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.