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! 


  1. I have really enjoyed your insights and perspective on finding a calling in life. I would like to ask you opinion on the Johnson O'Conner Aptitude testing.

  2. Thanks, Loren! I'm afraid I'm not terribly familiar with that particular aptitude test. But I am an advocate of aptitude tests in general. I think they tend to be useful guides to increasing self-awareness. However, I have also observed that they don't really constitute a "short-cut" to pinning down your calling. There is nothing that can substitute for life experience in both identifying and growing committed to your calling in life. I think false starts and occasional detours are essential experiences for most of us. To be personal -- I took an aptitude test in college that told me I should be a teacher. I scoffed at it, because I had already ruled that out. It was only through years of professional refining and the occasional career bump and bruise that I awakened to the accuracy of the test's results. I couldn't get there simply by taking the test. But in retrospect, having that result in the back of my mind did indeed influence me.