You don’t “find your calling,” you fight for it — and other lessons from people who found their passion (sometimes late in life).
Whether it was during a career aptitude test or in a heart-to-heart chat after getting laid off, chances are someone has talked to you about how to “find your calling.” It’s one of those phrases people toss about. But StoryCorps founder Dave Isay takes issue with it … specifically, the verb.
“Finding your calling — it’s not passive,” he says. “When people have found their calling, they’ve made tough decisions and sacrifices in order to do the work they were meant to do.”
In other words, you don’t just “find” your calling — you have to fight for it. And it’s worth the fight. “People who’ve found their calling have a fire about them,” says Isay, the winner of the 2015 TED Prize. “They’re the people who are dying to get up in the morning and go do their work.”
Over a decade of listening to StoryCorps interviews, Isay noticed that people often share the story of how they discovered their calling — and now, he’s collected dozens of great stories on the subject into a new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. Below, he shares 7 takeaways from the hard-won fight to find the work you love.
1. Your calling is at the intersection of a Venn diagram of three things: doing something you’re good at, feeling appreciated, and believing your work is making people’s lives better. “When those three things line up, it’s like lightning,” Isay says. He doesn’t suggest that a person has to be a surgeon saving lives to feel like they have a calling; think of the diner waitress who talks to customers and makes them feel loved. How do you find this overlap? “You have to shut out all the chatter of what your friends are telling you to do, what your parents are telling you to do, what society is telling you to do,” Isay says, “and just go to that quiet place inside you that knows the truth.”
2. Your calling often comes out of difficult experiences. What lurks in that quiet place will be a defining experience — quite possibly a painful one. I say points to an interview in Callings with 24-year-old teacher Ayodeji Ogunniyi. “He was studying to be a doctor when his father was murdered. He realized that what he was really meant to do was be a teacher,” says I say. “He says that every time he walks into a classroom, his father is walking in with him.” This theme of people turning their hardest experiences into a new path runs throughout the book. “Having an experience that really shakes you and reminds you of your mortality can be a very clarifying event in people’s lives. Oftentimes, it leads to changes,” he says. “We spend a lot of time working, so it can really change your priorities in terms of work life.”
3. Calling often takes courage and ruffles feathers. Elsewhere in Callings, we hear about Wendell Scott, who became the first African-American NASCAR driver in 1952, and kept on driving despite threats against his life. From scientist Dorothy Warburton who dealt with extreme sexism as she conducted research to break the stigma around miscarriage. From Burnell Cotlon, who opened the first grocery store in the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina because he wasn’t about to let his old neighborhood’s spirit fade. Calling, says Isay, very often starts with taking a stand against a status quo that simply isn’t acceptable, and then dedicating your work to changing it: “It’s work ignited by hope, love, or defiance — and stoked by purpose and persistence.”