How often do we hear about “how to find your calling”, “do what you love”, and “you only have one life to live, so follow your heart”? We may read about or even know some people who found their calling, how they live their passion. For the majority of us, the idea of a calling brings one of two frustrations: either we don’t know how to follow our calling in any practical sense, or much more often, we don’t know if we even have a calling.
Let’s challenge the second of these frustrations. Based on the people I met in my life who did find callings, we need to reframe and expand our conception of a calling, before asking if we have one.
One of the first repetitive questions we get in our lives is, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Forms of this question continue throughout our lives. Even in our sunset years, people ask, “So what are you going to do with your time now?” People expect us to define our passions in terms of “what”. When we think of people who found their callings, they often appear as “whats”. The kid who always wanted to be a firefighter or doctor, and grew up to be one. The returning veteran inspired to start his own business. Heck, a colleague from my Toastmasters club had a brother who played “undertaker” at twelve…and grew up to be an undertaker. Most examples of a calling take the form of a particular job or role. But a “what” is not the only calling.
Some callings center around particular people. I once asked an Aikido master what made him decide to pursue Aikido as a lifelong passion. He replied that when he first met his teacher, he realized he wanted whatever it was that his teacher had. Power, charisma, grace, whatever “that” was, he wanted it. It wasn’t about Aikido. The Aikido master said that if his teacher had mastered calligraphy or cooking, he would have followed in his teacher’s footsteps and learned that instead. Coming from someone who spent decades learning and teaching Aikido, his words took me by surprise. For him, it wasn’t about the “what”, but rather the “who”. He wanted to have what his teacher had, and if Aikido was the way to get there, so be it. For some people, their passion and their calling comes from who they work with (or work for), rather than the work itself.
Do you know people who don’t care what they do, as long as they get to live in New York City? Or the beach? Or travel all the time? For them, their callings stem from places that capture their hearts. A local saying of Bozeman, Montana is that you need a Ph.D. to pour a cup of coffee. It refers to people who go to Montana State University, and after finishing their graduate work, love the area so much that they decide they would rather take up a job at the local diner than go anywhere else to use the degree they earned. For some people, a particular place (or wanderlust) can call people so strongly that it changes their lives.
For some, a cause calls to them. Maybe they want to be in the movie industry. Maybe they love working with horses. People like this have a “why” for their calling. They want to be part of a bigger picture, a greater movement. Their particular roles matter less to them (and may often change) than the opportunity to get involved with a vision close to their hearts.
See how the line starts to blur between each of these? If you deeply want to be a Mom, is that a What, or a Who? If you love to swim and want to do anything that keeps you near the water, is that a Why, or a Where? In fact, each of these types of callings show us parts of the same whole. A calling can be one of these, or all of these. Expand the concept of a calling, and we may well discover that when we ask ourselves what we want to be when we grow up, the answer may not begin with the “what”.
A calling can be a what, a who (or with who), a where, or a why. Or any combination of these. …But there is no “when”. Or better said, “when” is now.
My Dad spent 27 years as a math teacher. He became a math teacher because he hated his math teachers, and thought he could do a better job. I remember the day when I walked into a post office, and the clerk recognized my Dad’s name on a package I wanted to send. The clerk told me how my Dad changed his life…in a math class. My Dad quit teaching because he couldn’t deal with the increasing number of restrictions and rules placed on schoolteachers, and stories of his impact continued after his retirement.
Several years later, on a whim, my Dad volunteered to teach a class about eBay at the local senior center. My Dad was one of the first people on eBay, back in 1996. He thought the class might be fun. The class ended up being such a success that he added classes on billiards, practical meditation, and book writing. He later told me those classes made for the apex of his teaching career. He loved the subjects, and had the most attentive, curious, and engaged students of his life, all of whom were significantly older than he was. He never would have guessed his best classes came after retirement.
There’s no When for a calling. There’s only now.
I don’t know if everyone has a calling. Maybe the idea of a “calling” is simply the term we use to describe the time and effort we put into what we love. But I do know this: if we want to find our calling, we may need to look beyond what we do.