Monday, September 17, 2012

How the Daily Grind Can Prepare You for Your Calling

I'm back! A radically busy summer -- along with a fairly sudden move to a new house -- has thrown me off schedule a bit. But I'm back into working on my book, and wanted to share a fresh story: 
My dear friend Sam is a great example of how patiently doing all you can in the midst of a less-than-exciting career can open doors to something far more fulfilling. After his family sold the business that he had co-owned throughout his early adulthood, Sam struggled to find work that would both provide for his family and give him a sense of professional achievement. Eventually, Sam found some success by building a small business. He finished concrete floors – usually in residential garages. Although there was adequate demand for his skills, the work felt repetitive to Sam and didn’t provide him the sense of challenge that he longed for. Moreover, the job required Sam to continually pound the pavement for new customers. Going door to door was the only way he could maintain his livelihood since his job provided no opportunity for repeat customers. As Sam put it, “I was firing myself after each job I finished.” 
Sam kept at his business for six years, getting by – sometimes just barely – but never feeling like he was doing what he loved or providing for his family in the way that he wanted to. How would Sam ever find his calling while he was stuck finishing floors? At one particularly low point, Sam asked his stake president (a church leader) for a priesthood blessing (a form of inspired ecclesiastical guidance) to help him know how to provide better for his family. The blessing gave him some very pointed assurances – including that he need not worry, and that God would soon provide Sam a way not only to make a comfortable living, but also to help others in the process.
One day soon after the blessing, Sam was hired to finish the floors of a cabin belonging to a man named Rob, who is a successful entrepreneur. As they drove up the canyon together, Sam inquired what business Rob was currently working on. Rob described a new venture that involved providing social media services to companies through Facebook and other internet-based platforms. Sam was intrigued by the company’s product, and immediately started thinking about business owners he knew who might be interested. Sam told Rob, “I think I can sell that!” Rob appreciated Sam’s enthusiasm but explained that he already had a sales team in place and didn’t have a spot for a new person.
Undeterred, Sam started talking to his various contacts about the new business anyway. And here is where Sam’s unique gifts started to surface in a significant way. You need to know that Sam is extremely gifted at connecting with people and forming relationships. He describes himself as the type of person who can’t stand by in an elevator without striking up a conversation with another occupant. Sam’s friends affectionately refer to him as “The Mayor,” because wherever he goes, he seems to run into someone in the community that he knows. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Sam to believe that he could find people who would share his enthusiasm for the new business idea.
Within a few months, Sam had brought so many new clients – including some very large ones – into Rob’s business that Rob really had no choice but to hire him. By his second month of employment, Sam had more sales than anyone else in the company. When he talks about his work now, he has a sparkle in his eye and an infectious enthusiasm. It’s obvious that he has taken a huge step toward work that represents his calling in life.
When Sam looks back on his years as a floor finisher, he has a sense that it was a necessary, if not always pleasant, experience to prepare him for the work he is doing now. Finishing floors gave him a commitment to meticulousness that has enhanced his professionalism. Selling his services door-to-door heightened his confidence in approaching potential clients. And, most strikingly, Sam admits that he never would have found his current job if it hadn’t been for the opportunity to finish the floor of his boss’ cabin.
As he reflects back on the years of struggling as he searched for his calling, Sam feels that his faith played a critical role in helping him get where he is today. He said,
“The Lord is involved in our lives in the smallest, simplest ways, and we don’t even realize it. The question is whether we have that childlike faith to see it. Instead of questioning whether it’s the hand of the Lord or not, we just need to say, ‘yeah, that was the Lord.’”

It would have been easy for Sam to despair, or to think that God had forgotten him, when he was struggling for years with his floor-finishing business. But in retrospect, Sam can now see his professional struggles, and less-than-fulfilling work, refined him through those challenging times to prepare him to do work that allows him to use his best gifts. 
Sam's story should be an inspiration and comfort to those of us who feel like we are just grinding away at unfulfilling jobs. Having an unpleasant job is not the worst thing that could ever happen to us! Virtually any job provides us opportunities to learn something about ourselves (even if it's figuring out who we aren't). Sam's formula is pretty brilliant: Work as hard and well as you can at whatever job you are blessed with, but at the same time, be intensely vigilant and opportunistic about new and unusual prospects. You might just see the hand of Providence!   

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

If I Miss My Calling in Life, Do I Get a Second Chance?

I thought I'd share an excerpt from the book I'm currently drafting (which is a faith-based treatment of professional callings). This is my offering to those of you who find yourself thinking "If I don't find the one right career path, I'll mess up my life forever." (I used to think this way as a college student.)


All of us have probably experienced that horrible moment when we realize we have been driving our car in the wrong direction for a long time – maybe hours. Being on the wrong road invariably makes us think about missed opportunities. If we hadn’t missed the freeway exit two hours ago, we might have had four more hours of family time at the reunion! We might have been able to get to sleep at a decent hour rather than driving late into the night.

Freeways, though, have the wonderful quality of being vastly interconnected and retraceable. If we lose our way on a road trip, there is always a way back, even if we incur a major delay. But life’s highways don’t always seem like that. Like Robert Frost notes in his great poem “The Road Not Taken,” when we choose one path over another, we recognize that we may never be able to go back to the unchosen path.

“…Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

I recognize that many life choices are irreversible. If I choose to go to law school instead of medical school, for instance, then most likely I have closed the door on ever being a doctor. So, for those of us who enjoy having options, making big choices can be excruciating – not just because choosing is hard, but because each choice also seems to represent a forever-lost possibility.

When we buy into the world’s dogma that callings are a matter of personal choice, it puts tremendous pressure on us, the choosers. We may feel like life is a high-stakes guessing game, where we try to match our career choices to the will of God. We tell ourselves that if we are really in tune with the spirit, we’ll get it right and be on our way to a personal promised land. And then when things start to go badly for us, we quickly conclude that we must have gotten it wrong after all – which means that maybe we weren’t really in tune to begin with! And since life paths aren’t usually retraceable, it also might mean that we can’t ever get back to where God wanted us to be. We have blown our one chance at following God’s plan for us, and will forever be off in left field!

I hope this sounds a little melodramatic, and perhaps even somewhat humorous, to you. But have you ever fallen into that line of thinking? If so, stop and think for a moment about how God works with His children. Jesus Christ's teachings, and His sacrifice on our behalf, show that God is a God of second chances. He provided a Savior precisely because we get off the path. Is it reasonable to think that a Heavenly Father who sacrificed His own Son to allow us to make spiritual mistakes would then relegate us to a life of unhappiness merely for making a professional mistake? Of course not!

Happily, today’s occupational world is an extremely complex and diverse one. It is simply not a realistic concern when young people panic that an early career choice might lock them into a trajectory that they don’t enjoy and can’t escape. That is not how careers work today. Although we don’t have reliable data on the number of career changes the typical person goes through (common claims that the typical person has seven different careers during his or her lifetime are almost certainly a gross overstatement), the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average job tenure of all employees at 4.1 years. Given the frequency of job change in the contemporary working world, there are ample opportunities to gradually reshape your professional identity. In the working world of today, Robert Frost was right that “way leads on to way,” so that there are almost always opportunities to shift course, even if it requires sacrifices or augmented education. Your journey may not be linear. But guess what -- nobody's is.

Rather than allowing indecision to paralyze you because you don't want to choose the wrong career, I recommend boldness! We shouldn't fear making a wrong choice; the more fearful alternative is not doing anything at all. There are likely many different paths that can gradually lead you to your sense of calling! 

Friday, June 15, 2012

How Ordinary People Find a Calling in Life

I spoke at a banquet for graduating students the other night. As I looked around the room, my thought was, "They really don't know what they're in for! Most of these students have some major goal they are striving for, and most of them will probably get there. But almost none of them will get there the way they expect to!"

That's the nature of professional callings. They are almost never linear. And as with some of my recent blogs (e.g., Dr. Hull and Michael Gates Gill) it sometimes takes traumatic setbacks to help us find our way. I have become convinced that we don't choose our callings so much. They tend to choose us!

But there is a danger of being melodramatic and suggesting that you either need a life-altering crisis or the heralding of angelic choirs for your calling to be revealed. That's just not how it usually works. 

So, here's a story -- one that I love! -- that is a typical tale of a calling found. Unlike Michael Gates Gill's story about Starbucks, this one will never be made into a major feature film. But it's an inspiring, instructive story nonetheless. Many thanks to my former student, Matt, for sharing it with me.

This is how callings usually happen:

In 2003, Matt was a psychology student in need of a summer job. His fiancée, who had planted flowers for the city, finagled him an interview for a lawn-mowing job. He landed it.

When he arrived at work, however, Matt’s new boss gave him the option of becoming the crew leader of the weed whacking and lawn edging crew -- much harder work, but an opportunity to supervise other people and make a little more money. Matt accepted. It was hot, strenuous work, and Matt felt that the work was beneath me. He was a college student, after all! But, he decided that if he was going to do the job, he should devote himself to doing it the best he could. To this day, he doesn’t think the parks have ever looked as nice as they did that summer!

As summer drew to a close, Matt wondered what job he could find next. One day, his boss called him into the office and told Matt about an opening in the Power Department as a meter reader. Matt applied and was hired. His work required him to walk 6-8 miles per day. Again, he felt overqualified , but decided to be the best meter reader he could.

Later that year, Matt graduated with his psychology degree.  But job prospects were dim. “What in the world am I going to do with a degree in psychology?,” he began to wonder. He realized that he had no clear idea what he wanted for his career.

A few weeks later, a full-time engineering position opened in the city's Power Department. Matt had never imagined working full-time for the city. He had always had “bigger” plans for himself, which he now realized were actually no plans at all.  But with few other options, he interviewed for the position, got the job, and started a couple weeks later.

To his surprise, Matt discovered that he enjoyed his new job.  He learned new skills and technologies, and soon earned the title “AutoCAD guru” of the city. Another year brought another job opening within the Power Department. Given Matt’s limited work experience, it seemed like a long shot. But his college degree paid off, and helped land him the job.

Matt has been in the position for the past five years now, and just finished a Masters of Public Administration degree to prepare himself for future promotions. Now, looking back on how his career has unfolded, Matt has had an unexpected realization: “Maybe I’m supposed to be exactly where I am. Everything seems to have fallen into place for me to be where I am today.”

As a high school student, Matt never would have said that he wanted to be an executive of a Municipal Power Department when he grew up. But here he is. He’s really happy with his work. He didn’t set out to choose this as his calling in life. But it seems to have chosen him.

So, how do we account for Matt's discovery of his calling? A few major takeaways occur to me:

- He was open to opportunities as they arose and accepted challenges
- He poured his heart into his work, even when it seemed beneath him
- He sought education and learning as he went along
- He paid attention to what he enjoyed and what he was good at, and let it guide him

And there you have it. Maybe not the most glamorous story. But Matt provides a very good strategy for letting your calling find you!

By the way, this story is absolutely consistent with what many zookeepers told us in our research. Almost every one we interviewed expressed the feeling that the right doors had opened for them, and that they had been mysteriously guided along life's path. None of them attributed the fortuitous unfolding of events to the hand of God. But I certainly do. I believe that a loving Heavenly Father will help any of his children who diligently seek to serve -- whether they are believers or not -- to find ever-increasing opportunities to use their gifts to bless others.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lose Your Job, Find Your Calling?

Anyone who is searching for a calling in life would learn a lot by talking to Michael Gates Gill, author of the bestseller “How Starbucks Saved My Life.” I had the immense pleasure of spending more than an hour with Michael in New York City recently. At 72, he is almost childlike in his enthusiasm for the work he does – which might surprise a lot of people, since he left the lofty heights of corporate America to work as a barista at Starbucks. 
 When he was in his 50s, Michael was a well-paid advertising executive, living the high life in Manhattan, and raising a beautiful family. But that life was shattered when Michael got a pink slip from his agency. Shortly thereafter, his marriage fell apart and he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He spent a decade trying to regain his professional footing, but discovered that he couldn’t compete with the newly minted MBAs flooding the job market. Ad agencies wanted young faces and fresh ideas. Michael couldn’t get back into the game. Eventually, he fell into despair and desperation. How would he support himself? How would he get health insurance to cover his medical needs?
Sitting pensively in a Starbucks in upper Manhattan one day, Michael was mistaken for a job applicant. He thought to himself, “why not?” He applied and was hired as a barista. Thus began a journey of professional awakening that might astonish you.
Humbled by his circumstances, Michael threw himself into his Starbucks job. He took pride in keeping the restroom immaculately clean. He got to know the customers personally and befriended them. He swallowed his fear of the cash register and learned the skill of cashiering. He discovered, to his surprise, than he was happier than he had ever been in his corporate career.
Michael was also awestruck by the qualities and dedication of his coworkers – people he would previously have ignored if he passed them on the street. And he discovered that the business of serving coffee was a business of love – providing something that warms people and helps sustain life. He found a dimension of meaning and importance in his work at Starbucks that he had never experienced on the fast-track of corporate self-absorption.
What I loved most about my visit with Michael were his reflections that don’t appear in the book. In recent years, Michael has developed a deepened sense of spirituality about his professional journey. During the time of his career crisis, he didn’t think much about God. Reflecting back now, however, he attributes the twists and turns of his journey to the hand of God. Even though he weathered a devastating professional crisis, he is now full of gratitude, because those setbacks taught him how to relish life and find lasting satisfaction.
There is much we can learn from Michael’s journey. What will your career setbacks mean to you? Could it be that getting laid off is actually a blessing – a merciful re-tracking of your life to a destination better suited to your happiness?
Ultimately, Michael doesn’t think that serving coffee is his calling in life. He does still works at Starbuck and loves his job. But what has given him the most joy is telling his story through writing and public speaking. That is Michael’s calling. And he never would have arrived here without that pink slip that felt like a career-destroyer at the time.
P.S. I heartily recommend “How Starbucks Saved My Life.” Tom Hanks has bought the option to make a movie of the book, so watch for it in theaters as well! You can find the book here.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Finding Your Calling in the Midst of Adversity

My good friend, Dr. Dale Hull, experienced a major life change – not to mention a career change – in 1999. He was a highly successful OB/GYN physician at the time, but a freak trampoline accident suddenly rendered him quadriplegic. Because of his medical training, he knew at the moment he landed that his life would never be the same again. Not only would he be a different type of husband and father, he would also never be able to deliver another baby.

Dale’s recovery was an arduous, and ultimately miraculous process. After two and a half years of intensive therapy, Dale regained much of his sensory and motor function, and was even able to walk the Olympic Torch as it made its way to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where he handed off to Karl Malone. You can hear Dale recount his incredible and moving experience by clicking here

Despite his surprising return to mobility, Dale was unable to return to his obstetrics practice – his dream job. The door seemed to have slammed on his calling in life.

I’ve occasionally wondered what I would do if I was suddenly unable to be a professor. Could I find elsewhere the same sense of purpose and meaning I have in my work? Or would I, perhaps, withdraw into a state of bitter resentment?

These were the challenges Dale faced. He had no clear professional path to follow. But, he began to notice a need. When other spinal cord injury victims came to him for advice, he recognized that resources for these patients were extremely scarce, and few had the opportunity to receive the type of treatment he himself had benefitted from. In short order, Dale began to transition from being a physician to becoming a nonprofit founder and executive director. His organization, Neuroworx (click here to learn more), provides cutting-edge treatment and rehabilitation for spinal cord injury patients.

Dale could have shut himself away and resented the cruel hand of fate. Instead, he found a way to marry his medical expertise with his unique and unexpected life experience. He created a new calling in his life – one that provides him a deep sense of passion and fulfillment. You should see the light in Dale’s eyes as he talks about Neuroworx!

Dale reminds me that a professional calling isn’t just about what you love to do. It’s also about using your unique experiences – both the fortuitous and seemingly tragic ones – to serve in a way that only you can.

One last comment: Dale shared with me something last night that touched me deeply. Immediately after his injury, he was completely dependent on hospital staffers to meet all of his needs. A host of different nurses and attendants cared for him. However, he found that whenever one of the attendants washed his face – the only part of his body that had any feeling – he could immediately tell by their touch if they were just doing a job or truly giving care. I hope my students and colleagues can feel the touch of my service when I interact with them!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Create your own calling? Lessons from my conversation with the Bear Whisperer

I sometimes wonder if the reason people struggle to find their professional calling is that the best job for them doesn’t exist yet. Maybe they have to invent it! Sometimes finding your calling requires radical innovation.

I found a great example of someone who invented his calling in life when I met Steve Searles in Mammoth Lakes, California a couple of weeks ago. Steve is best known as Animal Planet’s “Bear Whisperer.” But he would be the first to admit that he is an unlikely TV celebrity.

I met up with Steve at a coffee shop in the middle of a blizzard on a Saturday morning, along with my good friend and our teenage sons; we were in town for a ski trip. Steve generously shared his time with us (not typical celebrity behavior) to tell his story. (You’ll want to see him in action too. Check out this site for brief, astonishing segments of his TV show.)

35 years ago, the city of Mammoth Lakes hired Steve, an avid tracker, to solve a bear problem. He was given a “hit list” of bears to kill. But Steve had been observing the local bears and noticed that they maintained an orderly hierarchy based on status behaviors. Steve asked the city if he could try “educating” the bears rather than killing them. His employer agreed it was worth a try. Thus began Steve’s grand experiment: to try to become the biggest, baddest bear in town so that the real bears would know their place.

Steve began to adopt the bears’ status-asserting postures and mimicked their vocal signals. He experimented with pellet guns and pyrotechnics to show the bears that when they were in town, they were on his turf and better behave. But when Steve is in the woods with the bears, he gives them respect through his silence and submissiveness. The result? The bears know where their place is, and they have all come to know Steve personally and respect him (they even allow him to visit their dens). And amazingly, the bears help perpetuate order by keeping out intruder bears who don’t follow Steve’s rules. Mammoth Lakes is now the best place in the world for the coexistence of bears and humans. And in 35 years, how many bears has Steve had to kill because of aggressive behavior? You guessed it. Zero.

When Steve first started sharing his techniques with others, he was mocked by the scholarly community, which didn’t believed bears would respond to emotions like respect and love. Today, he is sought out to train other communities’ wildlife managers in his techniques, which have saved the lives of countless bears. In other words, by following his passions and his instincts, he has literally created a new type of profession. How’s that for a calling in life!

Steve would be the last person to take credit for his accomplishments, however. Like most of the zookeepers we studied, he attributes his professional success to luck. During our conversation, he said:  

“You’ll never find someone as lucky as me in your interviews. They gave me a task [to manage the bear population], and I just looked for the easiest solution. Life just came by and tapped me on my shoulder.”

He went on to express his love for his work: “It’s not just my job, it’s my hobby, it’s my pastime. I haven’t gone on vacation in ten years. I live in a postcard. I work with wild animals every day. I love every friggin’ day. I can’t get to work fast enough in the morning.”

I feel honored to have spent a fascinating and inspiring hour with Steve Searles. He didn’t set out to be a celebrity. He simply found where he could best contribute, and humbly poured his heart into work that he loved. Despite his protestations of luck, I think the reason Steve discovered techniques that no one else has discovered before is that he really, really loves what he does. His love for bears borders on the spiritual. And his love for his community is almost patriotic. It was this love that propelled him to innovate.

So, you can’t find the perfect job? Maybe we should take a lesson from Steve, pour our hearts into creatively solving a problem we care about, and let the perfect job come to us. That’s the sort of luck I can believe in.

You can learn more about Steve, his bears, and his work at

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Parable of the Lilac Bush

When we moved into our home, I planted a lilac bush in our backyard so that my wife would be able to enjoy its blossoms from the kitchen window. I was delighted by how quickly the bushes shot up. But year after year, the lilac bush produced no blossoms at all. After about five years, I gave up, assuming that the bush was a dud (or maybe it was the guy who planted it).

Suddenly, a few years ago, the bush produced a huge profusion of blossoms. We were delighted by their beauty and the fragrance that filled our backyard. And the bush has blossomed faithfully ever since. It wasn’t until wintertime, though, that I realized what had happened.

When I looked at the bare lilac branches, I realized that they were all crooked. They had all s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d crazily to one side. That’s when it dawned on me (yes, I’m not a brilliant gardener) that I had planted the bush in the shade of another tree, and it had taken the bush years of arduous stretching to reach enough sunlight to blossom. I have a great respect for that diligent sun-seeking plant that succeeded despite my ineptitude.

Prof. Kim Cameron, who is an Associate Dean at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, teaches frequently about what he calls the “heliotropic” nature of living organisms. Heliotropic means “oriented toward the sun.” Virtually all life forms – flora and fauna – display an innate striving toward light, or other sources of life. Just like my lilac bush, they stretch mightily to bask in life-giving influence.

It strikes me that we human beings are about the only organisms who occasionally choose darkness and depletion intentionally!

Clearly, there are strong spiritual lessons to be learned from heliotropism. I have personally found that I “blossom” and thrive when I strive toward the light of God. But I also find great parallels to the lesson of the lilac bush in my professional life. How often do I shun opportunities to strive for excellence? For service? The greatest thriving we experience in our careers – and the greatest (and sometimes very uncomfortable) stretching – only happens when we reach toward the light that emanates from inspiration, from passion, from engagement, from devotion, from serving a noble cause.

When work starts to feel like a confined, dark space, try reflecting on my lilac bush. Instead of retreating to the shadows of mundaneness, bureaucracy, or self-absorption, think about how you can s-t-r-e-t-c-h toward something luminous and life-giving at work. You’ll probably find it most quickly by thinking about how you can serve others. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

To find your calling, forget about passion! (huh?)

So this post wins for the most counter-intuitive title. I named it in honor of a fascinating little Harvard Business School blog post entitled "To Find Happiness, Forget About Passion" by Oliver Segovia. You can read it here.

When I first saw that title, I thought "oh, this is wrong!" But Segovia actually gets it absolutely right. His point (and you should read it for yourself) is that the world indoctrinates us to just follow our dreams, but then we sometimes find out that our dreams don't make us any money, or even get us a job (think of the starving artist syndrome).

Segovia argues that the key to happiness isn't prioritizing your own dreams, but rather finding a need that you can fill. Basically, he says we're getting it backwards when we put passion before service. That turns out to be a hollow passion. If, however, we put our passion INTO service... well, that's sustainable passion, and a recipe for professional happiness.

This argument is actually a page straight out of the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin taught that you find your calling in life by discovering your gifts and talents (he might have used the word "passion" if he was writing today), and then by identifying where they are needed. My favorite Calvin quote is this: “For as God bestows any ability or gift upon any of us, he binds us to such as have need of us and as we are able to help.” (Sermons of M. John Calvin upon the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians, 1574; p. 307). 

I love the notion of our talents "binding" us to other people. Having a passion is actually a responsibility -- an obligation to give your best to the world. As we rush off to pursue our dreams, let's stop first and give some good hard thought to who needs them. You are much more likely to make a living if you do. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How to Work Beautifully

I mentioned in my last post that I have been studying voice lately to stretch myself. My amazing voice teacher, Kathryn Little, said something in a lesson a couple of weeks ago that rang all kinds of bells for me (she's full of wisdom). It's a principle that I believe has everything to do with finding meaning in our work.

Kathryn has been trying to convince me that my voice has natural beauty. I've found that tough to swallow. But a couple of weeks ago, in the middle of some soft legato exercises, she stopped me and said the following (reproduced verbatim from my recording of the session):

"OK, here's something to think about, because I know that this whole idea of your voice being beautiful is foreign to you and kind of embarrasses you a little bit... Um, instead of thinking about your voice, think about what your voice is doing to someone. If you could hug someone with your voice, if you could envelop someone with warmth and love, instead of 'oh, it's about my voice.' To give. To give to somebody else. Does that make sense?" 

It did. And when I started thinking about singing to express love for someone, the energy changed, the focus changed, and things flowed much more naturally. Maybe even a little bit - dare I say it? - beautifully.

There is a powerful principle here! I've discovered it with my teaching as well. When I walk into the classroom thinking "how can I get my students to like me today?," I'm never at my best. Instead, I've found that the recipe for success is to walk into the classroom thinking "how can I love my students today? What can I give?" I'm so much more effective on those days. And I'm a lot happier too. 

It's ironic. Finding meaning at work means forgetting about seeking it for yourself. Meaning comes as a by-product of serving others. And of course, that principle is true in every aspect of life, not just work. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Second Great Fear (Part 2)

Tomorrow night, I will be singing a solo at the departmental talent show. This is a very big step for me. And it all came about because a book changed my life.

First off, I have always yearned to be a great singer. But my singing voice was rough, a little gravelly, unsteady, and too loud. I was so self-conscious of how I sounded that I shied away from opportunities to sing. I was sure that people would secretly laugh at me, like one of those American Idol wannabes who are deluded about their "talent." And so I kind of gave up on it.

Then I read a popular press book written by a brilliant psychologist, Prof. Carol Dweck. It's called "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success."

Buy it. Now.

Prof. Dweck's decades of research revealed a basic human difference that reliably predicts a vast array of life outcomes. Beginning with her study of childrens' learning processes, she found that kids fall pretty neatly into two categories:

Fixed Mindset: a belief that one's intelligence, talents, and abilities are stable and unchanging
Growth Mindset: a belief that intelligence, talents, and abilities can change through effort

Pretty simple, right? But it turns out that this simple distinction makes a world of difference in how children - and adults - think, behave, and perform. As a small sample: In her studies, kids with a fixed mindset tended to choose simple puzzles rather than difficult ones, even if they were praised for their abilities. Meanwhile, kids with a growth mindset tackled more difficult puzzles with relish, even if they were told they might not be able to solve them.

Other insights:

- People with a growth mindset are more likely to seek new knowledge, while those with a fixed mindset stick to what they know
- People with a growth mindset seek out feedback, while those with a fixed mindset avoid it
- People with a growth mindset increase their effort after a failure, while those with a fixed mindset reduce effort
- People with a growth mindset compare themselves to more talented people to assess their progress, while those with a fixed mindset compare themselves to less talented people

And here's the clincher: People with a fixed mindset actually shun practicing their skills. Why? Because if you have talent you shouldn't need to practice! With a fixed mindset, hard work is perceived as evidence that your talent is in question. Prof. Dweck provides numerous examples of outrageously talented athletes, artists, etc., who plateaued in their progress because they stopped working hard -- not because of hubris, but because of fear that if others saw them practice, they might be "found out" for not being as talented as expected. And then, of course, are all of the "Rudy"-like stories of people who, armed with a growth mindset, worked their tails off to achieve outrageous success even though they lacked natural talent.

The best part of the book is that mindset turns out to be a choice. Dweck shows how you can alter your approach to the learning process by practicing a growth mindset. Having taken her challenge seriously, I can report that the effort has made a difference in my teaching, my parenting, and my overall zest for life.

Oh, and my singing! After preaching this material to my students, I realized that the only thing standing between me and my love of song was a fixed mindset. I timidly made an appointment with a voice teacher. The first thing I said was: "I really don't have a very good voice. I hope this is worth your time." She waved her hand dismissively and said, "Nonsense! Anybody can learn to sing. Let's get to work."

Growth mindset! Right there at lesson one.

So, what does this have to do with calling? In my last post, I showed how fear of success can stand in the way of realizing your gifts. Fixed mindset is the source of the second great fear. It's not really the fear of failure. It's the fear of being judged by others. If you are going to pursue a calling, and really excel at it, you will have to shed your fear of feedback, and consider it your friend. You have to forget about being perfect to impress other people, and instead embrace the possibility of failure as an opportunity for learning and growth. You have to care more about learning than about performing.

Vocal performance is not my calling in life. But the funny thing is that as I've gradually overcome the fear of being judged for my singing, I've felt liberated in other ways as well. I'm a little more accepting of myself as a teacher and scholar, a little more willing to stumble for the sake of improvement. It truly is a new worldview that makes it much easier for me to see my work as a calling and to excel in it.

Growth mindset. Try it on for size!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Two Fears that Keep Us from Our Professional Callings (Part 1)

I had a fascinating conversation with one of my students the other day. We’ll call him Marcus (not his real name). His experience highlights one of two major fears that I believe prevent us from finding and pursuing our calling in life. 

Marcus is an imposing figure. A former collegiate athlete, he is large, confident, and passionate. From past conversations, I knew that he had overcome a great deal to get into college, including a violence-filled adolescence. Today, though, he practically oozes natural leadership...

…which is why I had been a little puzzled that Marcus often seemed to hold back in class, and to adopt a somewhat passive role on his team. My questions were answered, though, when he came to speak to me in my office. As near as I can reconstruct, this is what he said:

“I have realized that, with my large stature and my loud voice, I can easily dominate other people. I don’t want to be the kind of person that dictates out of force. So I’ve really been trying to stay more in the background with my team.”

I had two reactions to that comment: 
1) This guy is remarkably sensitive. I really admire that.
2) What a waste of a natural gift!

I commended Marcus warmly for his maturity in recognizing the dangers of forcing his will on others, and we talked about how challenging it was for him to overcome the aggression of his younger years. 

But then I said, “Your stature and your voice are great assets, Marcus. What a shame not to use them to serve other people.”

Marcus seemed a little surprised by that comment. I then shared with him a wonderful quote. It’s often misattributed to Nelson Mandela, who used it in a speech. The original author is Marianne Williamson. You may have read it before, but it merits frequent pondering:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I have to admit that I didn’t really understand that quote for some time. But then I started reflecting on the many ways I have chosen to fade into the background, to worry about others’ perception of my talents, to pass up a chance to speak out about something when I knew I should have. There are dozens of ways that we can “play small.” And we sometimes feel that modesty requires us to suppress our talents. Jesus' words for that were "hiding our light under a bushel."

Marcus has figured out that his gift for influence is dangerous if he uses it self-servingly. Now he has to discover that it will be glorious when he uses it to serve others. I think that’s true of virtually any of the thousands of human talents we might be blessed with.

So, which of your gifts are you suppressing so that others won’t feel awkward around you? Do you fear your own innate greatness? I don’t believe you will discover your professional calling until you allow yourself to “shine, as children do.” And, as Williamson pointed out, when we shine with a spirit of giving, we don’t overshadow other people. We “unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the second fear!