Profound response to Aristotle’s “Where your talents & needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.”
It’s Labor Day in North America, summer vacations end, and we often turn our mind to our work, why we do it, the professional choices we’ve made—and have yet in front of us.
THE FIRST PROS
We used to not have so many choices. If you were a boy, you took over your father’s job, if a girl, your mother’s role. From them you inherited an occupation (Latin occupare meaning “to take over/up”) —and that created our first surnames: Baker, Miller, Smith…. Your only alternatives were the probably the military—if male and rich enough to afford costly arms and training—or the religious life.
This brought the concept of callings or vocations (vocatio means“to call forth” or simply “to call”). First used in the early centuries, these were other-worldly: hermits living austere lives of solitary prayer, scripture study and meditation. As hermits started outnumbering caves this evolved into cloistering in monasteries, which in turn would eventually become our first universities. Like all communities, even the smallest groups of the faithful developed roles; as these communities grew, those roles grew more specialized. So, the response, or professio, to a calling evolved from a public declaration of faith and purpose into a particular practice, like law, teaching or medicine: the professions.
QUALIFY YOUR CALLING(S)
So, if you hear a calling or think you do, how do you know it’s a true calling, a vocatio to which you respond with a professio? Could it be something else? Does the din of modern life make it sound like a vocation, but really it would be better termed with a similar-sounding word like avocation or vacation?
Avocations and vacations can be worth following (at least for a time) as well and might lead towards a true vocation. They can bring us to situations where our talents can be identified, tested and developed, where we can better hear—and act upon—deeper callings.
Mind that all entail different returns and investments. Say you’re called to write—possibly the oldest professio*—what commitments can you profess? Same goes for working in the non-profit sector, starting your own business, and many other endeavors.
From where does my motivation come? If it’s mostly external, e.g. “I’d like to see my name in print—(or in lights)” or “It’d be cool to have friends over to my bar/café/restaurant”, it’s probably not a vocation. It’s more likely to be a true calling if the motivation is internal or otherworldly, if it grows, even if slowly, continues to return even if it seems to leave during periods of distraction, a provides perspectives on the past experiences and lesson of our lives.
How long could I do this? (Think both in terms of hours per week and years of your life.) Be concrete: visualize the particular hours and years you would work. Is this realistic to both the demands of the profession and the other demands made upon me?
Can I make the living I expect—or at least need—from this? What sacrifices would that require?Pursuing this activity involves what opportunity cost? For example, spending 90 minutes writing daily comes at the cost of not be able to take a particular course, working overtime, or pursuing another hobby.
(How) can I justify the big upfront investment like graduate school or other preparation? Or funds to start a venture? Investments include both time and money—even if paid for by someone else, as in the case of a scholarship.) What would be the likely ROI (Return on Investment)?
Is there a way to try this as a vacation or avocation first? For example, before opening a restaurant, can I start a catering business first? Before resigning from my job for a new career, can I take a leave of absence and work a short time, perhaps as an apprentice, intern, or volunteer in my target field?
*While prostitution is often called “the world’s oldest profession”, it is rather, for the reasons stated above, an occupation.
Groundhog Day: Building a Life of Meaning
”Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
—psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, explaining logotherapy, which came out of his experience as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps.
Such tragic experiences, though recreated by Hollywood and documentarians—and repeated in real life since World War II in China, Cambodia, and the Balkans—are so alien to nearly all of us.
But the setting, a famous-for-one-day-each-year American town, of the movie Groundhog Day brings Frankl’s message home.
The protagonist, Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is a misanthropic, self-obsessed TV weatherman condemned to relive one day, February 2nd over and over. Soon, he retreats into a world of hedonism, eating and drinking to excess, he exploits repetition to perfect pick-up lines that allow him to seduce and to plan and execute grand larceny. Tiring of this, he attempts suicide numerous times, only to wake up at 6 am the same morning again and again.
In the third act, this modern Sisyphus finally looks for—and eventually finds—meaning that is more than transitory.
According to Frankl:
"We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering"
Connors does all three: (1) learning piano and ice sculpting to create masterpieces and repeatedly trying to save the life of an old homeless man, (2) falling in love with his colleague and one of his seduction targets by gradually becoming the man she expects him to be, and (3) accepting and embracing his fate, reliving Groundhog Day over 10 years or 10,000 years—as director Harold Ramis variably estimated, to become a better person.
In doing so, he finally escapes his Purgatory.
The Most Interesting Man in the World…On LIFE:
”It’s never too early to start beefing up your obituary.”
So, where’s the beef?
Today, what are you working on that will end up in your obituary?
And something like “34 years of loyal service to XYZ corporation/department” just doesn’t cut it. If nothing in your today has much chance of being part of your obituary, it’s probably the same most days, most weeks, most months …hell, most of your life.
So, why are you not doing it?
Because your obituary seems so far away, right? There’s the rest of your life to worry about that while there are bills to pay, Angry Birds to play, social media statuses to update and other daily struggles and distractions to content with. Or so you believe. I used to. When I was 21, like most 21 year olds (at those least in the First World) at some level I thought that I’d live forever. I was also floating, having dropped out of both college and anything career-focused, and just changed cities. Six days into my second job in three weeks in Washington DC, I saw my 30-year old manager shot dead during an armed robbery. It should have been me instead of him, except for his decisions. It also should have been me as well as him, saving for the intervention of another coworker. Much more attentive than I was, she calmly pulled me from harm’s way.
Depressed for a few months. Slowly at first, the experience focused me. I started a bucket list (more next post), opened myself up to key personal growth experiences, and took one step back (move back home) to get the footing I needed to take two+ steps forward (including return to college).
About a year after that deadly day, I eulogized my grandfather. Another 20 months later I wrote the obituary of a classmate, friend, and student newspaper coworker killed in a car crash, age 22. Telling the story of a life is a complementary experience. I saw, for the vast majority, decades are condenced into mere minutes. from which, I ask you:
What will be in your eulogy and obituary?
If you’re already a grandparent, you’ve got that, and presumably “loving parent”, etc. platitudes done. But, and I’m asking—well begging—on behalf of your eulogizer, don’t leave it simply at that. If you’re about 22 or 30 now, it’s actually harder: if your end comes soon, it’ll most likely come fast, without warning.
Most people don’t give much thought to their legacy until they start to see that the end of their term, career, or their life is approaching. By then, it’s usually too late for anything but spin, packaging and rationalization—at best. Sometimes it’s too late for anything but wishful thinking and regret.
Depressing thought. And to that there are generally two responses:
#1. Escapism—go back to whatever keeps you busy so you don’t have to think about your end.
#2. Start—no matter how small or slow—the beefing up obituary process.
So, how do you start? One way is write your own obituary. If you died tomorrow what would be on it? (This you can either keep to yourself or leave somewhere so your survivors will find it.) If that is not enough to make you go back to #1, ask yourself: what’s missing from it? If you had another year, 10, or 50, what else would you want on it, could you put on it?
Yes, writing about death is hard. Though I’ve written on obituaries before and promised this post months ago, I kept putting it off. The death of Steve Jobs two weeks ago made me come back to it.
NEXT POST: More on death—and the life before it. Till then: stay thirsty, my friends.*
*this Dos Equis Pitchman’s tagline echoes Steve Job’s own entreaty: “Stay Hungry.Stay Foolish”
The Most Interesting Man in the World…On CAREERS:
"Find out in life what you don’t do well. And then don’t do that thing."
At first glance this may seem obvious, but there’s much more to it, indeed several steps:
- “Find out" = experiment. You can’t rely on others (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) to tell you what you’re good and bad at. Try many new things, things that you normally wouldn’t, including those activities and talents that others aren’t encouraging you to do. Relying on others to identify your weaknesses is short-sighted, ineffective, and meta-cognitively lazy. Examples of presumed mentors’ dismissal of nascent gifts are legion. Einstein’s early failures in math is one example that comes to mind. Also, remember your aim is to identify what you don’t do well. You can’t effectively do so if you don’t step outside your comfort zone. And of course, You have to be willing to make many mistakes, to fail.
- “in life" = not just on the job, a job, or even your whole career. It’s not on your sports team, your hobbies and it’s certainly not what you didn’t do well in school—which so often fails to be a predictor of success in profession and other areas. (More on this below.) It’s all of the above and much more: every area of your life.
“what you don’t well” - Learn to distinguish between what you don’t do well and how you’re doing it. The first time I studied a foreign language, in high school, I got an ‘F’. First time I ever failed or even got less than a satisfactory grade in any class. I soldiered on two years, later studied a few other languages in the classroom, and never got more than a C+. I even received my university degree late as I failed to pass the foreign language requirement. I could have said, as some I know do, “I’m no good at languages”. Yet, I’ve since found ways (self-study, one-on-one tutors, on the street) to achieve close to fluency in a couple languages and get by in a few others. Now I know and say simply that academic language learning doesn’t serve me well. So I don’t do that anymore. Determine your dominate learning style and let that guide you.
“then don’t do that thing" = Once you’re sure you where your talents don’t lie, work on your strengths not weaknesses. This can seem counter intuitive as those around us are much better—and vocal—at identifying our weaknesses. And it’s not just colleagues, friends and family, it’s the pros too: the bulk of the self-help universe is trying to teach you to fix problems. There is a kernel of truth here. Working on our weaknesses can bring the most personal development, such as in our relationships with others. However, when it comes to our professional development, our careers, we’ll get much, much further playing to our strengths and enlisting others to fill in the cracks. As Peter Drucker put it in The Effective Executive, “strong people always have strong weaknesses too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys. And no one is strong in many areas.”
NEXT POST: More of The Most Interesting Man in the World…on LIFE. Till then, stay thirsty, my friends.
I’m starting a(nother) blog, which I’m committing to work on regularly for a year. Though it, I’m develop some ideas and feedback, conversation, encouragement, and focus will help that.
For reasons explained shortly, this is tentatively titled “The Most Interesting Career Advice in the World” but the focus goes well beyond careers. So I am looking to find another name that more accurately, but not too heavily, expresses the the main and interrelated themes: self-knowledge, finding and following one’s callings, and developing meaning through our work and lives.
“The Most Interesting Man in the World” is a delightful series of commercials for Dos Equis (and I’m writing from Mexico, the beer’s homeland) featuring a fictional character, clearly based on Ernest Hemingway, who died (of self-inflicted gunshot would) 50 years ago today. This protagonist, simply called “The Most Interesting Man in the World” is adventurous, suave, and experienced. He has a few ideas I’ll cover in the following posts.