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. 


  1. This is, I think, the very crux of finding the way we contribute to God's plan to make life beautiful for all his children. Lots of people teach well, or counsel, or love and want to help others, but the intersection of all our unique attributes and passions is the map of our mission. It may take time to find that. Many people expect this to somehow happen in their twenties (I think you've addressed this previously.) I've had five careers in the past 25 years. That could sound like I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up, or perhaps that I'm not a finisher. In my 40s I discovered the intersection of my passions and found my calling, and I needed the previous 25 years to amass the experience and skill (and confidence) I needed. I don't think anyone does what I do like I do. That's the point. God makes individuals. The cult of celebrity makes copies. And your point about needing to be the best - some kind of stage version of ourselves - is spot on. Jesus said that we must lose ourselves to find ourselves, and humility is the first step in a pathway to perfection. My most well-spent time, even if I end up changing the world, will be playing catch in the back yard with my kids. If we lose sight of that we'll lose sight of the real power of our mission.

  2. I'd like to share an exchange I had with a friend about this post:

    JANI: I am struggling with the concept of my life's calling. I have so many interests that I don't think I can ever just hone in on one. I love being a mother, a business owner, quilter, musician, etc. The list goes on and on.

    ME: Why do you need to hone in on just one? I think that's part of the fallacy of how the world talks about "calling." Callings are really about using your unique gifts to serve others (at least that's how Martin Luther and John Calvin talked about it). The cool thing is when you can find intersections between your various interests. Did you read my post about my artist friend, Santiago Michalek? Sometimes your gifts will converge in unique ways, and that's when you really know where you are supposed to be.

    But having a ton of interests doesn't mean that you are lost. It just means there are lots of ways you can use your gifts to serve other people. We don't all have to be specialists.

    JANI: Yes, I did read it. And, now it is making more sense to me. I am not a specialist and I am totally comfortable with it. I love being mediocre in 50 things.

    ME: But you're not mediocre. You have a flair for lots of different things. And there is no one else that has your combination.