Your Work is to Discover Your Work: On Calling and Contribution

JW Kuebler, Director, Irving Park, Chicago International Charter School

“Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this ‘something’ as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do, this is what I’ve got to have. This is who I am.”

In his 2017 bestseller The Soul’s Code, James Hillman said, “Each person enters the world called.” The idea may have originated with Plato and his Myth of Er, but there are plenty of stories from the Abrahamic tradition of responding to a call (you may recall Moses and the burning bush).

This idea of an innate image, a soul, a predetermined biography, a feeling of destiny, has a long, complicated and widespread history. “Only our contemporary psychology and psychiatry omit it from their textbooks,” explained Hillman.

In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore explained “Soul is not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart and personal substance.”

While the concept of a soul identity may be professionally ignored, the idea of responding to a calling is widely appreciated. Many educators felt early in life a call to teach. My dad knew he wanted to be a doctor since childhood. My son-in-law knew he’d be a pilot when he was six years old.

Moore explains that it’s not just a matter of saying ‘yes’ to a calling, “We ourselves have both the task and the pleasure of organizing and shaping our lives for the good of the soul.”

Joseph Campbell explains the response to your calling as following your bliss: “you put yourself on a kind of track, which has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”

Modern spiritualists including Justine and Michael Toms suggest starting with pragmatic questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Whom or what do I serve? How have I constructed my life to come to this place? What do I want to contribute to the world?

“If you don’t have a clear answer to the question, never fear; it will emerge when the time is right and you are ready,” they advise. They suggest that sometimes it will require experience, adventures or challenges to prepare us for the work we were meant to do.

Utilitarians may roll their eyes at the Toms’ advice to “Trust the process of life, give yourself to it fully, and your higher purpose will gradually make itself known to you.”

But they’d likely agree with their thesis that “The world needs your creativity. Now is the time for you to make your original contribution.”

Whether viewed as a calling or working with a sense of purpose, most of us can agree with the Toms that “We live at a time when the opportunities have never been greater, and the available support for the expression of our personal passion, creativity, and excellence has also never been greater.”

While effective altruism suggests calculating the greatest possible good that you can do, the Toms advise listening to the call “no matter how distant it may be, and not to let your rational mind get in the way, because it will come up with lots of reasons why your calling won’t work or is impossible to attain. Magic happens if you’re open to it.”

Calling and Contribution

As someone who experienced a clear sense of calling in midlife, I’m sympathetic to the notion that we each have a unique contribution to make. It may not be predestined, but it is work to be done involving an intersection of strengths, passions and opportunities in order to make a difference.

The newest generation to enter the workforce might be catching on to this notion earlier. Many young people are demanding meaningful work that aligns with their values as opposed to sticking with one job for their entire career. Passion figures prominently into their choices.

One of my favorite schools calls passion a skill—something to be cultivated through the hard work of developing self-knowledge and immersing in the great issues of our time. It’s the repeated effort of iterating upon issues and approaches to find the work that truly speaks to you, that feels most valuable and fulfilling.

The Toms explain that living into your call doesn’t mean “you should sit on the sidelines and wait for something to occur—quite the contrary. You’re part of a creative process, and being able to follow your calling requires your active participation. Only then can you bring your gifts to the world.”

It’s worth noting that all of the advice referenced in this post comes from old white men and that the notion of “organizing and shaping our lives for the good of the soul” and “following your bliss” presumes a level of support and opportunity that is not uniformly available. My father and son-in-law didn’t grow up affluent, but they did have strong family and community support that allowed them to live into their professional callings.

If we want all kids to have the ability to dream possible futures, to listen for their calling, and to work out their unique contribution, we need schools alive with possibility, sustained mentor relationships and supports that ensure basic needs are met.

In a society where opportunity (not just capability) is equally distributed, we can create communities that heed the Buddha admonition: “Your work is to discover your work, and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”

For more, see:

Header image: JW Kuebler, Director, Irving Park, Chicago International Charter School

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This blog was originally published on Forbes.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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