With a name like Find Your Calling, we do throw that phrase around a lot: find your calling. But let’s chat about what it actually means. Find a job that makes pots of money? Land a smash-hit career at 22 and stick with it forever? Retreat to a mountaintop for some helpful navel-gazing till you conjure up some sense of life purpose?
In his new book Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, Dave Isay (founder of StoryCorps and winner of the 2015 TED Prize) provides galvanizing lessons about what “find your calling” actually means—and how to do it. The following eight takeaways (see Kate Torgovnick May’s summary) are some of the best tips I’ve read for homing in on the work you were born to do.
- Your calling is at the intersection of three things: doing something you’re good at, feeling appreciated, and believing that your work makes a difference in people’s lives. “When those three things line up, it’s like lightning,” Isay says. And getting them lined up might mean shutting out preconceived notions (from you, your family, your friends) about what you should do. Don’t make assumptions; figure it out yourself.
- Your calling is a reward, not a gift, so fight for it. “When people have found their calling, they’ve made tough decisions and sacrifices in order to do the work they were meant to do.” But the battle is worth it: “People who’ve found their calling have a fire about them. They’re the people who are dying to get up in the morning and go do their work.”
- Your calling might be born out of difficult experiences. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one or some trial you’re suffering personally, but the most painful times of our lives often forge our true calling.“Having an experience that really shakes you and reminds you of your mortality can be a very clarifying event in people’s lives,” Isay says, and gives the example of 24-year-old teacher Ayodeji Ogunniyi. “He was studying to be a doctor when his father was murdered. He realized that what he was really meant to do was be a teacher. He says that every time he walks into a classroom, his father is walking in with him.”
- Finding your calling takes guts—and doesn’t necessarily please everybody. Stepping away from Isay’s book for a minute: This point reminds me of that great motto from the old Disney classic Davy Crockett: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Your calling might make waves and challenge the status quo, but if you’re really onto something, don’t quit. “It’s work ignited by hope, love, or defiance—and stoked by purpose and persistence,” Isay says.
- You might be prodded by other people. Listen to their advice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed course or picked up something new because someone gave me a simple pointer. It pays to pay attention! Isay tells the story of Sharon Long who was helping her daughter get set up at college when she said aloud: “I wish I could’ve gone to college.” The bursar responded: “It’s not too late.” So Sharon enrolled in an art program, but it wasn’t until she took forensic anthropology (at her advisor’s suggestion) that she found her real calling. “The minute she sat in that class, it was boom—this is what she was meant to do,” Isay says.
- What you do after you find your calling is what really matters. The phrase “find your calling” might make it sound like your calling is a blue ribbon and the whole point is to get across the finish line to win it—but really, victory is ongoing. You found it; now what? Pursuing your calling might require going back to school, learning a new skill, starting a business. “Understanding what your calling is—that’s very different than the blood, sweat, and tears of actually doing it,” Isay says.
- Age is irrelevant. Isay says he found his calling as a radio interviewer at age 21, but he says many don’t strike gold till much later—and that’s okay. “Doing the work you’re meant to do is one of the most satisfying, remarkable experiences that a person can have, so never give up.”
- Your calling might not come with the biggest paycheck. “The message we send to young people is that you want to do as little work as you can to make as much money as you can—that’s the dream,” Isay says. But “There’s another, much more rewarding dream of taking risks and working very hard to live with integrity.”