Imagine that you’re climbing a very tall ladder. In the beginning, the climb is fairly easy, but about a quarter of the way up you start to feel your muscles burning a bit. You find the strength to press on when your arms get heavy and weak. You are exerting all of your energy. You ignore the pain and even learn to cherish the sweat and scars brought on by the intense process. You’re making progress, rung by rung. Your foot may slip a little from time to time, but you never stop moving upward. The people on the ground are cheering for you and telling you not to give up. And finally, when you feel like you have nothing left to give, you get a glimpse of the top of the ladder. This gives you the courage to continue on. Then, the glorious arrival: you reach the top. Once you catch your breath, you stand up and turn around to enjoy your accomplishment… only to realize that you had accidentally placed your ladder up against the wrong building.
That is how many ambitious people live their lives. This is why effort and persistence are not enough. If you’re heading in the wrong direction, running harder actually gets you further from where you want to go. It’s sobering to realize that it is quite easy for us to zealously spend many of our precious breaths, our energy and resources, on a completely worthless pursuit.
“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at something that doesn't really matter.” ~ D.L. Moody
Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, draws attention to the fact that the English word "vocation" is derived from the Latin word “vocare,” which means ‘to call’. Vocation, then, is not the same thing as our work, our job, or our career. Those may be ways in which we fulfill our calling, but none of those is our calling. Work is the stuff we do to get things done. A job happens to be a place where we can do work. A career is an overall pattern of many jobs strung together. But a vocation is a life mission; one that informs all of the other areas mentioned.
In following this train of thought, having a "calling" presumes a caller. And this caller is God Herself. Here’s Buechner’s insightful recommendation on how to search for our purpose, our calling:
"By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet"
A good way to think about calling, Buechner suggests, is that your calling lives at the intersection of your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger. Finding your true purpose necessitates both a look inward and a look outward. Who am I? And how can I engage who I am towards making the world a better place?
This idea contains a beautiful simplicity. This is the intersection to look for. What brings your soul deep gladness? Where is there a great need? Now find ways to put those together.
This type of active questioning, of course, is not a one time activity. We can look to these types of questions as a compass for continual realignment.
Excerpts taken from my book "UNLEASHED: How to live fully and do something that matters"
Sign up to get the Monday Unleashed email newsletter here.