“If you could do anything you want, what would it be?” That’s a favorite question of career guidance counselors. But it’s a terrible question! It’s as likely to elicit caprice as conviction.
So how can you tell whether your dream is an impulsive whim or an actual calling?
At The Giftedness Center, we never ask someone, “If money were no object, what would you like to do?” That’s because, in truth, most people don’t know the answer to that question. After all, that’s why they’ve come to us. They are looking for help to figure out what their calling is.
Let me admit from the outset that calling is a fairly deep subject with a lot of angles to it. So I won’t give you any three-point formula for figuring out what you are called to do with your life. I tend to agree with the wisdom of Ann Voskamp, who says that “a calling is not a road map. It’s an invitation to take a journey, with the destination described but not revealed.”
If you want a more in-depth presentation on navigating that journey, get a copy of my book, The Person Called YOU: Why You’re Here, Why You Matter & What You Should Do With Your Life.
But what is the subjective experience of determining your calling? How do you know in your gut whether you are “called” to a given path?
Again, there’s no simple formula. But here are some guidelines gleaned from the lived experience of countless people who have wrestled in their minds and souls to figure it all out.
A path you’re considering is most likely a calling if. . .
It fits your giftedness. This is a no-brainer. Nothing of consequence happens in the world apart from people gifted to the task.
You feel drawn to it again and again over time. Calling is intrinsically tied to motivation. You want to do the thing over and over. Indeed, you cannot not keep coming back to it. The naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851) kept drawing pictures of birds. It didn’t matter where he lived or what his circumstances were (when he was dead broke he left his wife and boys and headed down the Mississippi River to sketch all the birds of North America). He consistently came back to that because he enjoyed it so much.
It meets with encouragement and confirmation from those who know you well and who have your best interests at heart (excepting parents; no time to explain that here, just trust me on it). Others see your giftedness whether you recognize it or not. Pay attention to their affirmation. They’re not just being “kind” or “polite” or “flattering.” If they truly care about you, they are trying to help you see what you were born to do.
You conclude you cannot do otherwise. Callings have a sense of inevitability about them. After the fact—after someone has gone off and done some amazing thing—people will tend to say, “Well, of course they were destined to do that.” But before the fact there is also a pull of what amounts to a requirement or assignment: “I must do this!” One way that expresses itself is through an anticipation of regret: “If I don’t pursue this path, I will always regret that I didn’t at least try it.”
You’ve made it a regular item in your prayers and you have received either (a) a strong indication from God that you should pursue it, and/or (b) no good indication that you should not pursue it. People have a lot of ideas about prayers and God’s will. I will just say that your gifts are from God, and they were given you for a purpose. If that’s true, then no one is more interested than God in seeing you get into the path that was intended for you. So pay attention and look/listen/seek for guidance from Above. And when you get it, do it!
A path you’re considering is most likely a whim if. . .
Your envisioned future keeps changing: one day you want to do this, the next day you want to do that. Callings have staying power. They drive relentlessly toward a particular outcome.
It’s a recent idea and you have not given it much serious thought over time. I probably have ten ideas a day for careers I’d love to pursue. But those notions aren’t callings, they’re fantasies. It’s fun to pretend for a moment what it would be like to be a cop, or to stand on a scaffold on the side of a building washing windows, or to be a performer in Cirque de Soleil. But true callings don’t come about from imagination alone. They are usually the product of serious thought, planning, and intentional action aimed in a given direction.
You have not explored what it really entails, what it would really cost, and what you would really have to do to to make it happen. The next time you think you’re onto a “calling,” ask yourself: “So what am I doing to be serious about this? Where’s the proof?”
It involves grandiosity. Do you feel called to be the President of the United States someday? Are you going to find the cure for cancer? Are you the savior that the public schools have been waiting for? Are you the one who’s going to finally crack the code on world peace? Any “calling” that places you on a throne from the outset is not a calling, but rather the height of arrogance (or at the least, naiveté). It’s fine to have a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) that functions like a personal North Star to guide you. But hold off on the coronation ceremony. Callings are first and foremost about serving. Do that for a while, and maybe (just maybe) someone will eventually recognize your efforts as greatness.
It requires strengths and motivations you simply don’t have. This is just a restatement of the giftedness principle above. No one is called to something for which they are not gifted. It’s that simple.
Those who know you well do not affirm it. As stated above, others can see your gifts, even if you can’t. By the same token, they can also see what’s not there—even if you can’t. You may be absolutely convinced that you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg. But if your five best friends disagree, you’d better take a second look in the mirror.
It’s a difficult path for which you are neither talented nor motivated. A telltale sign that someone is pursuing a whim and not a calling is that they underestimate the challenge ahead of them. I’ve met scores of dreamers who had an idea all concepted and scaled and ready to go public—but hadn’t yet made a single sale. It turns out that life is tough. I mean, really tough! And adversities have a way of knocking out the pretenders. Only someone who is called—who is dedicated, committed, tenacious, persevering, and genuinely competent—will last long enough to get the result they are seeking.
The Bottom Line
I’ve met many people who told me they felt “called” to a given career. I have never questioned their sense of calling. That’s not my place. But when I look at the long-term outcomes, here’s my conclusion:
It’s hard for me to believe that the person who experiences repeated setbacks, failures, crises, conflicts, marital difficulties, health problems, and financial troubles is following their call. I’m not minimizing the challenges of life. Without a doubt, life is hard whether you’re following your calling or not. But a calling never destroys a person, no matter how bad things get.
Meanwhile, someone who is truly called sees results, regardless of the troubles that come their way. They see actual fruit from their labors. And that outcome fills them with joy, no matter how bad things around them seem, or how small and seemingly insignificant the victory seems.
The point is, a calling means you’re supposed to go somewhere. And yeah, some people enjoy the journey more than the destination. That’s fine. But in the end, the One who called you to your labors is less interested in your satisfaction than in you getting the job done—because no one else benefits unless that happens.
Question: How do you know you’re called to the work you’re doing?
NEXT POST ON BillHendricks.net: Five Questions to Ask When You Enter Someone’s Story