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.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I wrestle with this idea a lot and wish I could just know where that "magical end point" is. I think I just need to focus more on learning how to "trust the journey"

  2. This makes me feel a lot better as a student. I can't tell you how many times this summer I sat in my internship worrying that my choice had already set me down a path I didn't want to go down and wouldn't be able to break away from that path. I think a lot of our generation aren't necessarily feeling "entitled" to our dream job, but I think it might be partly a fear that if we don't start working towards it right away then it will never happen. Especially in this economy, I assume I'll need to take whatever comes my way and then be stuck. It's scary to take an opportunity that doesn't look like the path you imagined, but this is reassuring to know that meandering to an end point is possible instead of the straight line we assume.

  3. Definitely in the midst of riding a wave - the great thing is that as unclear as the big picture looks, the short term picture is exactly what I was hoping for. Great post--

  4. After finishing a satisfying career, I have experienced the continuing nudging and guidance. We are never finished learning and may change our direction as we heed the guidance in our lives. Perhaps a second or third career path.
    I am grateful that all are different and have rich talents to help us and influence us. We can also have a tremendous influence on others as we sort out our true callings together. It takes others around you to be successful. No man or woman is an island, nor can we truly find our calling without each other.

  5. Thank you Dr. Thompson. It is so reassuring to hear that other people experience similar things when for along time I felt like I was the only one who did not have a clear picture of "my calling". I do believe in the idea that in each chapter of our life story there are "callings" that we assume and fulfill (not that there is one ultimate calling that we either attain or miss), all the while developing into someone who is able to look back and understand their "great calling" later on.

  6. Once again, you posted something just when I was thinking how ludicrous my current situation is. Thanks, friend!

  7. Thank you for this reminder--I know you've mentioned this concept in class (and Eva even mentioned it in her Math Camp class this summer), but it's easy to lose track of the fact that "all these things will give thee experience" and "shall be for thy good." My career path totally switched, without my choice, really (but that's another story), and I was just thinking this morning, "Does anyone EVER really find what they love to do--or is it all just an endurance test?" (Although I know the Gospel's take on this [see above scripture quotes!] I often feel that I'm "caught in the current" rather than "riding the wave" as Jaclyn posted. Thank you for reminding me that there is hope for the final outcome!

  8. THANK YOU for this post. What a blessing to read this today. Consider me a new "follower!"

  9. Jeff,

    I enjoyed this. I'm a litigation attorney in LA now, and as I sort through the problems that arise between parties, I am oftentimes left wondering if the fight is worth it, if the job is where I am supposed to be, and if I am going to end up where I need to, and how on earth do I derive satisfaction from the bickering, fighting and stress that surrounds me. This is a reminder that whenever I ask whether I am happy with where I am at right now? . . . the answer is yes. When it changes, I'll turn. I don't know what the future holds, but your post reminded me that it doesn't need to be a straight line to get there.

    As an analogy, I was riding in a long bike race on Saturday with a large hill. I typically just attack the hills, but this one was too long, and I was too tired from the ride (I was about 40 miles into it). About halfway up the hill, I lacked the strength to keep going straight. I had a decision: I could stop and walk up the remainder, or I could go sideways. So I stayed on my bike, and snaked/switch-backed my way up the remainder of the hill. I wish I could have gone straight up, but I lacked the strength to match my desire. Although I was a little disappointed, I made it up the hill and finished the race.

  10. I have to agree with Jobs - you can only connect the dots in retrospect. The road less traveled, all that jazz ... It's a good life. It's too short and there's too much to see to walk in straight lines.

  11. Absolutely loved the imagery of your post, Brady! Straight lines are often too exacting to be realistic. And yes, Bonnie, meandering often gives you better views!

  12. Brady's post reminded me that not only does the uphill climb call for occasion to "go sideways" because we are out of strength but many times even the downhill journey (skiing analogy) has to be taken with caution by switching back and forth to prevent dangerous speeds and uncontrollable situations. I think that sometimes in those sideways paths we get opportunities, or touch points (meeting new people, trying new things) to help broaden our reach and increase our understanding of the journey. Thanks

  13. A former student asked me to post this comment from him:

    This one really resonated with me. I liked this part, "If you are trying to learn and serve, then
    you aren't lost! You are just riding the wave."

    I've had that "lost" feeling a lot. Connected with it is a sense of feeling like you are wasting time. But, not only are you not lost, you aren't wasting time either if you are trying to learn and serve.
    Being teachable seems to be the key that makes experience meaningful (whatever stage you might be at in your career).