For most of us, the idea that there’s one career out there that we’re meant to do is a shaky proposition at best.
In many ways we’re right to be skeptical. I’ve already addressed some of the biggest myths about finding your calling, but it bears repeating that your calling isn’t necessarily just one thing; it can take many forms and change over time; and it certainly isn’t going to make all your problems go away.
Still, I do believe that, as Rumi eloquently put it, “everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”
Many of us doubt this seemingly too-good-to-be-true promise because we think that if we’re meant to do some type of work, it should be obvious by now. But that’s not the way the world works, especially these days.
In a culture that encourages us to disconnect from who we are and what we most deeply want, the work that calls us isn’t written across the sky. Instead, it shows itself in scattered bits and pieces that require interpretation and are easy to miss if you aren’t looking for them.
To help you know where to look, here’s a list of twelve forms these clues can take:
1. You loved to do it as a child.
For many of us, our calling expressed itself much more naturally when we were kids. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to recognize: I loved to write stories when I was young, but it still took me almost twenty years to realize that writing was a part of my calling (to find out why, see #11 below).
In addition, you might need to interpret your childhood joys. For example, if you liked to explore the woods behind your house, get curious about what exactly it was that you loved: Discovering new paths? Being in nature? Learning about the wider world? Moving your body? Experiencing beauty? Making up stories about what you saw? Sharing your discoveries with others?
What matters isn’t so much what you did, but what about it touched your heart and soul, your sense of possibility, or your experience of who you are.
2. You feel energized after doing it.
This one is more straightforward: Which activities leave you feeling more energized than when you started? What can you do for a long time without getting tired?
If you’re not sure, keep an energy journal for a few weeks, pay attention to your body as you do various activities in and outside of work, and note how each impacts your energy—both its quality and its quantity.
3. It brings you joy.
This is another intuitive one, but a lot of people can’t find their calling because nothing they’re doing makes them feel joyful. If this is your situation, you can try two things: first, engage in some new activities, and secondly, expand your definition of what joy is.
For some people, joy feels like happiness. For others, it’s more like love, fulfillment, excitement, strength, relaxation, ease, energy, or freedom. Similarly, while joy can be intense, it isn’t always, and especially in the beginning stages it more often shows up as a vague and only slightly more positive, promising, or expansive emotion than what you were feeling previously.
Follow your ambiguous feeling of somewhat improved well being doesn’t sound as romantic as follow your bliss, but it’s practically the same thing.
4. You want to learn about it.
When my husband tries to explain to me how a machine he built works, my eyes glaze over and I have no idea what he’s talking about. But when I’m reading about human growth and development, the words enter my brain quickly and easily make sense.
You aren’t born already skillful at your calling, or being an expert in it, but if it’s not easy to learn, it’s at least enjoyable.
5. It makes you lose track of time.
This one is pretty self explanatory as well, though it’s important to know the difference between flow and compulsion.
Flow, your true calling clue, is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” (according to Wikipedia). Compulsion is the somewhat addictive territory we all sometimes find ourselves in when seeking endless approval, dopamine hits, or distraction on social media, video games, or television.
The difference isn’t what you’re doing but how engaged you feel while doing it—in other words, whether you’re checked in or checked out when you lose track of time.
6. You’re excited to talk to others about it.
You know how sometimes when you meet someone the conversation is halting and awkward as you try to find common ground or else feign interest in the weather? And other times, when you realize that you share a hobby or interest, time flies by as the conversation seems to propel itself forward of its own accord without any effort from you?
This may be obvious, but in case it’s not: Whatever you find yourself talking about in the second scenario is very likely a key part of your calling.
7. It’s how you make sense of the world.
My mother always said that as a kid, if I could just name what was going on and find an image to describe it, I could make peace with it. Like the time when I was five and my mother and I kept getting into big fights and power struggles. One day I informed her that the problem was that I felt like I ought to be king, and she ought to be my servant. Apparently I felt much better after that, having put my feelings into words, though I’m not sure that my mother shared my relief.
Words and metaphors are my cup of tea. My husband, however, prefers to see how things work directly in order to figure them out. He observes people’s actions when he wants to understand them, and when he needs to learn how to do something, videos are his go-to form of instruction.
You can learn a lot from how you most easily perceive, process, and make sense of information. For example, which senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell) are you most attuned to? Are you more literal or symbolic? Linear or associative? Do you think in words, sounds, images, feelings, sensations, or something else?
Like the other clues, none of these are likely to point you towards any one job, but taken together, they can help you find a direction.
8. Others associate it with you.
It took me a long time to realize that nature is a big part of my calling. Interestingly, others seemed to figure this out long before I did. For years people commented on my love of animals or gave me paintings, sculptures, and knick knacks depicting them. What was clearly obvious to them didn’t become apparent to me until some time later, however, when I realized that of the many things I care about, animals and nature are perhaps closest to my heart.
9. You’re jealous of others who do it.
I was listening recently to the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression and heard several comedians say that before they began doing comedy, they would watch stand-up and either feel jealous of the people on stage or else critique them harshly, thinking, “I can do that.” This often happened years before they began doing stand-up themselves.
Most of us have our own version of this, and we can learn a lot from it. Jealousy isn’t so good at illuminating the truth about others, but it can point us towards our own unacknowledged longings quite effectively.
10. You talk yourself out of it.
When I was twelve, I wrote a novel out of pure love. Yet for the next twenty years, I somehow convinced myself that I wasn’t really a writer.
Similarly, when I was twenty-five, a mental, emotional, and spiritual breakdown made me pay more attention to my thoughts and feelings, identify my patterns, and—with lots of help—find ways to change them for the better. I realized pretty early on that I enjoyed and had a knack for this type of work, and yet I told myself that I wouldn’t want to earn a living doing it because helping people heal would carry with it too much pressure.
Why would I go to such lengths to avoid doing more of the things that brought me joy? In short, because I was scared; because I wanted it so much, and because it really mattered to me, it felt like there was more to lose. As Stephen Pressfield says, “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
If you’re like me, you won’t recognize the fear directly, but if you find yourself talking yourself out of something, there’s a good chance it’s because you’re scared, and that means…
You can be sure that you have to do it.
11. It keeps popping up.
I don’t believe that we only get one chance to do the work that we’re here to do (which is lucky, given that we just saw how tenaciously many of us resist it).
I first found evidence to support this belief when I met a woman who was worried that she’d make the wrong choice and miss her dream job altogether. The idea actually made me laugh, because even if she’d let go of her calling, it had clearly never let go of her.
This woman loved animals and photography and had thought about becoming a pet photographer when she was in her twenties. Deciding that was too impractical, she opted instead to get a graduate degree and landed a job at a local university. Ten years later, however, she was surprised to find that she had very little free time because her friends had seen some photos she took of her dogs and were overwhelming her with requests to take pictures of their own pets. In other words, despite her best efforts, she’d come full circle back to her calling.
Since then, I’ve had many other clients who have had the same idea arise again and again in various forms over the years, but they were never quite sure that it was right for them. So they went through the coaching process, taking the time to identify their power, passion, and purpose, brainstorm possibilities, and explore different options, only to land on the very same idea that kept popping up previously.
If you’re too stubborn to recognize an idea that’s calling you, don’t be surprised if it grabs hold of you and refuses to let go, usually by finding a way to get your attention over and over until you finally see that you need it as much as it needs you.
12. It feels worthwhile regardless of the outcome.
There are many good reasons to care about outcomes: our need to provide food, shelter, and clothing for ourselves or our families, for example; our legitimate longing to be recognized for our talents; or our desire to have a powerful positive impact on the world.
But there are other, equally compelling reasons to do things simply because we want to, regardless of how they turn out: namely, because we won’t experience joy, freedom, or a sense of belonging if we don’t.
Here’s what I mean:
- I choose to have chickens regardless of how many eggs they lay (which is not as many as you might think, by the way) because I love the little brats so much;
- I help others reconnect to themselves and hear their wisest inner guidance regardless of how much money I make doing it because it feels natural; and
- I commit to writing stories regardless of whether or not lots of people like hem, or even read them, because it brings me so much joy.
Do I hope that someday I write a bestseller, make tons of money coaching, or have chickens who don’t stop laying eggs every time the temperature, their mood, and the planets and stars aren’t perfectly aligned? Of course I do.
Will the form these activities take shift based on the practical realities of my life? You bet.
But will I stop doing these things just because the outcomes aren’t guaranteed? Not a chance.
I hope that you too can find something that’s worth doing no matter how it turns out. Even better, I hope that you give yourself permission to actually do it.