contribution and connection.

I don’t want to idealize the past. I recognize, of course, the limitations for women in this model. I understand that there were sons who didn’t want to be a blacksmith but dreamed of being a priest or rabbi. What then? I realize that this age of infinite possibilities is a double-edged sword: we are free to choose, but inherent in this freedom to choose comes the pressure to get it right.

There’s also immense pressure these days to “succeed”, which means that if you’ve landed in a stable, regular job – like working at the front office for a medical company – a job in which you are contributing positively to the world in some way but doesn’t require a PhD, you’re left feeling like you’re not living up to your potential. I’m not sure what that phrase means – “living up to your potential” – but I know it creates a lot of anxiety for many of my clients. Some better questions are: Are you contributing to society in a positive way? Does your work bring you some satisfaction? Do you work with good people with whom you feel connected? Does your work bring stability? A consistent paycheck is nothing to sneeze at, and yet in many circles it’s looked down upon as settling.

In the end, the path to fulfillment doesn’t come from anything out there. The work is learn to fill the inner well of Self, to know ourselves and like ourselves so that we can trust ourselves, and from that place of deep inner fullness, the world – including relationships, work, home – becomes the canvas onto which we offer our expressions. I’ve said many times that I could see myself doing many different types of work. I could imagine being a yoga teacher. At one time in my life I dreamed of being a midwife. I could stop counseling and devote myself to being a writer.

But you see, no matter the canvas, I would still bring myself and my voice to whatever work I did. The work is simply the canvas. We – our deepest self – are the paintbrush and colors. When the well is full, the rest takes care of itself. And when the well is full, we put a lot less pressure on ourselves to find “the one” and achieve “the calling” as we realize that wellness isn’t dependent on what you do or who your partner is, but on who you are. It’s learning to shift from a doing-achieving mindset to one that places utmost importance on the realms of being and turning inward.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting abandoning your dreams. I’m not suggesting becoming complacent and accepting the status quo, especially if you’re in a  job that sucks the life out of you and you have a sense that you could be spending your time in a more meaningful way. And I’m not suggesting that sometimes finding a new job that is a better match for you can create more harmony in your life. 

But what I am suggesting is that we embrace the paradox that real change happens most organically when we accept exactly where we are. When we’re judging ourselves and striving for something out there that we think we’re supposed to achieve, we’re operating from that lethal “should” mindset. But when we let go and soften into ourselves, learning truly what it means to live from the inside out, we open vast spaces inside where new possibilities can seed and sprout to fruition. One of those possibilities may be in accepting exactly where you’re at, without needing to change a thing. Another possibility may forging out in a new direction. The work of trusting yourself is learning to discern what is needed at any given point, and learning to make decisions from a clear place inside that derives from a full inner well instead of from an externally-derived set of “shoulds.”

  • Client's story shared with permission. 
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