It seems everywhere you look today people are talking about what they’re meant to do. In different contexts with different language, we are all saying the same thing. We want our lives to matter.
Whether you think of this as a spiritual calling or as a more pragmatic approach to living a life full of purpose, chances are you’ve thought these same things. I can’t go into a coffee shop or restaurant where I don’t overhear someone at some point talking about this idea.
Is this just a passing fad or the future of work?
I read a study recently that said over 87% of the world’s workers are disengaged with their jobs. This means they either hate their work or are merely indifferent to it, punching a clock to earn a paycheck before they go home to do what they really want.
I don’t know about you, but this seems to be a problem. Is work just a means of making a living, or can it also be a means to a meaningful life?
At the end of WWII, when many men were returning to the factories and many women to their homes, Dorothy Sayers wrote a prophetic essay entitled, “Why Work?”
In the essay, she explained that work was not just a means to an end, but that the work in itself was the end. The worker, she reasoned, ought to serve the work. She was afraid of people losing the purpose they found during the War when aligning their lives around a central purpose and wanted to warn people of the dangers of seeing work as an optional luxury as opposed to a human necessity.
We are facing the same crisis today. There are so many messages on blogs and in the self-help section of your bookstore, all preaching the same Gospel: work is something that we should escape from. But what if that just wasn’t true?
Around the same time that Dorothy Sayers was crafting her essay on why we must work, a young Hungarian man named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was finishing up his tenure at an Italian work camp, where he learned to divert his attention away from his captivity using chess.
Later, Csikszentmihalyi would introduce some revolutionary ideas to the world of psychology, regarding work and creativity, arguing that we we need to find true happiness is to get in a state of flow.
Flow, Csikszentmihalyi says, is the tension between competency and challenge. It’s where what you’re good at meets what’s difficult. This is what we need more of in our work if we are going to be truly happy.
If the task is too easy, you become bored. And if you’re not good enough at it, it creates anxiety. The most fulfilling state for a human being is to not be at rest or to be overly stressed; it’s to reside in a state of flow.
So does everyone have a calling? Maybe. But perhaps a better question is: what will we do if we don’t work? What will we become?
And what kind of work ought we be doing? The kind that forces us to grow, that calls our very best out of us, and that hopefully makes a difference in the world.
No Sidebar: At Work
Too many of us were told to follow a series of steps, that if we did the right things — went to school, got good grades, took a few internships — we would eventually be happy.
And now, many us realize we were duped. The world of work is broken, and the way back is through a practical but introspective journey.
When considering what your calling is, most people think it comes down to passion. But that’s not the whole picture. Passion is not enough. You need to take what you love and connect it with the needs of the world in a way that allows you do excellent work.
No Sidebar: At Home
You are not just what you do. Everything in life is part of your vocation, not just your job. In 1989, Charles Handy predicted that more of us would eventually live portfolio lives — lives in which what we did for a living was not relegated to a 9-to-5.
As an entrepreneur, I am often reminded of the importance of play. Psychology shows that regular breaks and diversions can actually lead to better work. Working more doesn’t necessarily mean working better.
And as a writer, I keep running into the fact that if I am going to writing something worth reading, I need to be living a life worth writing about.
No Sidebar: In Your Soul
If we are going to discover what we were meant to do, we cannot just look for opportunities. We also have to become more aware of who we really are. “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it,” author Parker Palmer wrote, “I have to listen to my life telling me who I am.”
Listening to your life is an essential practice is understanding who you are before you can decide what you should do.
But listening will only get you so far. At a certain point, you have take action, which can be scary. Chasing your dream is a bold, fear-facing journey that will require courage. But the reality is that there will always be fear. We just need to listen to the greater fear of not mattering that pushes out the lesser fear of failure.
Finding your calling will be the most difficult but most fulfilling thing you do. It won’t necessarily make you rich or famous, but when you are on your death bed contemplating how you spent your life, it will make you smile.