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.

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