Calling Our Callings

In Essays on March 9, 2011 at 5:27 pm

By Norman de Guerre

The psychologist Erik Erikson had some theory about the stages of human development. It’s relevant to Work Stew, but I don’t have time to reacquaint myself with it, which is, I suppose, one of the realities of this phase of my own life that, if memory serves, Erikson referred to as “Industry”: there’s no time to do anything right now. Industry consumes.

I’m about halfway through Industry, splitting 20 to 60 down the middle and in the prime years of my constructive engagement with society. Said another way, I know about half of what actually would be insightful and useful to anyone regarding the topic of “work.” So caveat emptor.

I’ve read with interest the other Work Stew essays and it’s inspiring to read about people who have found their calling and are professionally satisfied. (I call their calling their “calling” because I’m married to an Episcopal priest who found hers; the Episcopalians have lots of special words for things, like, for example, “calling.”) I don’t have a calling yet, but as a closet optimist, I’ve not given up hope. Such is the reader who might find this essay interesting: a person who cares about callings, and wants one, but has yet to find something even approximating it.

Perhaps some context about my current non-calling would frame things, so I’ve sketched out a typical workday (I should acknowledge that while I am about to number many of my good deeds, my wife does her fair share too, like getting our two kids to and from school and a laundry list of other things that sadly, doesn’t include laundry):

  • 5:30am – My alarm rings. I get up, make tea for us (lying on the floor and cat-napping through to the kettle’s whistle) and deliver a cup to my wife, with the same words each morning: “Good morning, honey! Here’s your tea!” (The up-lilt in my voice as I rally us for the day indicated by my use of exclamation marks.) I make breakfast for the clan, although I don’t eat any myself. I walk our two elderly, blind, incontinent dogs.
  • 7:15am – I leave for the subway.
  • 7:45am – I arrive at work where, as a friend once commented apropos of both of us, I get paid to talk to people. These conversations are scheduled back-to-back, typically in half hour increments, and I go from one to the next, talking and jotting down notes in my notebook so I can remember things to talk about with other people, later. I try to remember, when I am deluded into thinking my job is stressful and difficult, that it’s hardly diamond mining in Africa, and I close my eyes and imagine the poor bastards in those Salgado photographs. I don’t want to sell myself short (and I should clarify too that I’m not a counselor)—I manage a P&L, and I am measured on real and objective financial and operating metrics. My job has a scorecard with numbers on it. But we aren’t baling hay here.
  • 7:45pm – I leave for the subway. More often than not, I get food en route to the subway and eat dinner on the B or C train.
  • 8:15pm – I arrive home. The kids run to the door and jump up into my arms and I hug them and ask about their day. Sometimes I hug my wife and sometimes we just growl at each other, glowering over who is going to walk the dogs. I immediately change into my flannel pajamas, partly because they are comfortable and I need to lose 20 pounds and partly because I have this theory that if I’m in my pajamas, it’s less reasonable to ask me to walk the dogs. I give the kids a bath, I read them a story, and then I play guitar for them as they go to sleep, a regimented song list that at their request runs, in order: The Weight -> Apeman (“I think I’m sophisticated ‘cause I’m living my life like a good homo sapiens…”) -> Love In Vain -> Loving Cup. I try to get in bed before 10pm and read at least one page of something before closing my eyes and almost always immediately falling asleep.

* * * * *

Looking back, I’ve not plotted a deliberate course. After graduating from college, I almost got a Fulbright to The Netherlands, making every cut except the last (arguably, the Committee was wise not to grant me at that age a paid excursion in Amsterdam with no defined responsibilities). So, I took what I could get and became a management consultant. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I did it for over a decade. Then, I had a surprising and satisfying detour into a field where my skills and passions intersected, but slowly, as the job started leeching the joy from my passion, I left and took a new job, almost wholly for the money. Now, I get up and go to work for the same reason I did when I was 21—because I have to.

A few glorious moments along the way have veered towards something approximating a calling, just enough to taunt me as to how sublime finding one would be. But nothing ever clicked enough to liberate me from notions about work that were firmly implanted in my brain at a very young age and reinforced for many years by many people in ways large and small—and these mental models tend to require pretty strong escape velocities. (By way of example, I was forbidden to become an architect, because my dad was one, and he thought it would end badly for me, and maybe he was right. Go make money! In a similar spirit, my father-in-law’s primary advice to me has been to relay the advice handed down to him by his father: stay on the payroll).

* * * * *

Why do we work? Can something profound and important exist beyond a paycheck and nominal place-in-the-world self-identity? What motivates us, the un-called, to get up every morning and wobble forward without strongly held professional convictions serving as wind in our sails? Can we instead chart a course to spend our precious human life pursuing something of substance and meaning, consistent with our values and disposition, in the service of family and friends and society and ourselves?

With all this in mind, here are six questions I’d suggest as important considerations for people interested in moving from “jobs” to “callings”:

  1. What unique qualities do you possess, and what natural vocations flow from them?
  2. What is your attitude about generating, spending, and saving money?
  3. How important is serving a greater good relative to serving yourself, and how important is it to connect your period of Industry to bettering the world rather than simply your position in it?
  4. What serves your soul—the city, or the country? North or south, east or west? Or, does it matter?
  5. Can you promote yourself in a rigorous and goal-oriented post-social-media world manner; and if not, is it out of principle, disposition, or insecurity? We live in the Age of Ego and like it or not, there is a high correlation between self-aggrandizement and exterior accomplishment—but probably never at the expense of interior accomplishment;
  6. How selfish do you want to be when considering #1-5 in the context of sharing a life with others? (For example, I share my life with a strong, accomplished wife and two bright and energetic kids. Our needs are commingled. I also feel a strong obligation towards new needs that might emerge over time as our parents age).

Like many other things, answers to complex existential questions don’t snap neatly and quickly into place, in Gladwellian ‘blinks’. They require reflection and mature consideration, suspension of prejudgment, and the discipline to allow the questions to percolate. I admire greatly people who create the personal space to ask these types of questions and even more so, those who summon the courage to restructure their life around the answers.

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