Monday, December 26, 2011

What it feels like to RECEIVE a great work

A few months back (in one of my favorite posts), I talked about an artist friend who taught me something very valuable about finding your calling in life. You can revisit that post here. Yesterday, as a Christmas present, I surprised my wife with a painting that I commissioned from this artist, the incredibly talented Santiago Michalek (you can check out his blog here).

The piece that he did for us is already a family treasure. I had him paint my son, Spencer, in Ghana. I took Spencer there with me on a university trip a couple of years ago, and he completed his Eagle Scout project there by delivering donated soccer balls to schools and orphanages. That trip was extremely meaningful to me because of the unique memories I made with my son. I wanted to capture them, and knew that Santiago was the artist to do it. Here's a photo of the completed piece, which is about 24X30 inches, and far more stunning than this photo can capture.

The process of working with Santiago as he produced the painting was far more emotional than I could have imagined. As we discussed the painting, we explored what my son means to me, what the experience meant to us, and my motives for commissioning the work. Far beyond just painting a beautiful picture, Santiago delved deeply into my emotions, and also into my son's while Spencer was modeling for him. Santiago poured hours of work into ensuring that he captured not only Spencer's likeness, but also his character. The result is a representation that is true physically, but also emotionally. When my wife and I look at this piece, we see our son's spirit looking back at us.

I can't begin to understand how Santiago accomplishes this. But I know now that he brings far more than just his craft to his work. His tenacious commitment to creating a "true" image represented a huge sacrifice for him during a busy Christmas season. He taught me that having a professional calling goes far beyond talent and effort. There is a spiritual dimension to having a calling. As the recipient, it feels like a personal offering that includes a heavy dose of heart, along with the more obvious involvement of hand and mind.

I am deeply grateful to be the beneficiary of one who lives his calling! Though I'm no artist, I hope to bring the same devotion to the work I do.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do you have what it takes to find a professional calling?: Lessons from zookeepers and shepherds

When Stuart and I were studying zookeepers’ sense of calling, one thing they told us really struck me. We had a standard interview question: “What would be grounds for divorce from the zoo?” Most zookeepers answered something like, “There is nothing that would cause me to leave this place.” That was a new kind of response for us organizational researchers!

So we started following up by asking: “What if the zoo started neglecting or mistreating the animals? Would that cause you to leave?” The responses to that question stunned me. Here’s one typical answer: “If there was any gross misconduct or animal mistreatment or anything like that, I wouldn’t… leave the zoo because of that. In fact it would make me try and work harder to solve the problem.”

For zookeepers, animals are not their job, but their stewardship. Even if the zoo was grossly negligent, they would stay in their jobs because it is up to them to protect their animals. I don’t think we can really understand what it means to have a calling until we understand stewardship.

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between shepherds and “hirelings,” as described in the Bible. Ancient shepherds were devoted to each of their individual sheep, even if there were hundreds in the flock. A good shepherd gave each sheep a name, and cared for it so lovingly that it would come immediately when called. The tenderness of that relationship is one of the reasons that Jesus was called the Good Shepherd to His followers. 

But then you have the hireling, which Job describes as a sheepherder that “looketh for the reward of his work” (Job 7:2). In other words, hirelings are in it for the money. They wouldn’t bother to form an intimate relationship with the flock. Instead of beckoning sheep by name, they would rely on their dogs to nip at the heels of the sheep to keep them moving. 

And what happens when the chips are down? Jesus described the hireling’s response to a wolf attack on the herd: “But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep” (John 10:12-14).

Maybe one of the reasons a lot of people feel stymied in their quest for a personal calling is that they aren’t prepared to make the sort of sacrifice and commitment that only a shepherd can understand. Do we see our work as a stewardship – as a "flock" to be lovingly tended? Are we willing to stand up and fight for our stewardship, even at personal peril? Are we willing to forego comfort, convenience, and convention to invest what it takes to be a shepherd?

Callings don’t come cheap! And you don’t get to experience the transcendent fulfillment of the zookeeper or the shepherd until you are ready to give almost everything for your stewardship. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Can Tarzan help you find your calling in life?

The other day, I heard an interview on NPR with Jane Goodall, the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees. My ears perked up when the host asked Dr. Goodall to explain how she decided at such an early age to become a primatologist. I wondered: Would she describe some formative experience when she encountered chimpanzees in the jungle as a child? Had she been raised by anthropologist parents who infected her with a scholarly bug?

Nope. Dr. Goodall's answer made me laugh aloud. She said, "It started when I was a tiny child. And then, you know, I found the books about Dr. Dolittle who could speak animal language. And then when I was 11, I read the book Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and of course I fell passionately in love with this glorious being. And what does he do? He marries that other stupid, wimpy Jane!" (9/24/11 episode of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" on NPR)

What a refreshing answer to a heavy question! The first hints of a professional calling for the greatest chimpanzee scholar in the world weren't revelatory experiences or lofty aspirations. She just really liked Tarzan!


I don't think we should look to grandiose epiphanies for hints about our calling in life. Instead, we should look to our sources of childlike wonder. What captivated you at age 11 probably foreshadows what will captivate you now. Surely Dr. Goodall eventually outgrew Dr. Dolittle, but she never outgrew how it made her feel.

I would love to hear your stories about how childhood fancies have shaped who you are today. Please share! (Comment or email is fine.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Path to a Calling is Not a Straight Line

The other day, a friend shared this image with me on Facebook:

It’s brilliant! I haven’t been able to discover the source. I wish I knew who to attribute it to.

The diagram reminds me of a conversation I had the other day with one of my Executive Masters students.  She is well into her career, and recently made a big change in her career path. But she’s feeling lost and confused in her new job.

She truly loves the organization she works for, and her job gives her plenty of developmental challenge. But her supervisor is a poor leader, and she finds herself trying to hold together a fragmented and dysfunctional department full of apathetic colleagues and petty turf wars. She tries valiantly to influence the culture, but faces an uphill battle since her position doesn’t give her the authority to call the shots.

As she sat in my office talking about the workplace, her face assumed a mystified expression. She said something like, “I just don’t know how I got here. And I have no idea where to go next.”

Her bafflement rings a big bell for me. There were at least three times in my career when I thought I had gone COMPLETELY off the right professional track. I was convinced I had made a wrong turn in life, and could never get back on the path to my life calling, or to God’s plan for me. It was a wretched, hopeless feeling, which I’ve seen many times since in people who have come to me for counsel.

It also turned out to be completely unfounded.

Let me provide a diagram of my own. Here is how I would depict my career path over the past 20 years:

Looks pretty meandering, doesn’t it! No wonder I was never sure where I was going, or how I’d gotten where I was.

But you might also notice a pattern. The fluctuations have narrowed over the years. And today, I can superimpose some structure onto the pattern. It would look like this:

In hindsight, I can look at all of those twists and turns in my career that were so senseless at the time, and see how they were gradually guiding me to a better understanding of who I am and what I ought to be doing. Ten years ago, I could not discern the pattern, and life really did feel almost random. Those were the panicky years! But today, I don’t regret a single fluctuation – some were painful, but they were all essential to helping me gradually zero in on my contribution to the world.

Please note that I didn’t draw the diagram to indicate that I have now reached my precise calling. I’m not there yet! My career experiences still surprise me now and then, but they now help me come to an ever-clearer understanding of my true gifts. I may never really arrive at the magical endpoint. But that’s OK, because I know now to trust the journey, and I also have a pretty good sense of my target. It’s a wonderful feeling.

And, for me personally, it’s compelling evidence of the guiding hand of a loving Heavenly Father. I think He gives that sort of gradual, nudging help to all of His children that seek to find their gifts in order to serve others.

Whether you embrace a faith or not, I invite you to heed the advice I gave to my student: trust in the journey and allow the twists and turns to gradually guide you to deeper self-understanding and purpose. If you are trying to learn and serve, then you aren't lost! You are just riding the wave.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How Do We Treat "The Help?"

Some people are calling the blockbuster film "The Help" a chick-flick. Personally, I see it (and Kathryn Stockett's wonderful book that inspired it) as a compelling account of the battle for dignity in dirty work.

If you aren't familiar with the story, it's a 1950s tale of black women in the Deep South who are domestic workers ("the help") for white middle-class women who treat them, at best, as mindless or invisible. Confronted with a sudden opportunity, the domestics decide to risk everything to tell their stories to a national audience. And those stories are unforgettable.

Take Aibileen, an aging domestic worker who has lovingly raised many white children, only to see them grow up to be as condescending as their parents. Aibileen is a far better mother to the toddler she tends than the girl's real mother will ever be. And Aibileen's knowledge of cleaning and housekeeping is so extensive that she becomes the anonymous source for a local newspaper column.

What breaks my heart is that Aibileen is actually fulfilling her calling in life -- doing her work with such mastery and originality that the world ought to take notice. Instead, she is dismissed, derided, and humiliated. That's why she is willing to assume great personal risk to share her story with the world. It reminds me of the incredible response my co-researcher and I received when we started surveying zookeepers, another under-appreciated group. They practically fell over themselves to tell us about their work.

The movie made me think about how I treat "The Help" -- the people who do the mundane and unglamorous jobs that make my life more convenient and more pleasant. Do I sometimes look right through the custodian or the food service worker? Am I missing opportunities to be inspired by their excellence because I'm so caught up in my own professional importance? Do I sometimes forget my own words from my BYU speech?: "We do great violence to the souls of those who offer their callings in less-glamorous ways when we consider them invisible or treat them as minor cast members in the great drama of our professional lives."

On a final note, since we're talking about domestic labor, I just have to share the lyrics of one of my favorite songs from the musical "Working." The words are adapted from an actual interview Studs Terkel conducted with a cleaning lady. Her fatigue, her yearning, her hope -- it all moves me (as does the powerful gospel tune it's set to). Brilliant!

Mama worked just like her mama before her, 
Domestic workin' was their trade.
They was laundress, cook, and live-in help, 
Thursday girl, babysitter, and a hotel maid;
They worked six days a week, all day long
Never could get out of debt.
Those were the days when the minimum wage was... anything you could get!
They was Cleaning Women without faces
Coming and going on a first name basis.
You're talkin' to somebody who knows... and after too many years... Lord!
I dont' wanna be in one more laundry room; 
I don't wanna pick up now another broom,
One of these days, just wanna sleep til noon!
All day long I'm thinkin', my kids is in the streets somewhere,
But the lady of the house don't think you thinkin' half the time.
Always talkin' round you, like you ain't even there.
It's gettin' so it does somethin' to my mind!

I've got a daughter with a head on her shoulders, 
Purdy as a picture too! 
She ain't gonna hide that purdy face behind 
Kitchen doors, scrubbin' floors like her Mama do,
If my legs don't give out and my back hold up, 
I'm gonna make her a better day; 
You'll never see her gettin' down on her knees, 
Unless she's down there to pray! No more...

Cleanin' Women, without faces
Sh'gonna walk in-a on this last name basis! 
She'll be the first in this family 
To have a face you can see! 
She ain't gon' be stuck inside no laundry room
When she sweepin' she be pushin' her own broom 
Day may never come when she can sleep til noon,
But long as she can get up singin' her own tune
Only that day 
Can't come too soon!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Another Tip for Finding Your Calling (and a Labor Day Greeting!)

My friend Stuart just shared with me this amazing quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: 
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

I love that sentiment. It points out the connection between calling and art. 

Since it's Labor Day, now is a good time to share another principle I have learned about finding your calling in life: Callings almost always involve aesthetic creation -- building something of beauty, or doing something in a beautiful way. So, if you are struggling to identify your professional calling, here are some questions to ask yourself: 

- When have I felt creative? 
- What have I done that has caused people to stop and look in wonder? 
- When have I stepped back and looked at what I was doing with deep satisfaction? 
- What was I doing the last time I wished that a lot of people could see my efforts?
- When have I felt that what I was doing was beautiful?  

If you can't easily think of times like this, don't give up too quickly! Go all the way back to childhood if you need to. Think about all different kinds of activities you have done -- not just at work. I guarantee that there is a spark of creation within you that has surfaced occasionally. Go on a quest to identify it!

If you are going to emulate Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Shakespeare in your work, you will need to find work that creates space for you to exercise this creative spark. Discovering what has triggered that spark in the past will give you some useful cues about how to bring art to your work. 

As Martin Luther King suggested, you can find artists in almost any line of work -- from street sweeper to entrepreneur, from factory worker to physician. In fact, let me give a Labor Day nod to one of my favorite artists, Mahonri Mackintosh Young, who dedicated much of his work to depicting the nobility of the manual laborer. Here's a massive sculpture he did for the 1939 New York World' Fair (the only image I could find that was open source): 

You can see more of his wonderful sculpture and paintings here (Springville Museum of Art site).

As Young's art shows, what looks to some people like menial tasks can become epic and noble when we bring our creative gifts to them. To find your calling, look for your creative center. And then look for ways to create at work! You might find that your calling is not as distant or as elusive as you thought. 

Happy Labor Day! 

Friday, August 26, 2011

What if the Door Has Slammed Shut on my Calling in Life?

I made a new friend recently. He’s a young man I’ll call Grant (not his real name). I met up with Grant after he wrote to me about my BYU speech titled "What is Your Calling in Life?” (you can see the speech here or read it here). Most people who write me about that talk tell me that it gave them helpful direction, but Grant’s message was very different.  Here’s an excerpt:

“I have found something which speaks to my soul. I have wanted to be an officer in the United States Marine Corps for a very long time… Despite years of diligent physical preparation, excellent grades, a record of achievement and compelling letters of recommendation from professors and former employers, I have been medically disqualified from service. This has been a terrible blow. I am pursuing waivers in order to protect my ambitions but I have to face reality--chances are slim to none (worse, probably) that my efforts will come to anything.

Given that career paths associated with my college degree are totally unappealing to me, how should I go about finding a new calling in life? Frankly, nothing is nearly as compelling to me as military service.” 

I couldn’t get Grant’s note off my mind, so I took the unusual step of inviting him to breakfast when I happened to be traveling where he lives. His question demanded a careful answer, and I wanted to better understand the challenge of unavailable callings.

Meeting Grant was a treat. He is bright, extremely earnest, and passionate about his country and about honoring the men and women who serve in the military. I could feel the heartbreak as he talked about his shattered dreams. And I heard echoes of many other similar stories – ranging from the student who dreams of being a professional athlete, but lacks the talent, to the aspiring entrepreneur who foregoes her dream venture to care for an ailing spouse.

I wish I had a golden answer for Grant. Alas, it’s not as easy as that. But I’d like to share a bit about my conversation with him in case others reading this blog are feeling despair about an “impossible calling.”

My first response to Grant was to ask him some pointed questions: What sparked your interest in being a Marine officer? What, exactly, did you envision yourself doing? Why is it important to you?
Grant told me that being a Marine officer would provide him the perfect blend of at least three of his deepest professional yearnings: physical challenge, leadership and mentorship opportunities, and protecting the well-being of the servicemen and women that he so admires. He’s right. Marine officer does seem the perfect job for him!

But then I explained to Grant something that I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog. A calling is not equivalent to a job title. The great Reformation thinkers (as well as my own research) depict a calling as a constellation of talents and passions that one discovers how to use within the life opportunities with which one is blessed.

This classic definition of calling turns the contemporary definition on its head. Modern management gurus tell you that a calling means finding what you love and then “selling” it to the world. Martin Luther and John Calvin tell us that a calling means looking at the situation life has placed you in, finding out what the needs are, and then using your gifts to serve those needs in your own unique way. That’s a much less romantic view of calling. But it’s much more realistic, and makes callings accessible to virtually everyone. It also has the wonderful benefit of subordinating selfishness and celebrating service to others. And we could spend hours talking about why the latter is a surer route to fulfillment than the former.

What is my friend Grant to do, though? I doubt that I alleviated the sharp sting he is feeling from his bitter disappointment.

I encouraged Grant to continue looking for ways around his medical disqualification. Persistence often pays off, even in the face of great obstacles! But I also encouraged him to open his mind to letting go of his narrow view of how he can best serve the world. That’s tough advice, since Grant has built his entire self-image around his professional dreams. Could it be, though, that the closing of this door was actually for the best? Might God have a different use for Grant’s unique set of gifts and passions that will bring him even greater joy? That was certainly the case for me as I look back at a few doors that slammed in my face earlier in my career.

To figure out what to do next, Grant needs to start asking the following types of questions: Where would other combinations of his interests lead him? Might he find opportunities for leadership and service to country by working for the Federal Government – perhaps in the Department of Defense? Might he combine his desires for physical challenge and leadership by pursuing a career in emergency management or disaster relief? The reality is that Grant (and almost all of us) are much too complex and multifaceted creatures to be limited to a single life path. Your unique gifts (and Grant’s) are vitally needed in more than one place. And, if you are like most people nowadays, your pursuit of a calling will usher you through many different job titles.

My heart aches for Grant. But only in the short term. His dream position might now be unavailable to him. But his calling in life is very much intact. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Finding Professional Inspiration in the Smelliest of Places

Customer service here on the BYU campus is generally outstanding.

With one exception.

The staff at the mens locker room equipment issue desk act like moody adolescents. They sit hunched over their laptops playing games, and seem annoyed if you interrupt them. They don't make eye contact when you talk to them. In fact, I generally get no more than a grunt from them when they hand me a clean towel after my racquetball game. It's the least welcoming service desk I've ever seen.

I can't say that I blame them for being less than enthusiastic about their work. I won't try to describe the sights and smells that surround them -- it is, after all, a mens locker room! But that's what makes Noah so remarkable.

I met Noah, one of the locker room staff, a few years ago when I first rented a locker. He was a tall, affable student with a big smile and a very respectful manner. I mentioned to him that I was disappointed that the lockers were too small for my racquet to fit in them. He said, "Here, I've got just the ticket." Then he showed me to the back of the room where a top-tier locker happened to be missing a ceiling panel, allowing my racquet to fit snugly inside. I thought, "Wow, this guy is different than the others."

The next time I saw Noah, he greeted me by my first name. I was really surprised because I hadn't introduced myself; he had remembered my name from my rental contract. In fact, every time I came in, Noah greeted me personally. He asked me questions about my work and family. Eventually, I asked his name too (I'm a little slower with social graces, I guess) and began to learn about him. We got to be friends, and I was genuinely sad when he disappeared one spring -- presumably after graduating.

Noah is an inspiration to me. Working in one of the least appealing jobs on campus, he brought dignity, professionalism, and genuine service to his work. I'm sure I was just one of many of his "customers" that he treated as friends. The contrast between him and his Neanderthal colleagues was astounding.

I'm not saying that working in a locker room is Noah's calling in life. Far from it. But it was obvious to me that he was honing his talents, using them to serve others, and making the very most of a pretty crummy job. I actually think he was happy working there. And I'll bet dollars to donuts that he will find his calling in life much more quickly than the resentful grumps who won't make eye contact with me when I thank them for the clean towel.

Wherever you are now, Noah, my hat is off to you! You are in my pantheon of people who bring nobility to their work where I least expected it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What if My Calling in Life Doesn't Pay Enough to Live On?

I had lunch today with Eli, a terrific former student. He was a superstar in the MPA program, and then accepted a challenging HR job. After a year, he knew he was in the wrong place. So he left, and landed his current job, which is teaching elementary school to 7- and 8-year olds in a French language immersion school.

Eli's eyes light up when he talks about his work. He knows that he is really making a difference. He shared a story about a belligerent child that he was able to reach, and who now enjoys school. It was obvious to me that Eli is flourishing in his work. It may be his life's calling.

But the reason for our lunch was to discuss a difficult question. It's one I hear a lot, but I must confess I don't think I have a great answer yet. Eli asked: "What if your calling in life won't pay the bills? Is it irresponsible of me to do something I love if I can't comfortably support my family at it?"

Let me tread cautiously here. I certainly can't answer that question for anyone else. But I've thought about it a lot, and would like to share a couple of reactions and stories.

Reaction #1: What does it really mean to support a family? If you contrast our luxurious Western lifestyle with most of the world, even our school teachers live in comparative opulence. Our perspective on "supporting a family" may be a little warped! My father was a school teacher. I grew up in a tiny house with very simple means (by US standards). Money was tight, and often a worry. Dad did extra jobs to make ends meet. But I did not personally suffer one iota from not having the best toys or the coolest vacations. My childhood was golden, and I like to think that I learned perspective, economy, and (hopefully) humility because of my upbringing. I certainly benefited from an example of a father who did meaningful work extremely well.

Reaction #2: What hidden costs are you incurring by accepting lucrative work that you don't love? During my short and miserable corporate career, I came home from work diminished. Because my work consumed my energy, rather than igniting it, I felt depleted by 6pm, and was less of a husband and father than I could have been. I probably would be wealthier now if I'd stayed on the corporate track. But I shudder to think what it might have cost me in terms of my well-being and family relationships. If you are concerned about whether your work gives you enough money to support your kids, give deep consideration to this: how do you weigh the importance of giving your kids money against the importance of giving them your energy, joy, and example?

Reaction #3: Are you really sure that your calling won't pay off in the long run? We are most likely to excel when our work is our calling. And people who excel usually (not always) get rewarded in the long run. My MBA ethics professor told a story of a student who was passionate about restoring old cars. But he planned to set aside that passion for a financially secure career, even though he dreaded the work he was headed for. My professor urged him to trust that his real talents would allow him to be successful. So he took the great gamble and pursued a career in auto restoration. He eventually became one of the foremost car restorers in the world, owned his own auto museum, and did extremely well financially. I am not making any guarantees about your future by sharing this romantic story! But it is worth remembering as you think about whether you can "afford" your calling or not.

There are no easy answers to Eli's question. And I did suggest to Eli the possibility of shifting to a more lucrative career that could still capture his calling in life. But I hope you don't rush too quickly to abandon your calling because it might not make you rich. When I die, I'd rather have a smile on my lips from the joy of meaningful work than ulcers from toiling unpleasantly to make money.

And I'll take to my grave exactly the same dollar amount as the rich guy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Passion and Pizza: Finding Callings in Surprising Places

Sometimes my students teach me profound things about work as a calling. One day when I was teaching in Ohio, I asked the students (as I often do) what work they would do if they were wildly wealthy. I got the typical list, ranging from sports franchise owner to humanitarian.

Then one student, Nick LaRosa, said "I would do what I do right now. I'd serve pizza."

At first, I thought Nick was joking. Why would someone choose food service, of all things, if he could do any work he wanted? But Nick was absolutely serious.

Nick's grandfather, if my memory serves, is the founder of LaRosa's Pizzeria in Cincinnati, and Nick grew up in the family business. You can check out the company here.

As near as I recall, Nick explained his answer as follows: 

"I love what I do. People come to our restaurant to celebrate, and to be with each other. When I serve them a great pizza, I'm part of a memory-making moment. I can't think of anything more satisfying than contributing to wonderful memories among family and friends." 

As Nick finished speaking, the class grew quiet -- almost reverent. It was a moving testimonial. 

Nick's comments reminded me of one of my favorite interviews in Studs Terkel's book "Working." Terkel interviewed a waitress named Dolores Dante who considered herself an artist at her food service craft. You might want to check out an excerpt of what she had to say here. It's amazing. Better yet, buy the book!

In any case, Nick taught me that we might be missing the boat if we are looking for glamor in our life's calling. Instead, maybe we should be looking for the simple acts that we love to do -- particularly the ones that make others happy. 

Oh, and make sure you give a big smile and a big tip to food servers who treat you like Nick and Dolores would!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beating Drudgery at Work (Part II)

I often hear people complain that their jobs don't challenge them, or that they are just putting in their time at a lousy company until they can discover their true calling in life. I sympathize with those folks, because I have been there. But -- and I hope people won't take offense at this -- I also wonder if we sometimes use drudgery as a crutch to excuse ourselves from exercising our callings. 

Of course, some jobs just don't fit us particularly well. But are you perhaps taking too static a view of your job? Granted, you probably have a list of formal job descriptions that aren't negotiable, but unless you are on a factory floor (and sometimes even then), you may have a lot more discretion than you recognize to shape what you do and how you do it. 

Let me introduce three brilliant and wonderful colleagues (some of my favorite people!) who have made a huge splash with a new tool: "Job Crafting." Justin Berg (Wharton), Jane Dutton (U. of Michigan), and Amy Wrzesniewski (Yale) have developed an exercise that has been highlighted in Time Magazine, Business Week, and other major media outlets. It's a fascinating and fun activity that helps you, in about an hour's time, to create visual representations of your work and identify ways that you can reshape your job to better fit your gifts and interests. To quote the Job Crafting website, the exercise "encourages you to view your job in a new way — as a flexible set of building blocks rather than a fixed list of duties." 

I love that perspective! If you feel alienated by your job, or mired in drudgery, you don't have to postpone finding your calling. Start building your gifts into your work now. 

I heartily endorse the Job Crafting exercise. Check it out here! There's a great video that explains how it works, and there is a free version for students. 


Friday, July 1, 2011

Beating Drudgery at Work (Part I)

So, if you are reading this blog, I hope you are getting the picture that having a calling doesn't mean that work is all fun and games. Indeed, our zookeeper research suggests that slogging through drudgery is a price you pay to find meaning; drudgery and meaning are often two sides of the same coin. It usually takes a lot of mundane work to create something that lasts.

If you pay too much attention to the romanticized version of calling (i.e., 24/7 bliss), you can easily start to feel cheated at work: "Hey, if this is what I'm really meant to do, why am I bored/tired/disinterested/etc.?"

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, but I'll share just one tonight. And it's personal.

My academic profession is most definitely my calling in life. But the drudgery of writing - especially when I'm facing the dreaded blank computer screen at the beginning of a project - can almost paralyze me. I have to drag myself to write that first sentence, and the second one is only marginally easier. On my worst days, I find a thousand creative ways to postpone my writing. I gradually accrue little droplets of guilt, and by the end of the day, with nothing written, I'm drenched in it. String enough of those guilt-soaked days together, and it's easy to begin doubting whether I'm really meant to be a professor.

Then I learned a technique that changed everything. In fact, I attribute getting tenure to this one strategy. It's not rocket science. It's simply to BEGIN every work day by spending 15 minutes on the hardest thing you have to do. (A hearty thanks to my friend, Jane Birch of the BYU Faculty Center, for teaching me this!)

The results were astonishing.

  • First, I was amazed at how much I could get done in just 15 minutes of focused writing. 
  • Second, 15 minutes was usually enough to get me over the drudgery hump, and I often wrote for much longer. 
  • Third, the rest of my day was unencumbered with dread or guilt, so I felt far more energized and creative. 
  • Fourth, I reconnected with my sense of calling. I knew who I was. I was a scholar, because I was writing!
Caveat: just because this worked so well for me, doesn't mean it's a one-size-fits-all technique. Some people feel better starting with a fun task and gradually working into the harder stuff. But if your sense of drudgery is overpowering your sense of calling, try doing the hardest thing first. You might find, like me, that your professional calling snaps into perspective once you stop hiding from the biggest challenges.

Monday, June 20, 2011

If You Think You are Too Vanilla to Have a Calling... (Part 2)

One of the great falsehoods of contemporary life, fueled by the cult of celebrity, is that you must be exceptional to have a calling. Our media gives us a constant diet of technological wizards, newly discovered talent idols, and celebrity chefs. Watch enough brilliant people give TED talks, and it’s easy to conclude, “Well, I’m just not that special.”

When we equate callings with jaw-dropping talent, Martin Luther rolls over in his grave. He introduced the idea of calling during the Reformation, and what he meant was that every one of us – including the humblest – have a calling, which is simply to use whatever resources we’ve been given to bless God’s children. Callings are not the privilege of the exceptional, but the province of the ordinary. 

“OK,” you might respond, “that’s all well and good. But my talent is so run-of-the-mill that I just blur into the landscape. How can I make a difference doing X if a thousand other people are just as good at it, if not better than me?”

Here’s where I’d like to introduce my new friend – Santiago Michalek – who gave me some novel insights. Santiago is a young artist who is exceptionally gifted. At a recent art show, I encountered the following painting (reproduced here with Santiago’s permission). It stopped me dead in my tracks – in part because it was so stunning, and in part because it reminded me of my time in Ghana.

But Santiago is just one of countless talented young artists trying to make their mark on the world. Unfortunately, just having a talent for painting is not enough to give most artists the elusive opportunity for popular success. That’s true of most of the rest of us as well. We can’t really hope to be the best in the world at (or sometimes even get noticed for) something that a lot of other people do.

Let’s look at another of Santiago’s pieces, though. This one is much more representative of the work that he is currently doing.

I must admit that when I first saw Santiago’s Volkswagen work, it didn’t do much for me. I’m not really a car person, and I didn’t immediately see the aesthetics in this kind of art. Later, though, I learned that Santiago is not just an artist. He’s also a passionate restorer of old VWs. He has studied and mastered their anatomy as thoroughly as he has mastered the anatomy of the human figures he draws. Learning about Santiago's mechanical passion gave me an entirely different perspective on his art. I noticed that his VW paintings seem to caress each old car with light (pay attention to the amazing reflections and overlays of light on the windshield and front of the van, for instance). In Santiago’s work, the rusting hull of a beat-up bug isn’t a discarded relic, but a thing to be restored and revitalized – kind of like people who sometimes feel defeated by life. That was meaningful to me. And to the many people who are quasi-religious in their devotion to old VWs (I’m related to a couple of them!), Santiago’s art represents a truly unique contribution. As far as he knows, he is the only artist who has combined a passion for painting with a passion for VW restoration, and his VW paintings are the ones that are opening up the most doors in his promising future career.

(Check out Santiago's other work here, or his blog here.)

For me, the takeaway was very crisp. We don’t discover our calling by figuring out what our one talent is. We discover our calling when we explore the intersection of our various talents. Like the innumerable combinations of DNA that make us unique, each of us has a mind-boggling complexity of gifts, abilities, interests, and viewpoints. Your combination of gifts is as unique as your fingerprint. There never has been and never again will be someone in the world who has your particular repertoire of dispositions and abilities! The world needs that combination, and can’t get it anywhere else but from you.

So if you feel like you are just one of many who are soldiering along in your work, stop and take inventory of your gifts. Think very, very broadly.  If you are an accountant, what talents and abilities will make you a different flavor of accountant than anyone else? If you are a secretary, how can you use your array of gifts to be the only secretary quite like you? No painter is just a painter. And nobody is just vanilla. Your flavor is a very complex one (as a celebrity chef might say). And that’s what will make your calling unique. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

If You Think You are Too Vanilla to Have a Calling... (Part 1)

A lot of my students say things like “I’m not sure what I want to do with my career. I just know I like working with people.” My follow-up question is always: “How do you like working with people? There are a million ways to do it. What is your way?”

My response is a little more diplomatic than the one my colorful ethics professor gave me when, at age 25, I went to his office to bemoan my lack of career direction. I fretted to him, “I don’t know what I want to do. All I know is that I want to help people somehow.” His testy response was: “That’s B.S.” (he didn’t use the acronym) “You know a lot more about yourself than you suppose – if you’d just take the time to think hard about it.”

That got my attention. I sheepishly began the hard work of asking myself specific questions about my gifts.

So, OK, let’s say you like working with people. But what are you really great at doing with people? Are you an astute observer of emotions? Are you gifted at offering genuine praise? Are you the person others seek out to share problems with? Can you tell a story that spellbinds your listeners? Are you good at running a meeting?

“Working with people” isn’t a talent. It’s a massive constellation of talents. Until you identify what your precise gifts are, it’s almost impossible to figure out what type of work you are best suited to do.

If you think there is nothing particularly unique about your gifts – that you are just one of millions who are good at some general thing – then (pardon my bluntness), you just aren’t thinking hard enough. My ethics prof says so.  

What is your way? You have a unique flavor… if you will just do the work of discovering it. Nobody is just plain vanilla. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, which will include a special guest. I can’t wait to share it (and him)! 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

An Easy Way to Start Loving Your Job a Little More

My good friend Adam Grant is one of those people that you would love to hate, if he just weren't so humble and kind. Adam is astonishingly brilliant and seemingly good at everything - especially publishing fascinating research. LOTS of it. If he had an ounce of ego, I'd resent him. But he just loves what he does, and attacks it with an exuberant, playful spirit. He always seems a tad surprised at his own success. To know Adam is to be swept up in the wake of his enthusiasm. You can't not love him.

My favorite of Adam's studies was an experiment he did with telefund employees. These are the college students who call alums to ask for donations. It's tedious, frustrating work, and employee turnover is enormous. But Adam wondered what would happen if he tweaked one little thing at the telefund. In short, he invited some of the employees to have a five-minute conversation with a student who had received scholarship money from the telefund's efforts. In other words, they actually got to interact with a person that benefited from their unpleasant work.

The result? You won't believe this. A 400% increase in donations solicited by the employees who talked with the scholarship recipient.

But the effect only lasted for a day or two, right? Wrong. Employees who had interacted with the beneficiary of their work were still performing at a much higher level two months later. (You can read about this research in Harvard Business Review here.)

In an earlier post, I mentioned Daniel Brooks' New York Times article encouraging college grads not to go out and seek their own happiness, but rather to forget themselves and focus on helping other people. That same idea was one of the huge takeaways I gained from our zookeeper study: having a calling is about devoting yourself to service in a worthy cause - not about self-gratification.

Adam's study puts a huge exclamation mark on this principle. When we orient our work around serving people, our performance shoots up remarkably. And we start having a little more fun.

So, if you are one of the many who feel perplexed about finding your professional calling, try out Adam's experiment. Seek out conversations with the people you are helping. Focus on how much fun it is to be of service. Some very solid research says that you are bound to notice a big difference.

And who knows, you might just find some new clues to your professional calling.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Allure of Foreign Truths

Today I decided to say no to something. 

That's a big deal for me.

I'm a pleaser, so I have gotten myself into quite a few projects that I quickly realized I should have declined. That tendency reminds me of an amazing quote from contemporary philosopher David Norton: 

"The great enemy of integrity is not falsehood as such but - ironically - the attractiveness of foreign truths, truths that belong to others." 
(Norton, D. 1977. Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. Princeton University Press. p. 9)

Norton isn't talking about religious truths here, but personal ones. "Foreign truths" are good things that aren't mine to do. In my case, that includes things like selling a product, engaging in public political debate, or playing basketball. I admire people who do those things well, and at different times in my life I've been persuaded that I ought to do each of them. But while I was doing them, I felt like an impostor. And if I had kept trying to be something I wasn't, it would eventually shred the fabric of my integrity (by which Norton means not so much one's honesty as one's sense of wholeness as a person). 

So, being a pleaser, I have unfortunately spent a fair amount of time pretending to be something I wasn't. That's no crime if you're genuinely searching for what your gifts are (which does require some trial and error). However, my concern (and Norton's) is that a lot of people spend their entire lives living foreign truths at work or in their personal lives -- trying to be what others think they ought to be, or what will make them the most money, regardless of their gifts. That's tragic, because it means you spend your life offering to the world something less than your best. And the world needs our unique personal gifts! (And we need to give them to be happy.)

If you're trying to figure out what your calling in life is, here's another thing or two to ask yourself: 

- What opportunities have I said "no" to? Why?
- What opportunities do I wish I had said "no" to? 

Sometimes we can learn as much about our unique gifts by the opportunities we turn down as the ones we accept.

New York Times gets it right!

I've been flooded by recommendations to read this article (click to link to it):
"It's not about you"

David Brooks, a NYT columnist, hits a bulls-eye with this article about what it means for young people to find their calling in life. Must read!

And as long as I'm handing out homework... :)

It occurs to me I haven't shared here the fruits of my own calling. If you are interested, I gave a speech at BYU last summer on what a calling does (and doesn't) mean. You can watch it streaming online: Video of "What is Your Calling in Life" speech

or read the transcript: Transcript of "What is Your Calling in Life" speech

And for the really brave at heart, you can check out the research publication on zookeepers that got Stuart and me thinking really hard about this topic: "The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work"

Quite enough shameless self-promotion for one night!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Fiddling and Keeping it Fresh

I hosted a conference at the Sundance ski resort last week for 30 of my academic colleagues who also study meaningful work (people as wonderful as they are smart!). At dinner Friday night, a few of us were talking about hobbies. Brodie, a tall, sunny, and thoroughly charming PhD student from Case Western University listened quietly until I said to him, "well, as a doctoral student, I'll bet you don't have time for anything other than reading and writing."

"Actually," he said, "I started fiddling this year."

My jaw dropped. How could someone begin a new hobby - not to mention a new musical instrument - during an all-consuming PhD program?

Brodie explained that when he gets tired of his scholarly work, there is a temptation to turn on the TV. But watching TV drains his energy and intellect. So instead, he takes 15 minutes to play some bluegrass. It calms him, engages his creativity, and sends him back to work feeling rested and sharp.

I've mentioned in previous posts that even your calling in life can bring occasional drudgery and frustration. But it took a bright, balanced 20-something to teach me that passion builds on passion, and that we can gain energy and creative boosts by blending our avocations with our vocation.

What hobbies or interests energize you? Are you making time for them in your life?

Maybe I'll talk in a later post about a new pursuit that has thoroughly energized me. But for now, I'll close with the Brodie principle: Fiddle to keep work fresh!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thank you!

A big thanks to all those who have shared with me their comments about the blog. They mean a lot to me. More blog entries to come soon!

Just a couple of nuggets I wanted to share. First, from my podiatrist friend: 

"Thinking of my own "calling", I think I'm lucky enough to have found it. But even so, it's not like I wake up everyday excited to go to work. Looking at feet, after all, is not a very glorious job. But what makes my job great is helping so many people to feel better. It's the sevice aspect, that you spoke of, that really makes my job great. While I'm working to help the patients that come to see me, I never think of myself or my own problems or worry about how much money I'm making."

And a former student informed me today that Oprah appears to be reading my blog (as if). Here's what she, I'm assuming when she signed off from her show: 

"Everyone has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it," she said. "You have to know what sparks the light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world. ... Wherever you are, that’s your stage, your circle of influence. That’s your talk show, that’s where your power lies. … You have the power to change somebody’s life."

Nice, Oprah!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Can I Find My Calling When I'm Stuck in this Lousy Job?

Like I said earlier, the question that students most often ask me is "how do I figure out what my calling in life is?" But I hear a different question from people on the other side of the diploma. Whenever I talk about my research to a group of employees, it's a guarantee that at least one will come up to me afterwards and say, "Yeah, but how can I ever find my calling when I'm stuck in a job I can't stand?" Behind the question is a thinly veiled skepticism about the things I teach: "Sure, it's very romantic to talk about being passionate about your work. But you're a professor. You live in la-la land. You don't know how hard it is in the 'real world.'"

Actually, I sort of think I do know. I was there for awhile. I was completely miserable in a corporate job that left me feeling numb, alienated, fractured.

And, probably like most people, I handled my alienation very badly. I turned inward, I watched the clock, I did enough good work to get by. And I waited every day, hoping for the "right job" to come along and save me.

Here's where my thinking was flawed: I thought that finding my calling in life meant finding a particular job. It's the classic fairy tale -- the slipper fits and we ride off into the sunset, happily ever after, my dream job and I.

The harsh reality is that most people never find a "dream" job. Most of us struggle away in imperfect organizations, wrestling with unsavory or impossible tasks, frequently underused or under-appreciated, and sometimes baffled about the point of it all. And that's just the pretty decent jobs!

But a job is not a calling. Going back to the very roots of the idea (all the way back to Martin Luther), a calling is a particular type of work that one feels destined to do because of one's personal gifts and unique opportunities. And the point of a calling is to bless other people. Very few job descriptions are perfectly aligned with the occupant's gifts and talents. But most people can find some way to put their own unique stamp on their work by discovering and employing their particular gifts, their particular way of doing the job.

So what should I have done instead of biding my time in my crummy corporate job, waiting for happiness to come to me? I wish that I had said, "Fine. I don't really like this place. It doesn't naturally bring out the best in me. But I wonder how I can make it a better place? Is there something creative I can contribute? Can I make things easier, better, more interesting, more fulfilling for my coworkers? Can I surprise and delight my clients?" I'm ashamed to admit that such thoughts never really crossed my mind.

In short, I wish that I had stopped thinking so much about myself and instead thought, "how can I serve?"

One of the greatest lessons I have learned about life callings is that, almost invariably, people discover what their callings are while in service to others, rather than in service to self. It's the classic paradoxical principle that Jesus taught: when we lose ourselves, we find ourselves. And here's the payoff to people who are in lousy jobs: the likeliest way you can get beyond your lousy job is by throwing your heart into helping other people in, and around, your organization. Doing so will help illuminate what your unique gifts are, and it will make you an extraordinary employee. (You also will probably start to hate your job a little less.)

And -- here's the clincher -- when you become extraordinary in the unique professional service you render, the "right job" is much more likely to find you.

I would have made a much bigger difference in my corporate job if I'd realized that.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Meaningfulness Doesn't Come Cheap

A few nights ago, I went to my daughter's junior high school choir concert. I must confess I went with maybe a smidgen of dread. Much as I support my daughter, I had very low expectations about the quality of music that a couple hundred squirrelly 'tweens would produce.

An hour later (here's another confession), I was trying hard not to look choked up. It was a beautiful, moving evening. And for that, I have Mr. Manning to thank.

Mr. Manning has been directing the choir for seven years. He looks hardly older than some of the kids he conducts. And while he led them in a few obligatory pop songs like "Hey There, Delilah" to keep things fresh for the kids, the repertoire leaned more heavily to offerings like "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and other challenging and transcendently beautiful pieces. The musicality may not have been quite ready for Carnegie Hall (though it was far better than I expected). But the kids sang with as much heart and conviction as any performers I have seen.

The reason became obvious near the end of the concert. Mr. Manning spoke about his love for the kids, and his passion for helping them use music to express their emotions. Then a flood of alumni came to the stage to join the combined choirs for a final, moving number, followed by a massive group hug with Mr. Manning as nucleus.

I mentioned in an earlier post that seeing people excel at their calling in life enriches all of us. Here is a case in point. I left the concert more determined than ever to give my heart to what I do, and to infuse my work with dedication, love, and service.

But to end my post here would be a disservice to Mr. Manning. It's very romantic to applaud the maestro at the end of a great performance and think, "Wow, he made that look so easy! He is so gifted!" We don't often pause amid our applause to weigh the sacrifice, strain, setbacks, frustrations and yes, even moments of despair that usually precede an artistic achievement.

The most resonant result of my research on work as a calling is that finding meaning in your work comes at a steep price. The popular press would have you believe that fulfillment is all fun, that you know you have landed in your calling when work feels like play. There is an element of truth to that, but in our research on zookeepers, we heard a different, compelling, refrain. Callings require great sacrifice. And work is truly meaningful only when you are willing to pay the price of suffering its rigors and reverses. Meaningful work, like nobility, doesn't come cheap.

I emailed Mr. Manning to thank him for the wonderful gift he is giving my daughter. With his permission, I'd like to share a little of his response to me:

"It's been my practice to keep a copy of inspiring feedback such as yours as a supportive reminder in times of trial or difficulty... I have had a number of individuals, some very close to me, who have continually questioned my decision to be a choir teacher. After 7 years of doing it, I have a hard time believing I could be happier elsewhere. Regardless of the great challenges." 

Bravo, Mr. Manning! Not just for your wonderful concert, but even more for the long hours of toil in the face of challenges -- both personal and political -- to the value of your chosen profession. Hundreds of your students will never doubt, though, that your work matters a great deal -- precisely because of what you choose to put into it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Stop #1 on the Journey to Your Calling

If I had a nickel for every time a student came to my office to ask advice on how to find his or her calling in life... well, I'd have a lot of nickels. Talking about calling in class seems to get students very uptight! That's because they are asking the same questions I did at their stage in life: "What am I supposed to be?" "What if I don't figure it out in time?" "What if I don't have a calling, and end up hating my job forever?" Of course, it's not just students that struggle with those questions!

I don't claim to have all the answers to how one should pursue the quest for calling. But I do have one answer (actually, a question) that I always start with: What does your inner child tell you?

In my research with Stuart on zookeepers, we were struck by a common (almost universal) theme. Zookeepers knew from childhood what they were going to do when they grew up. They were the kids that brought home stray animals, that couldn't get enough of lizards and bugs and other creepy-crawlies. Their gift had manifested itself almost from birth!

"But wait," you might be thinking, "I didn't have any unique obsession when I was a kid. I was just a normal kid with ordinary interests." It's true that zookeepers appear to be pretty unique at an early age, but the point is not that you have to know at age 5 what your professional destiny is. The point is that our natural gifts and loves tend to make themselves apparent very early on.

When I was a kid, I had no idea that I would be an Organizational Behavior professor. But let me tell you a little about what I liked to do as a kid:
- I was a precocious reader
- I wrote a lot, just for the fun of it
- I loved getting up in front of people to speak or perform
- I played "school" with my brothers (I was always the teacher)
- I played "corporation" with my brothers (I was always the executive on the top floor)
- I was highly attuned to relationships and thought a lot about people's feelings and perceptions

So, yeah, I guess management professor fits pretty well! The funny thing is that I resisted being a professor for a long time. I never really connected the dots between my childhood and my professional goals. Today, it's blatantly obvious to me that I was born to do what I do. But I fought it for years.

Are you fighting your childhood too? Chances are that what is most unique about you -- your talents, your gifts, your special interests -- were clearer to you at age 5 than they are today. What did you love to do? How did you spend your time when you were completely free? What did you create? How did you interact with people? If you ask yourself a lot of questions like that, I think you'll discover that your repertoire of gifts turns out to be very unique. Taking inventory of what you loved from the get-go almost invariably provides clues about what type of work would represent a calling in life!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Everybody Wants Meaningful Work

If you are in Chicago in coming months, you absolutely MUST see a musical that is currently running there. It's a revitalized version of "Working," a formerly clunky (but now very sleek) depiction of real people talking and singing about the work they do. It might sound pedestrian, but trust me, it is moving, tragic, inspiring, heartwrenching. You'll never feel quite the same about people who do menial labor!

Anyway, the finale of the musical includes a line spoken by a steelworker: "Everyone needs something to point to." I thoroughly believe that. Dig down deep enough, and I think every human being has a desire to contribute, to leave a mark that lasts.

Here's when I first became convinced of this:

I had a wonderful boss when I worked at the headquarters of Payless ShoeSource. He was a consummate corporate climber, absolutely energized by the rough-and-tumble of office politics. I was pretty sure that he lived for the thrill of doing business (I, on the other hand, most certainly did not!). One day, out of the blue, he said to me pensively, "You know, Jeff, I've finally figured it out. We sell self-esteem." "Excuse me... how's that?," I responded. "We sell self-esteem!," he reiterated. "We put affordable shoes on the feet of kids who don't have many resources so that they can feel good about themselves at school. We sell self-esteem."

My first reaction (which I kept to myself) was "That's preposterous. Kids who wear our shoes get made fun of. They're not cool enough!" My second reaction was, "Wow, even my boss, who thrives on corporate adrenaline, is desperately in need of deeper significance in his work." He needed something to point to (even if the story he was telling himself wasn't all that credible).

Since then I've listened carefully to how people talk about their work. I hear it everywhere. I think it's a universal striving. We want to earn a living, but we want our work to matter. We want something to point to.