Chances are that the topic of ‘discovering your passion in life’ is not new to you. It’s a common phrase that people toss about. The connotation is that this will be unveiled to us in some way. Like that apple which hit Isaac Newton just before he articulated the laws of gravity, our passion will ‘hit us on the head’ sometime when we least expect it. I’m not convinced.
Not Passive: Dave Isay, founder of a company called StoryCorps, also takes issue with the idea that ‘finding your calling’ is passive: “When people have found their calling, they’ve made tough decisions and sacrifices in order to do the work they were meant to do.” You don’t ‘find’ your calling — you have to fight for it. And it’s worth it. “People who’ve found their calling have a fire about them,”says Isay, the winner of the 2015 TED Prize. “They’re the people who are dying to get up in the morning and go do their work.”
Common Pattern: After a decade of listening to personal interviews, Isay noticed similarities in how people discovered their calling. He’s collected dozens of these stories and detailed these in his book: Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. Here’s a summary of the insights…
- Venn Diagram: Your calling lies at the intersection of a Venn diagram (3 overlapping circles): doing something you’re good at; feeling appreciated; believing your work is making people’s lives better. “When those three things line up, it’s like lightning,” Isay says. A central point is that you don’t have to be a surgeon to feel that you have a calling; think of the barman who talks to customers and makes them feel important. How do you find this overlap? “You … shut out all the chatter of what your friends are telling you to do, what your parents are telling you to do, what society is telling you to do … and just go to that quiet place inside you that knows the truth.” (or find a good career coach to help you navigate this).
- Difficult Experiences: Your calling sometimes emerges from difficult experiences. What lurks in that quiet place will be a defining experience — sometimes a painful one. Isay points to an interview with a 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,” says Isay. “… every time he walks into a classroom, his father is walking in with him.” The theme of people turning their toughest experiences into a new path runs throughout the book. Having an experience that reminds you of your mortality can certainly be a clarifying event in people’s lives.
- Ruffle Feathers: Big changes often take courage. Another story featured is about Wendell Scott, who became the first African-American NASCAR driver in 1952, and kept on driving despite threats against his life. A new beginning sometimes starts with taking a stand against a status quo that simply isn’t acceptable, and dedicating your life to changing it. There are a number of not-for-profit organizations in Ireland that ‘fit’ with this idea of people challenging conventional wisdom (To Russia with Love and Suicide Awareness are two organizations that spring to mind).
- External Nudge: Sometimes, other people nudge you toward your calling. Sharon Long had worked odd jobs most of her life. As Isay tells it: Her daughter was going to college. As the bursar was helping them with financial aid forms, she said quietly: “I wish I could’ve gone to college.” The bursar responded, “It’s not too late”and she enrolled in forensic anthropology. The advisor had suggested because he thought it was the easiest science course, “The minute she sat in that class, it was boom — this is what she was meant to do.” I remember a very similar experience myself – the first time I’d ever heard the phrase – Motivation Theory and knew immediately that I wanted to really learn about what makes people tick.
- Hard Slog: The ‘finding your calling’ phrase makes it sound like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow; you find it, then the story’s over. But, it’s what happens after identifying your calling that really matters. “Understanding what your calling is — that’s very different than the blood, sweat and tears of actually doing it,” he says. It may require going back to school, apprenticing or starting a brand new organization. Unless your calling can be labelled ‘Winning the Lotto’ – it normally requires hard work.
- Old Dogs: An interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive finding was that age is irrelevant. Isay found his calling when he was 21 and interviewed a man who’d been part of the Stonewall riots. “The minute I hit record, I knew that being a journalist and interviewing people was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” he says. But collecting stories for the book reminded him that a calling can be discovered at any age. The book includes an interview with someone who knew they wanted to be an NBA referee at age 15, and another who worked as an accountant for 30 years before discovering his passion for food. “Doing the work you’re meant to do is one of the most satisfying, remarkable experiences that a person can have,” says Isay. The Message: never give up.
- Smaller Paycheck: Work that you are passionate about doesn’t always come with a big paycheck. Some of the stories are about people who left high-paying jobs for roles that pay less but are more satisfying. Stories about making as much money as you can sit alongside others where people pursued a dream of working very hard to live with integrity.
Finding your passion is certainly a big life question. Are you there yet?
PS Lighter Notes
Q: Love music? What’s the difference between a Musician and a Pizza?
A: A Pizza can feed a family of 4!
A husband and wife drove for miles in silence after a terrible argument in which neither would budge. The husband pointed to a mule in a pasture. “Relative of yours?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “By marriage.”
A doctor and his wife were having a huge argument at breakfast. “You aren’t so good in bed either!” he shouted and stormed off to work. By midmorning, he decided he’d better make amends and phoned home. After many rings, his wife picked up the phone.
“What took you so long to answer?”
“I was in bed.”
“What were you doing in bed this late?”
“Getting a second opinion.”
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