I used to envy the people who always knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.  It didn’t matter if their dream was to be a firefighter, doctor, or garbage collector—it was the certainty I craved, not the career itself.

Whenever somebody asked me as a child what work I wanted to do, I had no idea and just made something up.  I wasn’t any more certain by college, and I decided on my major (English) because I got tired of reading non-fiction and wanted to read more novels.

Even after graduation I still had no clarity.  I worked for years in many different types of jobs that I kind-of liked but didn’t feel at home in.

I longed to find my place in the world like some others I had seen, but after so many years, I began to doubt whether that was even possible for me.

What Doesn’t Lead to Clarity

Fast-forward fourteen years, and I’m finally doing work that feels like home to me.  It’s  fun, inspiring, fulfilling, and incredibly rewarding.  It’s certainly challenging at times as well and has its less-than-enjoyable moments, but I feel like I’m finally putting my greatest gifts to good use.

The key to discovering my calling, and to continually following it as it changes, no matter where it leads, is different than what I expected.

It didn’t come from a childhood dream.

It didn’t come in a blinding stroke of insight.

It didn’t come from an assessment that told me what I was good at or what I would enjoy.

It didn’t come from doing work that seemed reasonable, that felt safe, or that I thought I should be doing.

It certainly didn’t come from somebody else telling me what they thought was right for me.

The Key to Your Calling

What helped me clarify my calling was simply this: listening to myself.

It was only after developing a habit of self reflection that I finally got clear on what I wanted to do in life and what the world was calling for from me.

We all have many reasons for not listening to ourselves in daily life: We’re too busy.  We don’t know how.  We don’t want to feel the discomfort of the painful feelings that inevitably arise.

Or maybe we’re afraid of what we’ll find if we listen to what we really want.

And yet when we don’t tune into our internal world, we’re like a house whose thermostat is out on the porch.

This poor house will fruitlessly blow hot or cold air into its rooms based on conditions outside; it won’t know what’s actually needed within its doors to reach its desired temperature.

Similarly, when we don’t listen to ourselves, we don’t know what we need.  Maybe we’re hungry, or cold, or tired.  Maybe we’re scared and in need of reassurance.  Maybe we’re angry and need to speak up. If we don’t stop to listen to what’s happening inside, we’ll never know.

When we start to pay attention to our internal world—our mood, our reactions, our current experience—it’s like taking the thermostat from the porch and bringing it back indoors.  It closes the feedback loop and allows us to adjust and respond based on accurate, up-to-date information.

The Most Powerful Thing You Can Do Today

There are many ways to listen in to yourself, and it can take some experimentation to find what works for you.

To get started, try one of the following ideas today and see how it works for you.  Then try another one tomorrow and another one the next day.  Once you’ve tried them all and seen what’s most effective for you, commit to doing at least one a day.

  • Meditate.  Insight (or Vipassana) and body scan meditations are particularly good ways to turn your attention towards your current experience.  I recommend starting with 5-10 minutes of meditation daily and building from there.  Remember that the goal isn’t to quiet your mind, but rather to get to know your internal world, so there’s no way to do this wrong if you do it with sincerity.  Headspace.com has some great resources for beginning meditators, RelaxLikeaBoss.com has a thorough and actionable free mindfulness guide, and mindfulness instructor Augusta Hopkins offers multiple body scan meditations on her website for free.
  • Write.  For some people, writing is the key to self discovery.  Bestselling  author Julia Cameron recommends writing 3 pages every morning as a way of breaking through creative blocks.  To practice this form of self reflection, set a timer for 10-15 minutes once a day and then write, stream-of-consciousness style, about anything that comes to you.  Don’t worry about being eloquent or profound.  Just move your pen the entire time, even if you have to write: “I have no idea what to say” until something else comes to you.
  • Check in with yourself regularlyI personally find it very helpful to take a few minutes 2-3 times a day to get curious about how I’m feeling and why.  One way to do this is to pause before you eat a meal and observe:  What is your mood right now?  What body sensations do you notice?  What have you been thinking about?  If you notice a strong internal reaction, it can be helpful to become curious:  What are you responding to?  Why are you feeling the way you are?  What are you wanting?
  • Talk with othersSome people become more aware of their internal world by sharing it with others.  If saying things out loud tends to create more clarity for you, then it can be helpful to talk to others regularly.  Make sure, however, to find someone who can listen without offering their own opinions or advice.  This is a time to get clarity about yourself, not input from others.  The best way to ensure this is to ask the person directly for what you need before you get started.
  • Move your body.  Some people struggle with sitting still for meditation, and involving the body can sometimes make it easier.  Yoga is one form of moving meditation, but walking, dancing, or just about anything else that moves your body can work as well.  The key to this form of self reflection is paying attention to your experience as you move.  You might do this by focusing on your breath, or on sensations in your body, or on what you feel in your core.  Whatever you do, do it daily and keep bringing your attention back to your current experience as you move, over and over again.

Over to You

What are your favorite forms of self reflection?  What helps you listen in and take your current temperature?

I’d love to hear from you.  Please share your experience in the comments below.

The Perfect Opportunity for Listening In

The next Pathfinders (a Group Hike and Discussion to Discover Your Calling) is coming up on Saturday, June 27th.

This event is an opportunity to combine several powerful methods for self reflection in a beautiful environment with a supportive community.

You’ll talk with peers about what’s happening for you in your search for work you love.  You’ll have the chance to meditate and practice checking in with yourself.  And you’ll  move your body as you walk in the woods, one of the most effective environments for gaining insight and clarity.

As one participant put it: “The metaphor of finding one’s path became real through this grounding experience of connecting with nature and other people from an array of backgrounds. The conversations I had helped me process what I want in my career and in life. Perhaps most importantly, it reminded me that many of the questions we ask ourselves are universally human. And that everyone truly has unique gifts to give the world.”

To find out more or to register to join us, click here.

If you liked this post, you can sign up for my newsletter in the box below and share it with others using the buttons that follow.  If you sign up for my newsletter, I’ll send ideas, tips, and resources for meaningful career change to you for free every other week.

Photo credit: Woodley Wonderworks // CC