“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Maya Angelou
I love Maya Angelou’s description of a successful life: not just surviving but thriving; with passion, compassion, humor, and style. Our vocation, depending on what we choose for ourselves and how we go about doing that work, has a lot to do with whether we feel like we are just surviving or happily thriving.
The origin of the word “vocation” gives an insight into how significant choosing the right vocation is, how it can serve our wellbeing and our capacity for making a positive contribution. “Vocation” is from the Latin vocationem, which is literally “a calling.” In the early fifteenth century it was considered a “spiritual calling.” Which is why author Parker Palmer writes that “Vocation is not a goal to be achieved, it is a gift to receive.”
I have had several different careers. I wouldn’t call all of them my vocation because some were definitely not my calling. In some jobs I learned a lot but barely survived emotionally. In others – including the job I have now – it feels like what I do serves my soul and makes a difference beyond myself, improving something that matters to me. I know from personal experience what a life-changing difference it makes doing something that is personally meaningful, professionally impactful, and that matches one’s values, aptitudes, talents, and skills.
Thriving at work doesn’t depend on salary, job title, power, or status. It depends on applying our unique talents and strengths toward something that interests us in ways that fully deploy them and generate positive impacts beyond our own personal satisfaction. This is a main point in Melissa Everett’s book Making a Living While Making a Difference. She writes: “Matching this ‘impact factor’ with the workplaces that need what you have… connects you with the work opportunities where you will genuinely fit and thrive.”
But finding that match is not always easy. It took me almost fifteen years into my professional life to find that match. I eventually became so miserable doing what I was doing that I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to seek out something meaningful. I know the same is true for many mid-career professionals who experience a midlife crisis, wondering how they ever got where they are and why they are doing what they are doing.
Finding that match isn’t easy for high school and college students either (which is why so many folks end up with a midlife crisis). In his book Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life former Yale professor William Deresiewicz describes how easy it is for students to get caught up in the processes of resume-building, chasing grades, choosing a career based on status or earning potential without deeply considering what might be their calling. He quotes one of his students: “You cannot say to a Yalie ‘find your passion.’ Most of us do not know how.”
Here’s the good news. All of us have the capacity to find our passion, even if we haven’t yet had much practice in seeking it. The Romans offer us more guidance and assurance in the Latin word “genius.” Romans believed that we all have genius within us, which they defined as an inner spirit that guides us to our calling.
So, not only do each of us have a calling (vocation) native to us, we have an inner spirit (genius) that guides us to that calling. And to be clear: our true vocation can manifest itself in a variety of fields and specific jobs that utilize our unique talents and skills.
It took me getting to a state of abject misery, sticking with a job (that paid very well) for more than ten years, before I began listening to my inner genius, which did indeed lead me to my calling.
There is no need to wait that long or until abject misery sets in. It heartens me to be interacting with so many talented and insightful students who are already listening to their inner genius and who can articulate their passion.
In the January 12, 2017 issue of The Plainsman on page 11 there is a column entitled “Self over salary: Major with passion in mind, not payday.” Columnist Emily Hale tells her story of changing majors, facing doubts, and ultimately connecting with a new field of study that awakened her joy of learning and felt so right.
Here is her advice: “When making decisions that will influence your lifelong career trajectory, pick subjects and endeavors that bring you great joy. Do things you are good at. When you’re passionate and talented, your vision and outlook are contagious.” Based on my own personal experience I have to say that Emily’s advice is wise, insightful, and overall most excellent.