We’ve all heard it. In fact, some of us might even have it hanging as an inspirational beacon on our walls. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” The quote comes from the great philosopher, teacher, author, theologian, and civil rights leader Mr. Howard Thurman. In other words, a guy who had a lot of passions.
That’s all well and good. But where does this rousing notion leave the wanderers? The lost souls that want to come alive but simply don’t know how… The ones who have asked the question over and over and over again but can’t seem to produce a fruitful answer…
What in the world are you supposed to do when you don’t know what it is you are supposed to do in this world?
Take a Step Back – Figuratively but Perhaps Literally as Well – and Start out Small
Imagine a world in which everyone was enlightened as to their life calling at the inspired and energetic young age of 21. Students all over would graduate college and set off immediately to make brilliant contributions to society, changing lives via their art or writing or ingenious technological prowess… sounds pretty great right?
Unfortunately that is not the world we live in. And a life calling doesn’t always arrive on the doorstep of our mind, shining and clear. Figuring out what you want to do often takes a heavy dose of diligence. It’s a practice in patience and persistence and it starts out by trying one small new thing at a time.
Don’t focus on the big picture. Play around generously with individual paint strokes, fresh colors, and various mediums. Eventually an image will begin to emerge.
In other words, expose yourself to new ideas, places, and activities at a pace that works well for you. Take a trip to Italy and study Roman architecture. Too grand of a gesture at this busy time in your life? Think smaller. Simply sign yourself up for a sculpting class at a local studio. Still too heavy a commitment for your schedule to carry? Stroll around an art gallery for the afternoon and see if anything inspires you.
The point is that you don’t need to sign your life – and most likely your financial future – away to grad school in order to uncover a love for art history and you don’t need to spend a year traveling abroad to figure out a passion for culture and people. Sure, those things might come down the line as a by-product of realizing your calling. But for now, for just right now, bite off a much smaller piece of life. Set aside a few hours or a few minutes a day to merely dip your toes into new waters in whatever form that might take. Eventually you’ll come across a pool you’re ready and willing to dive into.
Honesty Is the Best Policy
We’ve all been told so since the first grade. Yet somehow, somewhere down the line we forget how to be honest with ourselves.
Think about it. When you were a child and parents/teachers/complete strangers asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, you did not respond with, “Oh I will start off as an entry-level administrative assistant and assiduously work my way up to finance director because it is the most practical career path and I am guaranteed not to fail.” Hell no. You marched right up to the front of the room and proudly proclaimed your future as an astronaut. Why? Because you were completely jazzed about stars and moons and making those neat little solar system things out of fruit and Styrofoam, that’s why. Plain and simple.
Channel that kind of untouched, youthful honesty. Chances are you might already know what makes you come alive; it’s just been gradually buried over the years, each new fear or failure pushing it down farther and farther from your awareness.
Pick Up the Pieces and Put Them Together
It seems to be that career paths and passions are thought about in terms of neat and tidy professions that don’t mix boundaries. You set out to be a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer but never all three at once.
Now, true it might be that a law-practicing, medically-trained educator of children isn’t exactly the most common occupation in the books. But the point is to think outside of the stringent professional lines set by society. Humans are made with multiple interests and sometimes the most fulfilling careers include a patchwork of different skills.
Perhaps you have several smaller areas of intrigue that you’ve never even entertained as possible life callings. On their own these hobbies might not provide for the most fruitful path. Piece them together and who knows what kind of career you could come up with.
Turn Back Time
Okay, you can’t literally wind back the clocks to the day you graduated college, or high school, or the fifth grade. But try thinking back to the days when unpaid loans and monthly rent didn’t keep you tied to a mind-numbing job you hate. Mentally revisit periods in your life when you were most stimulated intellectually or even emotionally.
Not everyone attends college (nor do they need to) but those who have likely can remember a class that really got them going. The class for which time was of no importance. You’d drag your hung-over butt up and out of bed at 7 a.m. to hear the 8 o’clock lecture. In fact, you probably arrived at precisely 7:52 just to get a good seat and maybe slip in a few minutes of solid brown-nosing your enlightened professor. This class may or may not have even been in your major.
What was it that kept you so intrigued? Whether it’s been two years or ten, try to contact that professor. Explore the subject matter a bit further.
Didn’t go to college? Perhaps there is a trip, a vacation of sorts that really stuck with you over the years. The idea is to wet your palette with a taste of something that you know has already proved a source of stimulation at one point in your life or another.
Never, Ever Give Up
Obviously. Most anyone who has taken up the journey of figuring out his or her calling in life knows the power of persistence. After all, you don’t step into a career, you gradually grown into it. But keeping at something, namely figuring out what makes you come alive, doesn’t manifest itself in solely longitudinal terms; it can be practiced laterally as well. Meaning that if you’re searching for your life calling only by trying out new job after new job over a long period of time, you could be missing out on a whole lot of inspiration on the side.
Welcome the task of uncovering your passions as one that gently permeates every aspect of your life. Look for things you enjoy in the most seemingly-mundane, daily tasks. You’d be surprised at the number of dieticians that discovered a love for planning out healthy, delicious meals from their weekly Sunday-afternoon trips to the local grocery store. Or the amount of nurses that realized a desire to help others by taking care of their own flu-ridden children.
The point is that too many people try to figure out what they want to do in life by thinking in terms of jobs and salaries and positions. The reality is that everyone, at any age, has something, most likely many things, they enjoy doing. Take a hold of these things, no matter how menial they might seem, and push them, pull them, explore them, and stretch them. Keep working with them on the side or dive into them fully, leaving fear of failure behind.