A calling can feel like a fantastical notion, one saved for a select few, leaving the rest of us wistful in our inability to hear and respond to one. Those who find a way to merge a career and a calling are even rarer, like unicorns in the world of traditional nine-to-fivers. Yet, they do exist.
JEFFREY A. THOMPSON is a professor at BYU who has researched this topic for years. He says, “The way we’re academically defining ‘a calling’ is the place in the occupational division of labor where one’s gifts meet a particular need.” He defines three components to one’s calling: your gifts or natural abilities, a need that’s not yet filled in your environment, and a sense of place or a feeling that it’s meant to be.
Thompson says understanding the real definition of a calling is pertinent because people’s beliefs about what it is can leave them feeling despondent and erroneously reaching for lofty, unattainable goals. Myths that a calling will necessarily lead to fame, will always be fun and easy to pursue, and that there is only one calling per person explain why the idea leaves many of his students anxious. Instead, he believes, “The fastest way to find a calling is to look at who needs help and ask outside yourself instead of focusing on what makes you happy.”
Another way people have discovered a calling is by reclaiming trauma. Thompson points to the story of a refugee from Somalia. “She was made responsible for her young brother who was severely epileptic and almost died several times. She got him through it and is now in the United States studying neuroscience to treat epilepsy.”
While callings often have seeds in childhood, they may need time to take root. “It’s a long evolutionary process,” says Thompson. Personally, he considered several professions prior to landing in academia. He says he felt lost and anxiety-ridden in his 20s and early 30s, until he finally embraced what he says he knew all along. “Gifts manifest early on in life. … When I was a kid, I remember playing school. I would teach my brother. Somewhere along the way teaching was absolutely not what I wanted to do and I fought it. If I’m honest with myself, when I look back at who I was as a child, I should have known.” It was only after accepting instead of resisting his desire to teach (which was his father’s profession as well) that he rediscovered his calling.
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