Your True Vocation=Your Gifts+Your Passion
As we’ve discussed so far, your calling is not one specific magical job out there, but rather your unique talents, gifts, and capabilities-the things within you that you bring to a job. Thus, different jobs can tap into your vocation to different degrees. A job may use your gifts 50% of the time or 90% of the time. Finding your true vocation means finding work that utilizes your gifts in the 75-100% range. How do you go about doing that?
I think this “formula” is helpful:
True Vocation=Your Gifts+Your Passion
You can be in a job where you get to use your gifts, but not use them for a purpose you feel passionate about. Or you can be working in an area you’re passionate about, but in a job that doesn’t employ your unique gifts. The ideal is to have a job that uses your talents in the service of something you’re passionate about. Here are some examples of what this could look like for a man:
- David’s gifts are for inspiring people and leadership, and his passion is for football. His true vocation might be becoming a football coach.
- Joe’s gifts are in teaching and researching, and his passion is history. His true vocation might be becoming a history professor.
- Dan’s gifts are in resolving disputes, and his passion is for making divorces more amicable for the partners and easier on kids. His true vocation might be becoming a divorce lawyer who concentrates on peaceful mediation.
- Alex’s gifts are in investigating things, and his passion is for animals and the outdoors. His true vocation might be becoming a game warden.
- Tyler’s gifts are in selling things and making deals, and his passion is for books. His true vocation might be becoming a literary agent.
- Blake’s gifts are in crunching numbers, and his passion is for politics. His true vocation might be becoming the state treasurer.
- Dave’s gifts are in language, and his passion is for Japan and Japanese culture. His true vocation might be becoming a translator in Japan.
You might be passionate about a cause, an area of the world, a sport, or a product. But you can also be passionate about a lifestyle or an ideal or a tradition. A man who has a gift for fixing things and working with his hands, might be passionate about the idea of craftsmanship and find his vocation as a carpenter. A man who has a gift for cutting hair, giving shaves, and offering easy conversation, and a passion for the tradition of barbering, should easily know what his vocation is! A man whose father and grandfather were police officers and who is passionate about carrying on the family tradition would do well to follow in their footsteps. A man whose gifts are in entrepreneurship and who is passionate about working at home might find his vocation in developing web projects. A man with gifts for leadership and courage and who is passionate about the ideals of country, service, and sacrifice might find his true vocation in the military.
Finding Your Birthright Gifts
Of course in order to use the above “formula,” you need to know the passions and capabilities to plug into it.
As we discussed in Part I, your “birthright gifts” are your unique talents, gifts, capabilities, and purposes-the seeds of things you were born to do. You may believe that the seeds were planted there by the chances of biology or purposefully by God. And they’re not so much things you seek as things you rediscover.
In Let Your Life Speak, Parker J. Palmer argues:
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about-quite apart from what I would like it to be about-or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…..Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live-but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”
Trying to find your true life’s work without understanding what your birthright gifts are is like trying to grow a garden without any idea of what seeds have been planted in the soil. You wouln’t know how to bring the seeds to fruition-how much water and sunlight the plants needed and how to care for them. Tending to the garden willy nilly would result in a barren harvest or plants that sprouted haphazardly and then quickly wilted away.
Finding your vocation thus means understanding exactly what seeds lie within you so that you are prepared to cultivate them to their fullest expression.
Tuning Into Your Signal
Your birthright gifts are like tiny radio transmitters that came buried within you when you were born and have been sending out signals ever since. As a kid you were probably very in tune with these signals-knowing what you liked and didn’t like came pretty easily.
But over time, the signal gets dimmer and dimmer, smothered by the increasing noise we’re bombarded with as we grow up. We pick up static everywhere we go-from the things we watch on tv, read in magazines, and hear from ministers, parents, and friends. Pretty soon our own signal, lost in a cacophony of voices, gets hard to hear.
Tuning back into this inner signal is the key to finding your vocation. Dr. Abraham Maslow argued:
“Recovering the self must, as a sine qua non, include the recovery of the ability to have and to cognize these inner signals, to know what and whom one likes and dislikes, what is enjoyable and what is not, when to eat and when not to, when to sleep, when to urinate, when to rest. The experientially empty person, lacking these directive from within, these voices of the real self, must turn to outer cues for guidance, for instance eating when the clock tells him to, rather than obeying his appetite…He guides himself by clocks, rules, calendars, schedules, agendas, and by hints and cues from other people.”
So much of our lives are dictated by external cues that we probably don’t even think about it. We wake up not when our bodies want to but when the alarm clock sounds. We eat lunch at noon and pizza while watching the game not because we’re necessarily hungry but because that is our company’s lunch hour and our game day ritual. We match our mood to the mood of whatever social group we find ourselves in. Our day’s activities come not from the heart but from a to-do list. There are men who if you gave them the day off to do whatever they wished, would be stumped as to how to fill the time.
Following some external signals is key to getting along in the world (showing up in a velvet jumpsuit to a job interview may be what your inner signal longs for, but it probably won’t land you the job). But they also end up distancing ourselves from who we actually are in areas of more importance than dress. Like your vocation.
Tuning into our inner signals need not mean traveling to India to study yoga at an ashram. It’s simply a matter of taking the time to carefully adjust our bunny ears until we hear the signal again loud and clear. This simply involves taking some time out for quiet moments of reflection.
As Palmer insightfully put it:
“The soul is like a wild animal-tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of the tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”
Stop multitasking and filling your life with constant noise. Don’t look at your laptop while you eat; don’t turn on the radio the minute you get in the car; don’t read a magazine when you’re on the john. If you allow them space, the signals will come to you during your most ordinary activities, like washing the dishes.
Work on being honest with yourself about your motivations for doing the things you do. Do you really enjoy x,y, and z, or are you doing those things to please other people? You can do things for pleasure or do things out of obligation, but you should have the self-awareness to know when you’re doing which.
Pray. Meditate. Take walks without your ipod. Make time for activities that quiet and settle the mind.
Taking the time to tune into your inner signals will help your personal growth all around. To specifically hone in on the signal of your birthright gifts and passions, set aside some quiet time to just sit and think. I highly recommend getting out into the wilderness where you are sure not to be distracted. And then ask yourself these questions:
- As a boy, what did you love to do? Write? Read? Sports? Working on models? Playing with a chemistry set? Spending time outdoors? Pretending to be a solider or a spy?
- During school group projects, what job did other students assign to you, or did you volunteer for?
- What aspects of your current job do you love, which do you loathe?
- What kinds of projects and jobs at work and at home do you get excited about? What kinds do you dread?
- Have you ever talked to a friend about a topic, a dream, or an aspiration and everything just clicked inside of you, and you felt a surge of excitement throughout your body?
- What things do you see other people doing that make you ache with jealousy because you wish you were doing them?
- What issues get you really fired up?
- What dream has nagged at you for as long as you can remember, the thing that always pops into your mind no matter how many times you dismiss it?
- What fills your thoughts in the quiet moments when you’re riding the train or lying in bed? What do you think about incessantly, what captures your imagination? Politics? Spirituality? Relationships?
- If time, money, education and any other obstacle was a non-issue, what kind of work would you choose to do?
- What were you doing the last time you totally lost track of time?
I leave you to ponder on these questions. I think the answers will come clearly for most men. And I believe that most men know deep down what their calling is, what they really wish to do in life. The truly hard part is overcoming the obstacles and rationalizations we have for not following our callings. Explaining what these obstacles are will be the topic of the final part of this series.
Why should a man pursue a vocation? Is it really a worthwhile endeavor? Shouldn’t a man be satisfied to work any job that supports his family and allows him to earn a living? Is striving to find your vocation a selfish pursuit?
Today, I will set out to answer those questions and make a case for why the pursuit of one’s vocation should be absolutely paramount in every man’s life. In doing so, I will really be arguing for a broader philosophy of life, of which vocation is one vital part.
Self-Actualization and the Purpose of Life
What is the purpose of life? It is a question as old as time and one that has been answered in too many ways to list. I would like to suggest one answer that I strongly subscribe to.
I believe that one of the greatest purposes of this life is to grow and develop to the greatest extent possible, to be tested, to stretch your capabilities to the limit, to maximize all of your potential, in short, and please excuse the cliched phrase, to become all that you can be.
This quest to become “godlike” can fit within and complement most faiths. For the Christian it is a recognition of the divine potential of each individual. C.S Lewis said:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
For the atheist, endeavoring to explore and expand their capacities can become the overarching purpose of life. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
In an age of anomie, living to become all that we can is an incredibly powerful why for every man.
Famous psychologist Abraham Maslow called this maximizing of our potential “self-actualization,” the process by which people could attain “full humaness.” “What a man can be, he must be,” he said. Maslow’s writings on this subject are incredibly insightful and as I cannot hope to improve upon them, I shall quote from the good doctor extensively here.
Maslow argued that:
“In practically every human being…there is an active will toward health, an impulse toward growth, or toward the actualization of human potentialities. But at once we are confronted with the very saddening realization that so few people make it…even in a society like ours which is relatively one of the most fortunate on the face of the earth. This is our great paradox….This is our new way of approaching the problem of humanness, ie. with an appreciation of its highest possibilities and simultaneously a deep disappointment that these possibilities are so infrequently realized. This attitude contrasts with the “realistic” acceptance of whatever happens to be the case, and then regrading that as the norm…We tend to get into the situation in which…this normalcy or averageness is the best we can expect, and that therefore we should be content with it. From the point of view that I have outlined, normalcy would be rather the kind of sickness or crippling or stunting that we share with everybody else and therefore don’t notice.”
As a prerequisite to accepting the idea that self-actualization is one of the grand purposes of life, one must accept this notion that every human possesses an impulse towards growth. If you do not accept this proposition, than the rest of what we lay out today will not find purchase with you. If you do accept this idea, then it rightly follows that true fulfillment will come from maximizing this growth, and conversely, being content with averageness will rob us of the kind of transcendent satisfaction and happiness that could have been possible. Maslow cautioned:
“If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.“
Self-Actualization and Vocation
Maslow posited that attaining self-actualization:
“proceeds inevitably via awareness of one’s identity (among other things). A very important part of this task is to become aware of what one is, biologically, temperamentally, constitutionally, as a member of a species, of one’s capacities, desires, needs, and also of one’s vocation what one is fitted for, what one’s destiny is.”
That latter step, working at a vocation, was something Maslow observed in every single self-actualized person he encountered, without a single exception. He found that self-actualized persons were deeply devoted to a cause outside themselves, a work which they felt called to do and which brought them great joy.
Now many men have the erroneous idea that finding your vocation means doing something that will make you rich and famous-becoming a rock star or writing the great American novel. And the idea of self-actualization may feed into this misconception. So we should point out here that everyone’s potentialities will max out at different levels. The important thing is simply to push yourself to wherever those limits are for you personally. Self-actualization is a highly individual thing-your best is not another man’s best.
Remember, vocation is not your job, it’s what you bring to your job-your unique gifts and talents. So self-actualization is about finding the opportunities that will allow you to exercise your talents and use your capabilities to the fullest extent possible.
Getting More Practical
Thinking about the goal of maximizing all of my potential really gets me fired up and motivated about life. It’s an idea that honestly pulls me out of depressive funks and helps get me going again.
But I realize that not every man is into this kind of philosophy/psychology business. So I wanted to put in a section with more practical reasons for why pursuing a vocation is important.
Health and happiness. Ignoring your vocation can cause anxiety, restlessness, and depression. Using your talents and gifts brings a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that cannot be duplicated. It is also increases your peak experiences and opportunities for flow.
True, I know men, and I’m sure you do too, you are working in jobs that don’t fit them at all in order to make a living, and outwardly they put on a fairly happy face. But I often see an anger in these men emerge in less guarded moments-in road rage, heavy drinking, and resentment towards others. It can just eat at you inside, literally. More heart attacks occur on Monday morning than at any other time; men return to jobs they loathe and their blood pressure soars.
Greater success. We often associate vocations with jobs in which people barely scrape by, but still stick with it because of their love for the work. That’s surely sometimes the case, but doing what you love can truly be the path to your greatest success. In an interview with the NYT, the CEO of The Onion (now that’s a fun job) was asked what advice he would give to someone just graduating from college. He said:
“Find what you really love to do and then go after it-relentlessly. And don’t fret about the money. Because what you love to do is quite likely what you’re good at. And what you’re good at will likely bring you financial reward eventually. I’ve seen too many people who have plotted a career, and often what’s behind it is nothing other than a stack of dollar bills. You need to be happy in order to be good, and you need to be good to succeed. And when you succeed, there’s a good chance you’ll get paid.”
Freedom and Frugality. For a man who has found his true vocation, the line between work and joy/life is completely erased. His work is his play and his play is his work. Things like money, salary, vacation, hobbies, entertainment, and amusement thus lose their meaning.
Staying in a dead end job is often seen as the more practical choice, but there is an irresistible practicality to the idea of vocation as well. The man in the job he hates may sometimes make more money, but he also spends more money, trying to buy things and experiences that will make up for how miserable he is at work. He has to do what doesn’t make him happy to earn money to pay for things that do. In contrast, the man in a vocation is the truly frugal man. He’s not living for the next vacation; he doesn’t need a big screen tv to make him happy; he’s not paying a shrink and a doctor to tend to his diminishing mental and physical health. He doesn’t need much to get by and that’s true freedom.
Service, Duty and Responsibility
So far we’ve talked a lot about you and what you want to do with your life. But shouldn’t your vocation also serve others and improve the world? How do you balance your desire for self-actualization with your duties and responsibilities in life?
Thankfully these things ideally go hand in hand. When you’re a whole man, when your inward self is united with your outward self, when your inner desires are united with your outer actions, that is when you can truly be of service to the world. Maslow calls this the ideal meeting of inner requiredness (“I want to”) with outer requiredness (“I must”). Or as Frederick Buechner puts it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Living falsely, forcing your square peg into a round hole, not only hurts you, but hurts those you love and those you work with and for. Everyone knows the frustration of being on a team with a guy who’s there because he feels he “ought” to be or “should” be, but has no heart for it. He goes through the motions but pulls everyone down. The Sufi poet Rumi wisely advised such a man, “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.”
Seeking your vocation is not selfish; robbing the world of what you could have done with your gifts and talents is.
All this being said, I personally believe that duty and responsibility come before personal passions. It is not manly to leave your family because you have suddenly decided that being in a traveling circus is your true calling or quit your job to go to film school when there’s a mortgage to be paid.
As Edward Howard Griggs put it in “Vocation and Avocation,” “The way to a larger opportunity is never meanly sneaking out from under the little duty of to-day, but climbing bravely through it and off the top; and then the better chance usually comes.” You may need to moonlight in a second job until you can quit your day job; you may need to find the expression of your talents in your avocation; you may simply need to find more opportunities in your current job that allow you to use your unique strengths. A determined man who knowshow to hustle can find a responsible way to balance his duties and his passions.
Fathers sometimes rationalize working in a job they hate so that they can allow their kids to follow their dreams. The problem here is that their fathers often said the same thing, and their fathers before that. Someone has to break the chain. A father must model what he wishes his children to become. If you don’t want your kids to play it small, then why are you?
“Blessed is he that has found his work! Let him ask no other blessedness.”—Carlye
There are two great decisions in a man’s life, two poles around which the first quarter of his typically life revolve: whom to marry and which occupation to pursue.
The latter is a question we face as soon as we are old enough to talk. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a query put to us by parents, teachers, and friends. In our teen years we are content to keep our plans vague and nebulous. But in college the pressure builds-we want to choose a major related to our future career. But we may still not know what career we’re aiming for. So we change majors once, twice, and maybe more.
And then we graduate. Society says we have now entered the world of work and should be diving into our chosen profession. But even then, many of us aren’t sure what profession that’s supposed to be.
We typically have a better idea of what we don’t want in a job than what we do. Not something mundane, something like what our dads did-long hours stuck in a cubicle feeling like a cog in a corporate machine, Maalox and scotch hidden in a desk drawer. After all, a third of our lives will be spent working; we’ll probably spend more time at work than we do with our spouse and kids. It’s no wonder we agonize over “what to be when we grow up”…even when we’re all grown up.
We want a job that doesn’t actually feel like a job. Something that uses our talents and brings us great satisfaction.
What we really want isn’t a job at all; we want a vocation, a calling.
Three Perspectives on Work
There are three ways people look at what they do for work:
A Job. Those who see their work as a job are those who belt out “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” with great gusto. They live for breaks, for vacation. The job is simply a means to the end: a paycheck. They need to support their family/pay their rent, and this is the ticket they punch to do it. The job may not be terrible, but it offers the worker very little real satisfaction.
A Career. The careerist derives meaning not from the nature of the work itself but the gratification that comes from advancing through the ranks and earning promotions and raises. This motivates the careerist to put in extra time; work doesn’t necessarily stop when they punch out. However, once this forward progress stops, the careerist becomes unsatisfied and frustrated.
A Vocation/Calling. A vocation is work you do for its own sake; you almost feel like you’d do it even if you didn’t get paid. The rewards of wages and prestige are peripheral to getting to use one’s passion in a satisfying way. Those in a vocation feel that their work has an effect on the greater good and an impact beyond themselves. They believe that their work truly utilizes their unique gifts and talents. This is what they were meant to do.
When it comes to life satisfaction and happiness, those with a job are the least satisfied, then those with a career, and those with a vocation feel the most satisfied. No surprises there. A vocation encompasses more than the work you are paid for; it taps into your whole life purpose. When you’ve found your calling, you know it- your life is full of of joy, satisfaction, and true fulfillment. Conversely, if you’re living a life at odds with your vocation, there’s no doubt about that either. You’re indescribably restless; you wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you can’t breathe, like there’s a great weight on your chest; life seems to be passing you by and you have no idea what to do about it.
What Is a Vocation?
“The deepest vocational question is not “What ought I to do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” -Parker J. Palmer
The etymology of vocation versus career is most revealing. The word vocation comes from the Latin word “vocare” or “to call.” It denotes a voice summoning a person to a unique purpose. The word career derives from the Latin word for cart and the Middle French word for race track. It denotes quickly moving in a circle, never going anywhere.
Man was made to embrace his unique destiny, not soldier on as a hamster in a wheel. Or in the words of Lily Tomlin, “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
So if a vocation is something that calls to you-who is doing the calling? And how do you listen to its voice?
Have you ever noticed how much of children’s personalities seen to come hardwired into them? Only a few months into life babies start showing a unique personality. Young children already have characteristics, inclinations, proclivities, likes and dislikes that follow them all the way into adulthood. It’s pretty wild really. When I think about my siblings and I, I’m always amazed how three people who were born to and raised by the same parents, in the same place, could turn out so differently and take such different paths.
I believe the seeds of your true self are born within you. Author Parker J. Palmer calls these seeds “birthright gifts.”
Your birthright gifts are what make you an entirely unique person, with a unique purpose and special talents you can give to the world and to others. Thus, the call comes from within you, not from without; it is a call to bring these seeds to fruition. These are the seeds of your true self, planted within you when you were born. You may believe that the seeds were planted specially by God, by chance, or even that you existed before this incarnation of yourself. Unfortunately, as we grow up, this true self gets buried by the influence and expectations of family, friends, teachers, and the media. We get sorted and labeled and placed into slots. Instead of listening to the call within us, we make decisions based on a need for approval, prestige, and security.
Embracing your calling means shutting off the voices of what others say you ought to do and living true to your real self. Not imitating dad or other men you admire. We take seriously everything but our own thoughts and beliefs-we drink up what our teachers tell us, what our parents tell us, what our ministers tell us. We eagerly lap up quotes from great men. We find these source of truth valuable, but dismiss our own insights and philosophy as hopelessly insignificant. But as Rabbi Zusya has said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”