Your Life's Calling, Current Professional Goals
I’ve had more to do with people finding work in line with their “calling” than most people. As one of the founders of Idealist.org I helped people find the opportunity to connect their desire to do good in their job with the organizations seeking people who could make a difference.
It was my great pleasure to do so because it helped me fully understand how people were struggling to locate opportunities that enabled them to lead fulfilling lives and do work that aligned with their values. Simultaneously, I realize I was part of something that gives me some regret. Namely, the canon of career advising that purports to be about a life calling. There is this notion that we all have a life’s calling ahead of us. This sets up too many people in a piñata-like situation where they are whacking away blindfolded, hoping to strike the prize.
The words that swirl around in our head sometimes don’t serve us well. I’m a bigger fan of helping you say the things that allow you to pivot most easily.
I spent more than a decade at Idealist.org serving as a connector to nonprofit sector jobs. Since I’ve stepped away I now have a much more nuanced conversation with people about what would be fulfilling work for them. And, depending upon how high social impact is on the list, compared to maximizing income, I might have different recommendations about the work they should pursue now. For many people one's life’s calling is the professional vestigial tail that they anxiously keep feeling for or looking back at when it comes to work. The concept haunts people in some of the worst ways. It can create a destructive competitiveness of what should be and should have been.
Why a calling?
The use of the word “calling” as vocational, and often religious or ministerial, first shows up in the Bible chapter, Corinthians. And biblical or not, having a calling is minimally an impressive way of presenting on social media.
I’ve never thought of the work I do in the world under the framework of calling. I noticed voids and gravitated to places where others weren’t. I’ve always thought about work that was the best use of my skills and abilities. As I gained more experience, I was better able to see what was needed, understand how to implement and more capable of realizing workable solutions. It wasn’t about a neat container for my work and afforded me permission to try things.
Now I will often hear someone drop the ‘calling’ word when I chat with a person considering matriculating in a graduate program (or social impact work). I will ask initially why they’ve decided to go to school. I want to understand how that degree is necessary in the pursuit of being more excellent and perhaps landing the job they think they want. A university environment is set up for you to pursue your curiosity. So I tell them: “Give yourself permission to be curious.”
Calls can be loud. They can also become muted over time.
A calling is grandiose, but at least most people will not test you on it. It feels like a life calling is most often setting you up for others to sit in judgment of the certainty of your words. It isn’t that no one realizes a life calling, but the percentage that do is small. In fact, even those who spend years in a professional area tend to stop using that language and speak more about the work than the calling. What matters to them is the work that they are doing daily, rather than the elevated words that they share with others.
When people approach me using that terminology I do my very best to be kind because they are doing so with great intentions, but often, not as much experience. Realistically, what in your life can you guarantee will last forever? (Note to self: don’t bring up the divorce rate) Why then would this be the term you use? Because you want to sound impressive or convince people that you are serious about what you do? And seriousness is in the doing, not the saying.
When someone I am meeting approaches me and tells me about something being their life’s calling I will often respond that it is really exciting, but let's take the pressure that you are placing on yourself the weight of forever. You have permission to learn at any point that something other than what compelled you earlier in your life has shifted. You should do so without any notion that you’ve failed. You’ve simply grown. Your curiosity has shifted. What you might want or need has changed.
Why can’t you just say, “I’m currently pursuing a deep interest in ______ which is currently leading me to seek out work in ______.”?
Try it out, at least. You might find yourself feeling a little less pressure.
—Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.