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!