I recently read Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, a beautiful meditation on trusting our experience to guide the way to our true calling. Rather than telling your life what you intend to do with it, Palmer suggests, you must “listen for what it intends to do with you.” Reflecting on his own encounters with self-doubt, deep depression, jubilant triumphs, and unrelenting inner inquiry, he paints a portrait of a personal journey that is far from easy but repeatedly rewarding.
Vocation is defined as, “a type of work that you feel you are suited to doing and to which you give much of your time and energy.” For many, this eschews our understanding of a true calling: something that we not only feel suited to doing, but something that is worthy of our talents, values, and greater sense of purpose.
While these two terms are often used interchangeably, one’s vocation may or may not be aligned with one’s calling. In fact, it’s not uncommon to arrive at a vocation only to realize after years of selfless devotion that we’re not on the path we desire: we discover that the work we’re doing is no longer fulfilling and depletes us of our energy rather than rejuvenates our spirit. Moreover, we frequently associate vocation with a competitive salary, robust benefits, and well-earned promotions, yet the definition makes no mention of these monetary domains.
So how do we reconcile our need for financial independence, or at the very least stability, with our desire to nurture our true calling?
Somewhere along our life’s journey, we were likely told to go after our passions with all our heart; that if we do what we love, we’ll never work a day in our lives; that by simply applying ourselves, we’ll go far. So we studied hard, worked odd jobs to make ends meet, got advanced degrees, and maxed out our résumés.
During this time, our passions might have shifted, or our dreams might have been deferred. We might have told ourselves that doing what we love would come after we’d proven ourselves, worked our way up the corporate ladder, achieved a certain net worth.
It’s so easy for our vision of vocation to become muddled by societal expectations and the harsh demands we place on ourselves. Suddenly, doing what we love each day is no longer enough. We must also make a name for ourselves, rise above the competition, gain an improbably high following, have the latest and greatest technology, and meet ever-increasing productivity standards until we no longer remember why we were called here in the first place.
Our vocation needn’t also be the greatest source of stress in our lives. If it is, it’s likely not our true calling. Work is undeniably stressful. It’s exhausting, time-consuming, frustrating, demanding, and at times, disappointing. But it should also be a means of frequent joy, hope, welcome challenge, vitality, self-growth, and uncompromising abundance.
If you’re fortunate to make your livelihood by answering to your calling each day, I am continually inspired by your dedication to your craft and your courage to meet the challenges that were inevitably a part of your path.
If you feel like your life’s work is at a crossroads with your values, your passions, your deepest motivations, and your undeniable gifts, I admire you also: for your bravery in recognizing that you are worthy of more and your commitment to devote yourself to work that is not always easy, sustainable, or enjoyable.
I encourage you to keep exploring how you can tap into your higher self through your work, be it a full-time job, a part-time job, a weekend gig, or a yet unborn idea. We are told frequently and loudly that our jobs are not the be-all and end-all; that as long as we have a roof over our heads and food on our table, we should be happy. While these are certainly blessings for which we should be grateful, clinging too tightly to this persistent narrative can put us on the fast-track to selling ourselves short.
Wherever you are in your vocational pursuits — just entering the workforce, considering a career change, returning to full-time work after a sabbatical, preparing for retirement, balancing three part-time jobs, transitioning to a new role, celebrating a recent promotion — the following is offered as a guide to help you navigate the often-complex, always worthwhile course of discovering or rediscovering your authentic livelihood.
Know who you are. Understanding the type of work to which we’re not only drawn but that aligns with the mark we want to leave on the world can only be achieved by intimately understanding ourselves. If we don’t, we’ll continually bump up against values conflicts, feelings of emptiness, restlessness, guilt, and burnout. Knowing who we are (and who we’re not) is critical to knowing what we want to do and how we want to do it. We also have to be prepared to come to terms with some things we may not like about ourselves. The journey into self is incomplete if we fail to take inventory of both our light and dark sides.
Drown out the noise. There’s a lot of superfluous noise that infiltrates our perceptions of success. We’re told that owning a certain car, having a large house, and working in a lucrative field define our value. Even if you don’t believe this, the heavy weight it carries can be hard to shake. If a traditional 9-5 job doesn’t suit your taste or talents, don’t be afraid to seek one that does. If you’ve dreamed of being a doctor your whole life but are starting to realize that it’s theater, not medicine, that gets you out of bed each morning, go after it with conviction and see where it takes you. If you have a Ph.D. in physics but are certain that being a bus driver will help you tap into your gift for cultivating community, don’t rule this option out simply because it doesn’t fit your original mold. The more you try to squeeze yourself into a vocation that amplifies the voice of society and ignores your own, the more you’ll struggle to find balance, engagement, and fulfillment.
Get creative, don’t compromise. Perhaps your dream of running a wildlife sanctuary isn’t feasible, or your freelance photography gig won’t pay the bills. This doesn’t mean that you should dismiss these pursuits. Life has a funny way of bringing us back to our calling despite our attempts to ignore it. No one said that identifying what makes your heart sing was easy and seeing it through can be even harder. But we’re often presented with opportunities to incorporate our passions in other ways, ones that may not appear how we desire on the surface. Be open to letting your interests take on a different shape than you originally intended, at least temporarily. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Pay attention. How many times have you heard someone talk about there being “signs” along their vocational path?
“Numbers were never my forte, but I was afraid to let my parents down.”
“I was always sketching or doodling — on napkins, in notebooks, in newspapers. Everyone kept telling me I should sell my art, but I never listened.”
“I’d catch myself daydreaming about starting an ethical fashion line, but then I’d have to get back to studying for my real estate exam.”
These messages may seem small, but they have a monumental point to get across. When you experience them, don’t roll your eyes and shoo them away. Listen to them; hear them out; talk about them with someone who knows you well and ask for their insights. These signs aren’t random but filled with purpose and potential. Don’t wait to act on them.
Trust yourself. Believing in yourself can be incredibly hard, especially in the face of societal pressures, expectations from loved ones, competing demands, unpredictable economies, and unknown futures. But it is key to awakening to your life’s purpose. Learn to trust yourself like you do your closest confidante. Know that you have your best interests at heart and that you will make every attempt to see your dreams come to fruition. If it feels scary, keep going. If you’re uncertain, dig deeper. If you want to give up, give it one more day. You are wholly, unapologetically worth every ounce of your effort. There are countless people who will benefit from your bringing your true vocation to life. Don’t abandon that gift.