How much would you give to know?
Right now and with absolute certainty.
If your favourite magical creature suddenly appeared offering to shed all doubt about the one thing (or things) you were born to do, what price would you pay for that knowledge?
All the money in your bank account?
A not-so-important body part? Who needs little toes anyway?
What about five or ten years off your lifespan?
Perhaps these are silly questions. But just think about them. Because there’s probably a little part of you that wants to answer “yes” to at least one.
So what’s my point here?
In this post, I’m going to outline three steps to finding meaningful, fulfilling work. Followed in their entirety, they’ll take you exactly where you want to go.
But it’s important to set off on the right foot.
And that means recognising how important figuring this out is to you.
Why? Because doing so helps you commit.
It gives you the “mental fuel” to make an unassailable choice to see this process through. To weather both the good and bad. Not necessarily my process. But rather the broader journey of discovering fulfilling work.
Because the strange thing with the word “passion” is that many people have a dangerously over-simplified understanding of it. They think once they’ve “found it” that everything will be hunky-dory.
But passion isn’t discovered in one fell swoop. Yes, it’s the result of reflection. But it also requires experimentation, analysis, commitment, and struggle.
One final point. All of these steps are practical. You just need a pen and paper. Give as much or as little time to each as you deem necessary. Trust your intuition. Don’t be afraid of taking wrong turns. And allow all your experiences – big and small – to be heard.
Let’s get started.
Step #1: Start to Pay Attention to Your “Inner Life”
“Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.”Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The starting point is self-knowledge. Or, rather, the acquisition of self-knowledge.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to retire to a cave and spend ten years becoming the next Socrates or Buddha.
Nope. Just a little self-knowledge will do.
You need to begin forming of a picture of your interests, longings, aversions, values, fantasies, and all the other strange inhabitants that fill the apothecary cabinet of your inner world.
Now, that advice is all well and good. But it leaves a gaping question.
How do you acquire self-knowledge?
Glad you asked.
How to Become Self-Aware
Many ways have been proposed as a route to inner wisdom as it pertains to calling. Some recommend dream interpretation, or exploring childhood tendencies, or answering questions like, “What would you do with one day left to live?” All can be useful.
But I think there’s one simple way.
Start paying attention to your feelings. Specifically, to your responses.
When you pay attention to the present-moment stream of emotional experiences that comprise your life, you gain a direct window to your inner world.
Not all experiences, of course. Sustaining that level of attention would be impossible. But at least some of them.
Many wise people have given similar advice. It’s what author Parker J. Palmer, a true luminary in the field of vocation, means when he talks about “letting your life speak”:
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”
For most, the next logical and completely valid question is, “Well, how do I pay attention? How do I listen to my life?”
How to Listen to Your Life
Let’s circle back to the introduction for a moment. I highlighted the importance of commitment. Commitment that’s fuelled by a recognition of how important this quest is to you.
Commitment is multifaceted. It expresses itself in different ways at different parts of whatever process you’re undertaking. And in this scenario, I think that commitment solidifies in a specific way.
It comes down to intention. The intention to be aware.
Some activities, like meditation and mindfulness, indirectly foster awareness. But forming an intention is like picking up a gun and pointing it straight at the bullseye.
Because a funny thing starts to happen. Experiences you might have ignored take on special significance. You can then note these experiences and store them away for later analysis.
The Answer Is in Everyday Experiences
Let’s say, for example, that you enjoy walking in nature. And you usually take the same path.
During past walks, you’ve often thought to yourself, “How wonderful! The breeze in the leaves, the sound of the river, the crisp air – it’s all rather marvellous.”
Then you dropped the thought and carried on your way.
That was before. Before you formed the intention to “listen”. On your next walk, something different happens.
You have the same reaction. But instead of letting it flutter away, a little voice says to you, “Hold on. There’s something more to this feeling. Don’t let it go.”
You now have a clue. A piece of the puzzle.
Step #2: Dig Deeper, Cut the Fat, and Prioritise
“We must learn to tease out insights concealed in apparently tiny moments of satisfaction and distress scattered across our lives.”A Job to Love, The School of Life.
Before carrying on, there’s a big caveat that needs to be added to the advice I’ve just outlined. Ignoring it can lead you into all sorts of danger.
Here it is:
The problem with feelings is they’re notoriously unreliable.
But that’s okay.
Your feelings are only the starting point. It’s the underlying firmament that gives rise to them – the array of longings, aversions, beliefs, and more – that’s important.
And in a moment, you’re going to separate the good from the bad. But first, you’ve got to delineate the deeper meanings that your feelings hold.
So what’s the next step?
Engaging Your Reason
Once you’re aware of some of your responses, it’s time to analyse them. To dig deeper and ask, “Where did they come from?”
The phenomena of “mind” and “thinking” are often maligned in popular spirituality. But, used properly, the thinking mind is an incredibly useful tool.
By honing in on your responses, you were beginning to glimpse the workings of your inner world. But you need to go deeper. Beginning with surface knowledge, you can start to peel back the layers to find what’s underneath. It’s like when Shrek says to Donkey: “Ogres are like onions…Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. We both have layers. Get it?”
So basically, you’re an onion. Or an ogre. Your choice.
Let’s hear what Parker J. Palmer has to say. He writes: “We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. If we can learn to read our own responses to our own experience – a text we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth – we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.”
You’re seeking “tropisms”. You’re attempting to clarify the deeper parts of your personality that underlie your surface responses – the deep love of nature that prompts you to take your daily walk or the belief in social justice that causes your anger at instances of poverty and inequality.
But, as I just mentioned, uncovering these semi-hidden motivations isn’t enough. There’s another step that comes after. One that relates to something fundamental to every one of us.
Discovering your vocation begins by identifying those yearnings and aversions that make up what can be called, for want of a better phrase, your “authentic self”.
This portion of your psyche can’t be described in exact, concrete terms. But it soon becomes apparent that it’s guiding you in a particular direction.
The poet Mary Oliver says “it exists in a strange, unmapped zone”.
Parker J. Palmer describes it as “our deep identity – the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.”
But how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? The genuine from the superficial?
The filters will be your own. Nobody can give you an exact template. But here’s some advice drawn from my own experience: ask questions. Sit down with the insights you’ve gleaned from the previous steps and examine them.
Start to Question Your Beliefs, Longings and Values
Once you’ve traced your reactions and experiences to their origins, ask: “Do they represent something genuine? Are they heartfelt longings and dreams?
“Or are they better described as external expectations, conditioning, irrational fears, or fleeting interests? Is an interest better expressed, perhaps, as a hobby rather than a vocation? Might a joy or pleasure simply be a natural human response without any bearing on my how I want to spend my life?”
In this way, you’ll form a clearer picture of your “deep identity”.
Then, with the hard work done, you can prioritise.
Prioritisation is the way you determine which of your discoveries carries the most weight. It’s how you grasp the real nature of your authentic self.
Is your desire to travel or to help others, for example, non-negotiable? Or is it of lesser importance? Is your belief in the value of compassion most important for calling? Is personal growth and pushing boundaries the real purpose of life?
Pick three or four leaders. They will form the basis of what comes next.
Step #3: Create Your “Mission Statement” and Start Experimenting
“You do not have to be good.Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Ok, let’s recap for a minute.
Using your feelings as a guide, you’ve begun to piece together an understanding of your inner world – your joys, interests, dislikes, longings, beliefs and more.
You’ve interrogated them, eliminated those that aren’t authentic, and prioritised what was left.
Now it’s time to capture these new-found insights in action-oriented, concrete terms.
For this, we’ll need a good ol’ mission statement.
Write Your Mission Statement
I believe that “mission statements” are fantastic tools. It might sound a bit cliched, but mine has always acted as a compass. Whenever I’ve felt lost, I was always able to orient myself by it.
Let’s look at some examples.
The personal growth writer Steve Pavlina describes his purpose in the following way:
to care deeply, connect playfully, love intensely, and share generously;
to joyfully explore, learn, grow, and prosper;
and to creatively, brilliantly, and honorably serve the highest good of all.
Here’s my personal mission statement:
to commit to spiritual growth,
to undertake meaningful creative work,
and to live deeply, pursuing adventure, nature, and genuine love and friendship.
A mission statement is something personal. Mine probably wouldn’t mean much to most people. But whenever I read it, I recognise a profound personal truth.
Keep in mind that it should be made up of the actionable counterparts of your beliefs, desires, aversions, etc.
Ask, “What’s their relevance in the context of vocation?”
A “belief in the value of helping others” becomes “help others”. An “interest in art and creative work” or a “desire to create” becomes “create art”.
Time to Experiment
Now, you might be thinking, “This is all well and good. But a little block of abstract text doesn’t help me find actual work that pays the bills.”
So how do you move from the abstract to the concrete?
Simple. You test practical applications of your mission statement.
Brainstorm some specific careers. And then test those options.
But keep one thing in mind. The “test” must represent something meaningful.
You don’t need to put everything on hold or block out the next month on your calendar. But any test must constitute a serious effort.
If you like the idea of being a novelist, write the first chapter of your book. If you think you’re destined to be the world’s next great numismatist, complete a collection of 18th-century Scottish pennies. Perhaps you want to be a doctor, nurse, or vet? Great. Spend a weekend volunteering for an appropriate charity.
Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? But there’s still one unsolved problem.
As you undertake these “tests”, a question is likely to appear.
How do you know when you’ve found the right career?
Heeding the Voice of Intuition
It’s common to hear talk nowadays about intuitions, instincts, and gut-feelings. Whatever the word used, it almost always refers to the same thing – some kind of inner voice. The argument goes that this voice is an indispensable guide. It will always point you in the right direction.
But is this true? And if it is, how do you actually get in touch with something so ambiguous?
I believe the advice “listen to your inner voice” is the most important that a human being can receive. Not just when it comes to calling but in all areas of life.
Yet I also think there’s a caveat.
Because most people get it wrong. They mistake their inner voice for their everyday feelings, or passing obsessions, or reactive “gut” sensations in their bodies.
When it’s none of these things.
What’s more, people commonly think that intuition alone is enough to lead them to their passion. But intuition often only appears as a response to certain situations. It doesn’t just know you want to be a biochemist or a fantasy writer. But it sure-as-hell recognizes the right path when you’re on it.
So here’s my advice:
Learn to recognize your real “inner voice”. True intuition has its own texture. It’s own unique qualities. A particular shape, colour, and flavour.
So what does that “texture” feel like?
Eckhart Tolle describes it like this:
“If you have an intuition it is usually not tainted by negativity such as anger or fear. There is something certain about it. There is a quiet strength behind your feeling. A quiet strength. There is not a nervous energy behind your feeling. It’s more that you just know that this is right. You may not be able to explain to yourself or others why. It has a different quality. There is a more peaceful quality to it.”
Keep Eckhart’s advice in mind when you’re sampling different types of work. Heed your intuition.
Personally, I believe this kind of intuition is often what people are referring to when they use the phrase “you just know”.
Such as when Christopher Hitchens, asked what advice he would give to would-be writers, replied: “Has it ever occurred to you that have no choice but to write?”
And Werner Herzog when he described film-making as an “uninvited duty”.
It’s what kept the painter Lucian Freud in his studio right up until the day he died.
You’re looking for the gentle, confident, quietly joyful voice of intuition that says, “Yes! This is for me.”
It’s like your whole body sings “yes”.
And then you have a signpost. Not a definite answer. But a sure signpost on the way to deeply fulfilling work.
You can then forge ahead, knowing that you’re on the right track, for the time being at least.
“…and there was a new voiceMary Oliver, The Journey
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and
into the world…”
You might not think it’s possible.
You might think that your “passion” will elude you forever. Or that you don’t have one.
And that’s okay. It’s normal. I felt like that for years.
But can you suspend that belief for a while? Just for long enough to give this process a chance?
Because the rewards are immense.
Sensitivity to your inner world is an asset that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It’s a continuous guide to your calling. It will always point you in the right direction and, like the autopilot on a plane, adjust your trajectory whenever you sway in the wrong direction.
Things change. Your calling will fluctuate and grow. Careers and circumstances are rarely set in stone.
But your inner voice is permanent. It will always tell you when your work is a true expression of your calling. And when it’s not.
It’s a tool that will set you up for joy and meaning for the rest of your life.
Just imagine that for a second.
Visualise a future, despite how vague it might seem right now, that’s filled with creative expression, growth, new experiences, and work that positively affects the lives of countless others. Work that calls on your greatest talents and eradicates material worries.
Imagine discarding dissatisfaction and inertia once and for all.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
References & Further Reading
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer
A Job to Love by the School of Life
A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
Wild Geese (Selected Poems) by Mary Oliver (I don’t think this specific book is published anymore but most, if not all, editions of her “collected poems” should include the ones I quoted.)
The Eckhart Tolle quote comes from this Youtube video.