Over the past 20 years, I have interviewed thousands of incredibly successful individuals — their success being why I, as a headhunter, was talking to them in the first place. Most of these successful individuals were unsatisfied in their work — which, of course, was why they were talking to me, a headhunter.
You might think I was interviewing people who were working soulless jobs in faceless corporations, but you’d be wrong. I was retained by purpose-forward nonprofits looking for mission-driven employees.
So then, why weren’t these people with a calling happy? Because we have gotten the very idea of a “calling” all wrong.
We think a calling can only mean cause-related work, as if “purpose” must always be preceded by “lofty.” In reality, knowing that your work is directly involved in making the world a better place is just one of the many possible interpretations of what makes a calling.
A cause doesn’t have to be part of the equation for everyone. In fact, for some people, a cause can even be detrimental to the pursuit of purpose. The sacrifices they make in order to serve — their willingness to accept a lower salary, fewer benefits, and less flexibility — make them less connected, less contributory, and less in control than they would otherwise be.
Ask yourself: Why does my calling have to be a higher calling? Why can’t it simply be the overarching thing that guides the decisions I make about my career? Can’t I have purpose if I am building a company, building a community, building a family? Isn’t that enough?
There are four simple ways to find your true calling:
1. Find What Fuels You
A calling is your own personal higher purpose. It can be an overarching motivation, a goal to reach, a problem to solve, a societal ill to remedy, or a worthwhile cause to serve. It can be a bottom line to meet, a business to build, or a brand to love. In essence, a calling is simply the direction of some overall goal and the particular pride you attach to that goal. (And yes, if you are an entrepreneur, you can be your own calling.)
What matters is that the calling, the brand, the bigger thing to which you are attached has meaning to you. It is your why.
2. Make Deposits in the Future Bank of You
Following your passion and figuring out what you love to do is a good thing, but making that one thing define your entire career is not. As you grow and evolve throughout your life — as you master tasks and solve puzzles — you will naturally seek out new challenges. Having the guts to confront those challenges is part of investing in your passion.
If you hold too tightly to one identity, losing it — “Who am I if not an accountant (or lawyer, or teacher, or bricklayer)?” — can be so unsettling that career recalibration feels overwhelming. Instead, think about what you love to do with a more aspirational mindset. That is, think about what you’d like to love to do in the future, not just what you have loved to do in the past. The space in between what you are qualified to do and what you want to do is the credit advance you get on that passion investment; it is the nest egg of skills, network, and knowledge you’ll need to acquire. These are all deposits in the Future Bank of You.
3. Take an Attention Inventory
As you think about what you are qualified to do, don’t stop at the borders of your paid work. This is where many fail in the quest to turn work into a calling. They rely solely on how others have defined them in terms of their day jobs, and they forget to look at the broader picture of the skills and competencies on which they have focused their attention.
You have probably gathered skills at work that are readily inventoried, but what about the rest of the hours in your day outside of work? Better still, what have you done in your workplace that is outside of your regular job? Perhaps it’s something you think doesn’t belong on your resume because it’s not in your job description. Maybe it’s an aptitude or proficiency that feels like ancient history to you because it’s from several jobs back. Why aren’t you boasting about these skills that you still have in spades?
4. Tend Your Crops
Perhaps you don’t have the luxury to go out and find your calling right now. There are still things you can and should do today — right now! — to start the process of figuring out your calling, and they all involve increasing your optionality.
Put another way, these are classic video-game side quests. Just ask my teenage son, who first introduced me to this concept one morning when I was moaning about being stuck and unable to move forward on a project.
“Mom,” he patiently explained, “it’s like when you need to go slay the dragon so you can save the princess in the castle, but first you have to wait for your friends to log on and play with you. While you wait, you can go tend your crops so you have wheat to sell at the market, and then you can buy a horse and a sword that you know you’ll need later when you come upon that dragon.”
Side quests are related to your larger goal, but not on the direct path to that goal. Allow yourself to reframe your current problem as an opportunity to collect people, knowledge, networks, and resources you will need later. Say yes to the networking event. Talk to strangers. Take a class. Ask to tag along to a presentation. You never know whom you might meet, what you might learn, where your interests will pull you, or what dragons you’ll slay.
Laura Gassner Otting is the author of Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life.