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.