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!