For decades we heard about how critical it was to “find your passion” and “follow your bliss” if you were to hope for anything like a fulfilled life. More recently, many researchers and popular writers have critiqued the idea of needing to tap into your passion, especially when it comes to turning it into your vocation.
You may be unaware of your callings, but it should be mission-critical to tune in. Why? Well, when it comes to why you get up in the morning, your callings are kind of a big deal.
Your callings guide your life decisions. They shape your goals, offer you a sense of direction, and cultivate the conditions for a meaningful life. Your callings are connected to your vocation, yes, but they are so much more.
Research shows that tapping into each calling has multiple benefits to your life. Let’s unpack each one as simply, pragmatically, and grounded in science as possible.
1. You Are Called To Grow
You are called to experience conditions in life that force you to grow. Many times — most times — these conditions are outside of your control. And all too often these conditions have to do with hardship, suffering, setbacks, or just the limitations that come with being human.
No one wants to be in a bad relationship. No one signs up for that losing season. Few to none raise their hand and sign up for physical or mental breakdowns. Yet that is where we are confronted with real opportunities for dramatic leaps forward. Yes, this is where “the obstacle is the way.”
We are wired to move forward, not backward. People who remain stagnant are disconnected from their call. One 2008 study found that those who see meaning and purpose in their lives are able to tell a story of change and growth, where they managed to overcome the obstacles they encountered.
The key to growth is to keep learning — not just any learning, but learning about yourself. Frame your growth through the lens of a story. You are the central character. Teach yourself well, and you will find more fulfillment and a clearer sense of purpose. Vital elements to the learning curve of growth, and a critical component to all of your callings.
2. You Are Called To Connect
Your call arises from your special gifts and sets you apart from other people — but it also grows from your connection to others. A crisis of call is often a symptom of isolation. Find your path, and you’ll find others traveling along with you.
Have you had a relationship flameout? Have you had a death in the family? Have you sunk into isolationist habits due to the pandemic? Are you simply in a time of transition, maybe in a new place where everything is unfamiliar? It’s easy to retreat into the comfort of our solitude and our habits (healthy or unhealthy). What brings us joy is forming connection to others.
Others are always flawed, it’s true. It almost always comes with compromises. In The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts argues that “the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.” We are interconnected with each other and with nature.
The beginning of change always begins with you, the self. At the same time, we easily get trapped in our individualistic ego-shell. It is critical that we have trusted others — individual friends and communities — where we can listen. We listen to how others respond to us, and just as importantly, we listen to what we say. We hear our own words spoken aloud.
Connection brings us out of ourselves in order to hear and be heard. It’s in our evolutionary biology to connect. It’s embedded in our souls.
3. You Are Called To Contribute
Similar to connection is contribution. This is connection related to service. Some feel hesitant about pursuing their call because they worry that it sounds like a self-serving quest. Part of your call, however, is about recognizing your own gifts and using them to contribute.
Give what grows. Share the best parts of yourself with others because they are naturally replenished. This is where we have to get out of the grinding and strong-arming approach. Maybe contribution is working a job you don’t love because you are contributing to the people you are serving.
According to Harvard Health, “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” Why? Because gratitude helps people “feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” It’s a mindset shift that leads to a greater purpose, but it’s only one part of your callings.
“It may seem counterintuitive to foster purpose by cultivating a grateful mindset, but it works,” writes psychologist Kendall Bronk, a leading expert on purpose. Bronk and other researchers have found that people who practice gratitude intentionally are much more likely to try to “contribute to the world beyond themselves.”
But can you just hit the light switch and start generating a clearer sense of calling by suddenly practicing gratitude? Not if the motivation behind the gratitude practice is an end in itself. However, studies have shown that if gratitude leads to service, or contribution, or giving back, then the results are clear: these people tend to have a greater sense of purpose in their lives.
Interestingly, gratitude and altruism seem to work together to generate meaning and purpose. In a second experiment, the researchers randomly assigned some participants to write letters of gratitude — and those people later reported a stronger sense of purpose. More recent work by Christina Karns and colleagues found that altruism and gratitude are neurologically linked, activating the same reward circuits in the brain.
When your authentic purpose becomes clear, you will be able to share it with the whole world, or at least your tribe.
4. You Are Called To Play
I love this one because it reminds me that mountain biking, digging in the dirt, and strumming my guitar are all part of who I am and what I do. All this searching and struggling and listening gets so serious. The very fact that we need to be reminded to play is telling.
Don’t take my word for it. Play has been shown to release endorphins, increase brain functionality, and stimulate creativity. Play keeps us young and vibrant. Studies also show that play improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex.
Author and doctor, Stuart Brown has been studying play for decades and in his book, Play, he outlines the five play archetypes he has observed during his years of research. He discusses these and more in his TED Talk, “Play is more than just fun.”
So before you drive home from work and you're faced with other adult obligations like cooking dinner and mowing the lawn, just stop. Get out your paddleboard and cruise the river. Take your bike on a trail. Fool around with your fingerpaints. Whatever it takes to have a little fun and lighten up.
5. You Are Called To Create
Creativity isn’t just writing poems, singing songs, and, well, fingerpainting. It’s anything you make: whether it’s a family; a clean, well-lit home; a purpose-driven career; or even a community. You can either be judged for what you create, or for your failure to create. It really is your choice.
You just have to decide.
We’re all gifted with a set of talents and interests that tell us what we’re supposed to be doing. Once you know what your five calls are, organize all of your activities around them. Everything you do should be an expression of your call.
If you want to be creative, you have to play and experiment. It should not feel like work, like something you must succeed at. You must give yourself permission to fail.
Author and creativity expert, David Kelley, writes:
“A widely held myth suggests that creative geniuses rarely fail. Yet, the opposite is actually true. Creative geniuses are quite prolific when it comes to failure — they just don’t let that stop them. Research has found that creative people simply do more experiments.”
There are many forms of creativity, but one thing is true about them all: it takes action to get things done. It’s been my experience that no matter how outwardly successful we are in our creative pursuits, we will continue to feel others’ judgment, which can also manifest as self-judgment, that infamous inner critic.
The art of your creativity comes through balancing your serious intentions in a spirit of play. You have to act. You have to move forward with purpose. You have to take yourself seriously and possess a deep inner belief in what you’re capable of. Yet you also have to be willing to create those shitty first drafts. You have to be willing to fail, and it hurts to fail. The more you’ve put into a project, the deeper the pain.
And through that pain comes the transformation.
You can either be judged for what you create, or for your failure to create. It really is your choice. You just have to decide.
Tune In To The Rewards That Come From Authenticity
Nurturing yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually will make you more energized, resilient and motivated to live your callings. That even applies on the professional front, although your callings are much more than your job.
I recently heard an old gospel song by Albert Brumley called “Turn Your Radio On.” In one part the song goes:
Get a little taste of the joys awaiting,
Get a little Heaven in your soul,
Get in touch with God, turn your radio on.
Every soul is a receiver. The degree to which we tune in or tune out is up to us. This does require a heightened perception and openness to the millions of signals the world is sending.
What are we really looking for when it comes to tuning in to our callings? My best simple answer is that we’re looking for an authentic life. We’re looking to tune in our radio receivers.