The Myth of Discovering Your One True Calling

true-calling-2Lately I’ve been noticing a trend in the online career sphere – Finding your true calling.

Most career writers, coaches and counselors want you to believe that you are meant to do one thing and when we get to do this one thing we will work happily ever after.

What a crock!

You can probably list at least 10 things you good at. You may enjoy writing, sex, sewing, fishing, editing, teaching, building, chewing gum, analyzing, drinking beer, and many other things. So you may think that you need to do one of these things or all of these things to be happy.

If only I could ___________. (Fill in the blank of what you wish you could really do for a living.)

Isn’t that what we tell ourselves?

We think, “If only I could do this one thing,” or to take a step further back, “If only I knew the one thing that would make me feel excited to go to work every day.”

My heart feels for you. I used to believe the same thing.

Your Singing Heart

“70% of white collared workers are unhappy at their jobs.” This is a statistic I found on Marelisa’s site and she found it in career coach Dan Miller’s book, “48 Days To The Work You Love

We feel this need to do great work that will let our hearts sing. Your heart can sing in so many ways. It can sing for family, hobbies, and your career.

I guarantee that everyone who loves what they do could probably try 5 other related careers and still be happy. In fact the truly happy ones have a diverse career that allows them to apply many of their strengths. They know that every career has some crappy parts that drive them crazy, but they focus on the good stuff to prevent themselves from going crazy.

You want this one thing to be your savior because maybe you are unhappy right now. This is understandable, but the focus is all wrong.

OK, here comes another painful blow. The problem is not your job, it’s you. I know that hurts, but it’s true. Before you get too upset – I do believe that you have strengths and passions and you need to use them at your job, but those things can’t be done if you don’t have a good understanding of your core needs.

Your Core

The core you needs to be happy before you can connect with your work. That means you need to know what your needs are and how to meet them.

There are often circumstances that make it difficult to meet your needs.

I’ve been bullied at work. I’ve been starved for a raise for years. I’ve been disliked by my some of my co-workers. I’ve hated my work. Yes this makes it hard, but after I passed this period I looked back and reflected on all the things I had learned. Some of the hardest stuff taught me my most valuable lessons. I’ve talked about being called a monkey by a former boss. I’ve talked about being bullied at work. All these troubles brought me closer to my true self.

Deeper Purpose

When you are able to appreciate your true self for all the joy that you can feel, then you can do work that connects you to a deeper purpose. I know that’s what these writers are trying to talk about, but they don’t tell you that your true calling isn’t perfect. They forget to mention that this new thing that you thought you would love will bore you, frustrate you, and at times break your heart. You didn’t realize that all the work on the back end would be so tedious or maybe you miscalculated your needs. There are always problems wherever you are and in everything you do.

Maybe you love to knit little sock monkeys and sell them online. Maybe you think this is your life purpose. But in reality you need a 9 to 5 job so you can pay the bills. That’s ok. Maybe you can’t jump in and do sock monkeys full time, but maybe in 5 years you can. You keep building your presence online or network in your community to make this dream a reality. You start a blog and create a local club of homemade sock monkey lovers and expand your network. I know 5 years sounds like a lot of time, but believe me it will go by quickly when you are focused on taking small steps to make your dream a reality.

Career Artistry

Most of my unhappiness was coming from within me, not from the work that I was doing.

I must admit that if you want to make your heart truly sing, you do have to do work that is worth doing. You have to do work that connects you to a larger purpose.

When you work on developing your “core you” in your present job, you are creating the foundation to be happy in every task that you do. When you are finding joy in everything that you do, you will begin to identify your strengths and learn how to optimize them in your career.

All the great career artists never did just one thing well. They expanded themselves at every opportunity. Oprah started in radio, moved on to anchor local evening news and because of her talents for ad-libbing she pushed her way into day time TV. Eventually she was given her own show. Do you think that she knew her true calling from the start? Nope. She invested all her time and energy into doing that one thing well and then she took the next step up. Does she still do things she hates? Yes. She hates evaluating her employees. She does it because it’s part of the protocol when running a business.

Your Talents

Oprah uses all her talents to help people. She has television shows, magazines, websites, and she can act too. You’ve seen The Color Purple. Wonderful performance.

The core you needs to understand your needs before you can do work that changes the world.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t keep taking small steps toward discovering the type of work that increases your happiness. I’m saying that you should use your present job to become happier, smarter and more confident.

You need to take small steps to discover how you can enjoy your work right now, so when you are doing work that makes your heart sing you can truly be amazing.

* Are you on Twitter? Then join over 3,000 people who get my stress relief tips, happiness ideas, and thought provoking quotes. @workhappynow

* Darren Rowse of Problogger wrote a simple and great post about 4 Foundations of a Successful Blog.

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28 thoughts on “The Myth of Discovering Your One True Calling”

  1. Tom Volkar / Delightful Work

    Hey Karl,

    I’ll bite. I’m a true calling coach and you have given me too much to respond to here. So I’ll pick my spots. Oh and thanks by the way. You’ve raised some rich ground for discussion.

    What I agree with.

    “Your heart can sing in so many ways.”

    “When you are able to appreciate your true self for all the joy that you can feel, then you can do work that connects you to a deeper purpose. I know that’s what these writers are trying to talk about, but they don’t tell you that your true calling isn’t perfect.”

    Actually I do tell folks that there will be constant struggle. Heck struggle is evolution. That’s life. But when you nail your calling you will bounce out of bed eager to work, every day. Is that happiness? You tell me.

    “I must admit that if you want to make your heart truly sing, you do have to do work that is worth doing.” Yes one must really care about the cause of ones calling or about the people one is serving.

    What I disagree with.

    Just because you’re good at something it doesn’t mean it’s a calling. I was an award winning sales rep for 23 years and it wasn’t even close to a calling for me.

    “Your heart can sing in so many ways.” Yes but that doesn’t make it your calling. My heart sings when I play rugby but I wasn’t called to play.

    A calling is a sacred vocation. Can we have more than one in a lifetime? Yes I think so but I also think that at any given time there is only one sweet spot of a true calling.

    I like Frederich Buechner’s defintion. “Vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” That’s more than happiness my friend. that is a compelling inner urge tat calls you forth to authentically express in the way that only you can. It’s far better than happiness – that’s fulfillment.

  2. Thank you…As I make changes in my own life I needed to read this. As supportive as the people around me are, they don’t seem to get that you can do more than 1 thing in this world to make a living. I remember when I first quit my job reading something that said I don’t have to rely on one income source to make a living…that was a breath of fresh air and have kept it with me ever since!

  3. This needed to be said. Good for you. Been through enough “careers” to know how true your words are. I’m constantly floored by admonishments to find the one thing I’m passionate about. T’ain’t possible.

  4. I agree with Tom that many things we can do succesfully don’t ring any bells within us. I also agree that in our own way, we have to feel as if we are working to make a difference in people’s lives, or in the world (what’s the difference?)and that God is smiling at our efforts.

  5. Ooooh one of my favourite topics!

    Personally I have found you need to find joy in the actual work – I’ve had jobs I hated where the actual work was great, and jobs I’ve really hated where the actual work was not joyful for me… This is often about what makes your heart happy, and what you are willing to compromise on for your heart to be happy.

    I’ve also had jobs I’ve loved where the work was quite basic (not my normal style!) but the experience is now contributing greatly to my true calling!

    Lately I’ve been reading about the ‘Renaissance Man’ lifestyle – for me to live multiple blisses which all connect is more fun than I could ever have imagined!

    My question is why decide on the ‘one true….’ anything? What if you could just keep choosing more than you can imagine right now…? could that take you on a multifaceted journey that will make your heart happy over and over?

  6. I’ve always been surprised by how it’s not necessarily the job or work, but changing your how or changing your why … or even just finding your way, that can make all the difference.

    For me, I found that by living my values, I can take my game wherever I go. Before I had that lens, I chased the what’s, when the real secret was just unleashing the why and the how.

  7. Hi Karl,

    This is a great article. The other part of this myth that you haven’t discussed here is the advice to “do what you love and the money will follow.” Well, not necessarily. These are both oversimplifications that, to some extent, are based on wishful thinking. Neither “philosophy” mentions all the hard work that’s involved in the process of turning your passion or calling into a viable career.

    I absolutely agree that in order to be happy in your work or your current job,you need to be really clear about your core self and how that’s expressed at work–or whether you can even express it at work. It isn’t just about what you’re good at or what makes your heart sing, it also means being crystal clear about your values and the kind of environment and structure that works best for you, etc. I’m increasingly beginning to think that a major key to feeling that you are doing meaningful work is to make sure that there is a good fit between your values and temperament or work style and those of your employer.

    I’m wondering if the bigger concern is that too much of our identity–our self image,worth and perceived value–are tied up with our paid work. Perhaps culturally our entire value system is skewed as to what gets defined as “meaningful” or valuable work. Often if an activity cannot be assigned a dollar value then it’s somehow devalued. Personally, some of the most meaningful work I’ve done has been on a volunteer basis.

    As for identifying your one true calling and locking into that as the only means of earning an income, I think that’s completely misguided advice in this day and age. I think we’re more likely to thrive if we have some diversity rather than too much specialization. Just think about what happens in the environment or agriculture if there is not enough diversity and balance….

    Have a great day, everyone.

  8. Karl,

    I’ve watched that television show “Undercover Boss” now for a few weeks. What always stands out is how happy many of the lower level people are doing the work most people think is unimportant. I think we sometimes forget “where ever we go there we are.” It’s not always the type of work we do…it’s the attitude and values we have that can make or break us no matter what we do. Give me the job of my dreams and if I’m miserable I’ll mess it up.

  9. Karl – this is by far the BEST piece you have every written in my opinion!!!!

    I have already sent this article to my sister and will be spreading it like wild fire.

    What you have said here, every single paragraph is like the big secret that we all should know, but don’t know about connecting the ever necessary thread of happiness and work.

    It comes from the core, and yeah, if one is happy inside they will find a way to be happy doing almost anything. I know personally that is the case for me.

    I honestly cannot say enough on how good, relevant and valueble this article was…I think it should be the cornerstone of your whole approach, or at least included in the “best of Work Happy Now” or something like that 🙂

  10. Karl,
    It’s definitely about making some sort of connection to that “something deeper” within us. And when we can do that – really – the sky is the limit. At our core level, I believe we can find things which, at their very basis, can take us in many directions and still feed that core “us”.

    Anyway, great article to read today…

  11. Hi Stacey, Yes. We actually need to be able to do more than one thing to make a living. Every entrepreneur and “career go getter” needs to be able to do some level of marketing, accounting, sales, public speaking, create new products/services, etc. They end up failing or hitting a plateau if they don’t push outside their comfort zone a little bit.

  12. Hi Tom, I knew this would get you excited. I’m so glad you left a comment. You make a lot of great points.

    I agree that just because a person is good at something, it doesn’t make it a calling. The opposite holds true too. Someone may love something, but it isn’t meant to be turned into a career. Sometimes it’s better if they didn’t. Van Gogh made a go of his painting career and it sent him into the madhouse. Yes he was a genius, but his one true calling overwhelmed him.

    Your Buechner quote is awesome. We have such a need to do work worth doing. It helps us live longer and feel connected to a larger tribe.

    The thing is it’s not the only thing that can make us happy. We also need a support network and time to develop ourselves in other ways. It’s why I’m a big proponent of personal development in the workplace because someone that loves working face to face with clients might learn that they are also amazing at copy writing if given a chance.

    You also make a good point about the sweet spot. Like any business/entrepreneur/career go getter, we need to expand when the going is good. This is hard to reach, that’s why I love your message. We can’t give up because something is hard. We need to explore this new world with passion.

  13. Hi Dorothy, When we make a difference through our work, we are connecting with our actions. That’s what doing great work is all about. It’s why engaged parents get so much more out of their families then parents who put their careers ahead of their family. They put in the quality time and reap the rewards.

  14. Hi J.D., Brilliant point. I didn’t talk enough about this in the article. A lost soul won’t be able to do great work until she has found the ability to adjust to the work. This happens when a person uncovers her values through friendships, actions and reflection. She can truly take her game in any direction.

    I like that you call this skill a lens because you are right. It’s all about attitude.

  15. Hi Lisa, I love the idea of multiple blisses that all connect. Such a beautiful way of saying it. When we get too focused on one thing we lose out on potentially great experiences.

    With that being said I must say that I’ve given up too quickly on some projects, so there is value in sticking with something through the dip. That’s why knowing our needs is so important. We must know why we should put so much time and effort into something. If it isn’t worth our efforts then it’s time to move on.

  16. Hi Sue, So very true. I could walk my dog all day long, which I love to do, but it’s not going to make me money. Making a business out of what you love is so very hard. Sometimes it’s better to keep that “dog walking” as a hobby because it’s the one thing that you can rely on to reduce stress.

    Values are a much under appreciated part of a career. I may love the idea of marketing organic soy milk to people, but if I work for a company that wants me to disparage regular milk drinkers because it sells more than I’m not living my values.

    We should be finding work that we can connect with, but we also need to find harmony through family, hobbies, and just goofing off.

  17. Hi Tess, Working in the present moment is so very important. A lot of times I lose sight of this when I’m doing a tedious task. In my head I may be complaining about tweaking my blog for SEO, but when I take a moment and think how lucky I am to be given such a platform, I stop complaining and start enjoying again.

  18. Hi Karl,

    How in the world do people think that there is one true calling? I ask this in seriousness because it is fascinating to me that people think that their calling is one thing. It is like saying you can only like one type of food. So if you could explain to me why people think it is one thing, I would really appreciate it.

    Your point about how our perception of the work affects the work is true. However, I have to tell you, I am a big believer in having a career that you love. And if you feel that the job does not fulfill you, then it is time to leave. In my case, I grew up in a house where one parent lived their passion and so I have seen it in action. I am now living it too. It took years to get to this point but it was worth it.

    So yes, our perceptions do matter and sometimes we need to expand our wings and find something that speaks to us on a deeper level. You get out of life as much as you put into it.

  19. I enjoyed this post very much. You have brought up a number of great points. I would certainly find life boring if I am only doing one thing alone. In creating the work I do now, I realize that each part is an expression of who I am.

    I also think that it works both ways – finding peace and happiness in the jobs we are already in; and also, creating work that we love (which means that we may have to quit something that no longer fulfills us). There is a need to distinguish what are the root issues that are causing unhappiness.

    Like you, I don’t believe in being irresponsible. There are bills to pay. But we should start planning or taking small steps towards building a life of our own design.

  20. Hi Nadia, We have so many gifts. There is no reason to get too caught up in that one thing. We need to “flow like water” I think that’s a Zen Proverb. When we stop being a big bully to ourselves, we can naturally do work that makes us feel good as well as deliver value that knocks people’s socks off.

    I also agree with you. We need to do work that connects with our values. When we do work that we love to do we are playing, not just working.

  21. You should read Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. He interviewed a career counselor who observed “the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited– long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms– what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were informed by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling.'”

  22. Hi Laura Lee, Sounds like a great book. We think we should be in a different place in our lives, until our current state is changed. Then we realize how good we had it. We need to be aware of how good we have it on a daily basis. There are many ways to enjoy our careers and if we aren’t aware of this we are blind many facets of our happiness.

  23. I absolutely agree that in order to be happy in your work or your current job,you need to be really clear about your core self and how that’s expressed at work–or whether you can even express it at work. It isn’t just about what you’re good at or what makes your heart sing, it also means being crystal clear about your values and the kind of environment and structure that works best for you, etc. I’m increasingly beginning to think that a major key to feeling that you are doing meaningful work is to make sure that there is a good fit between your values and temperament or work style and those of your employer.
    +1

  24. Oh boy, where to start. I think you do make some valid points, and I also align to a certain extent with the comments made by Tom Volkar. There seems to be these two camps: one where you need to work at what you love, and the other which asserts that you can learn to love pretty much any kind of work (you just need to develop yourself). I am mostly in the first camp, but have a foot in the second. Let me explain. First, I have seen many people miserable in certain careers, but when they switched to something they enjoyed a lot more it completely changed them and their lives for the better. I could give you a list of hundreds that I know off, but there are probably 100s of thousands, if not millions, of people who have successfully pulled this off. Michelle Paver, a stressed out lawyer, now a successful author. Turning to her love of writing saved her from a nervous breakdown. Barry Eisler, former lawyer and CIA agent, now a hugely successful author with one film and many books to his name, Tim Brownson, life coach, former sales executive who was so burnt out from stress that he sought out a stress management course and ended up a successful life coach who loves his new life. I could go on and on and on. It is possible to find a happier life, by finding work you love, your true calling if you will, although there might be many of them that would potentially suit. However, I still have a foot in the other camp because I know from experience that finding that “true calling”, or work you love, is not an easy road, and as Tom points out, most decent coaches never claim it’s an easy thing to pull off, it ain’t. Maybe the answer is to work on both approaches, and see which one delivers happiness for you.

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