True or False: The following career advice is awesome…
Studies show that people with a university education make more money. Therefore, get yourself a formal education, even if you can’t afford it, preferably from a prestigious university. Your degree will ensure that you gain employment and have all the skills you need if you want to bust out on your own. When you go for that job, find one where the roles and expectations are clear. Follow the rules and you’ll have security and move up and make more and more money. Try to go for something that you enjoy, but it’s most important that you find a career that’s stable, has benefits and tops up your pension plan (which will most certainly be alive and thriving in 35 years.) Aim to make a sizable income so that you have the freedom to do what you really want to do (on your days off.)
Don’t worry about accruing scads of debt because as long as you work hard, think positive and build vision boards you’ll totally be a millionaire in like 5 years. And if that plan fails, our social systems will hold and nurture you until you get back on your feet again. But above all, this world is changing and is unstable, so try to find safety and protection within our systems, doing the best you can to meet societies expectations.
Did the sarcasm seep through? Honestly, I tried to write that objectively, as if that advice doesn’t completely suck. Do people even dish that out anymore? Any of you kids out there still hearing that from your parents? In my early twenties, I spoke in high schools about entrepreneurship and was always surprised when these bright and creative teens would tell me that their parents were more concerned with them following the above model than pursuing what they felt called to do. I’m pretty sure such advice was obsolete 15 years ago. It certainly is now.
Let’s try this again, something a little less ‘grandpa’s era’ and a bit more true to the times…
Do what you love. You’re a creative and radiant being. It’s absolutely your right to pursue your passion. Break the mold, fuck the conventional rules and express yourself. Do something that makes you happy, that fulfills you. Be the artist of your own life and make the art you most want to make. Don’t listen to those who try to steal your dreams, they’ve given up on theirs. Follow your bliss.
So what happened for you as you read that? Were you like…YEAH! Or were you like, uhhh…not so sure…or maybe…or, can I really go for it like that?
I’ll tell you how it felt writing that. Forced. Kind of achy and a little bit dirty, my heart’s in it but not all the way. You see, I was raised by Boomers. That ‘follow what you love’ stuff is what my cells are made of. My father was the kind of hippie whose beard you could braid and who told teachers who complained about my ‘attitude’ *ahem*, spirit, that ‘he refuses to squelch my self-expression.’ When I was eight and wanted to paint, my parents didn’t buy me the subpar supplies we used at school, they took me to a real art store to buy the real deal stuff. Not because we had a lot of extra money, we didn’t, but because it was important to them to support what was important to me. I’ve always felt like who I am and what I want to do has been supported and encouraged. With ‘follow your bliss’ being a massive part of my upbringing, it’s totally informed how I’ve pursued my work. And I’ve been rather successful at pursuing and making a living at what I feel called to.
But for where we are now in the world, for where we’re headed, I think that advice is misleading and partial. Don’t get me wrong, for people who are still trying to break out of cultural confines, whose parents insist they should take a particular path and for whom the belief that being who we are and putting ourselves first is unacceptable, this path is likely really appropriate. That advice, after all, came from a generation who watched their parents fight in an atrocious war, who were shackled by roles and were dutiful to an unhealthy society. Breaking free and giving a damn about one’s personal freedoms and happiness was important. And still is. But the worldview that we should all do what we love and pursue our own happiness, coupled with our consumer based culture where ‘what makes us happy’ is sold to us in perfume bottles and size zero jeans, results in a generations of soft, entitled, self-obsessed, self-conscious, competitive narcissists. I know, I am one.
What’s supposed to be a beautiful vision for personal and creative liberation becomes, instead, an odd combination of permission to be personally fixated while also a tremendous amount of pressure to go it alone. There’s also an implied assumption that doing what you love or following your bliss is supposed to be easy, big, fun, and blissful. But what happens when it isn’t? What if you don’t know what you love? What if you can’t see the path that takes what you love and makes a living at it? What if you do what you love and follow the path to making a living and suddenly you’re doing a bunch of stuff you don’t like and are losing sleep over it? Have you then failed at bliss following? It’s one thing to fail at something you don’t care about, but to fail at following your own bliss? Ouch.
If I’m supposed to follow my bliss, why isn’t it very blissful?
Because we have Bliss confused with personal gratification, soothing, ease, and never feeling pain. This creates a void. And filling that massive void will never happen if the focus is primarily and solely on you and your need to fill. You will not convince me otherwise. Ever. Did you notice that in the second round of career advice there was nothing about others? Nor was there anything about tenacity, adversity, hard work or contributing to the world.
Life’s hard, kids. No one has been more in denial about that than me. In fact, it’s likely my aversion to pain and my hunger for freedom that’s had me do so well in my work. Every time I find myself somewhere difficult or painful, I want out. I’ve come to know a major piece of my calling as being smack square in the midst of reducing suffering. Mine. Yours. All of ours. Thankfully, the way I’ve tried to dodge pain isn’t by quitting or throwing tantrums or hiding away, but by doing real work. Sometimes this is buckling down and muscling through. Sometimes this means making excruciatingly difficult decisions, which brings me further into pain for a while. A quick mental scan through the ways in which I’ve ‘worked’ to follow my bliss include failing hard and losing lots of money, asking for help when I really wanted to have it handled, doing what I said I’d do– over and over—even when I wanted to quit, quitting when I thought I should press on, taking a nap, falling apart, soul searching on the mat, in temples, on mushroom trips, making my work about others, taking risks with a pounding heart and trembling hands, confronting the enormity of my inner world and just how much my feelings and wayward thoughts lead the show—for better or for worse.
Uncovering a Calling
This article is about how we pursue our life’s work in a full and satisfying way. So I’m going to get all meta on you for a moment and let you know about my own life’s calling… which is, working with others to express their life’s calling. So this article about our calling is an expression of my own. I’ve gotten to grapple with all of what I’m exploring below while going through the process of writing this puppy.
Even more specific within what I feel called to do is a theme that keeps showing up and that is, bridging, merging and exploring of our interior selves with our exterior worlds. That is, how do we line up our inner selves with our outer world in such a way that we feel all of who we are is honoured and gets to come to the party? With so much complexity to our lives, trying to make our living, in the way we’re most called to, can feel daunting. It’s easy to subscribe to either/or mentalities in relation to what’s possible and if we do that, we may end up abandoning our spirit or our bottom line, our joy or security, our deepest longings or relationships.
So if I were to try to cram advice down the throats of youth today, it wouldn’t be some dire warning of the uphill climb that leads to security and social acceptance, nor would it be some ra-ra sunshine speech that belongs on a bumper sticker on a hippie’s van between ‘my karma ran over my dogma’ and ‘my other vehicle is a broom’. It would be a call to really spend our whole life building our life’s work and goes as follows: Know who you are. Do your work. In the World. For the World. Now let’s tease that apart.
Know Who You Are
So this sucker alone will take a lifetime. First, let’s deal with the fact that we will never ‘arrive’ anywhere. And yet, we’re arriving somewhere all the time. Hopefully we’re growing, changing, expanding, evolving and thus knowing who you are becomes a continuous exploration, declaration, inquiry and observation. Like moment by moment here, people. There’s so much complexity within each of us, this is no project that’ll be checked off your Thursday afternoon to-do list.
Knowing who you are means knowing your own story, and knowing it as a story. Feeling your family and cultural lineage and the way in which it shapes you as well as what you’re scrubbing away, shaking off, throwing down. It means knowing your habits, compulsions and addictions, what they do for you and what they’re limiting. It’s about knowing your limitations. And you gifts. It’s about holding lightly your identity, allowing yourself to be, see and embrace your own uniqueness, your own song and flavour while not becoming too fixated and dug in about this iteration of who you are.
Knowing who I am is about intimacy. Intimacy with me, with my subtlety and nuances, with my preferences and automatic responses. I want to be deeply intimate with my why. Why do I want what I want and loathe what I loathe? Why do react the way I do to what I do? Why do I love who I love? It’s about being deeply intimate with my emotional self. I want to feel what’s arising, its throb and texture. I want to know my sorrow and my envy, my joy and anxiety. I want to be intimate with each and every corner of my fierce and tender humanity, comfortable with her, accepting of her, trusting of her and have her back.
When I know who I am, I know where I stand. This is a pivotal, foundational orienting compass for pursuing one’s calling. The more solidly and deeply we know who we are and how we work, the more our calling comes fully online. From a gentle whisper and slight stirring, the work we’re here to do turns into a raging river and cracks of thunder, church bells, laughter and neon signs pointing and cheering.
Do Your Work
Do your work. Not your father’s work, your neighbours work or your mentor’s work. Don’t do the work the committee in your head who’s chattering away tells you is acceptable work, or what your grade two teacher said you wouldn’t achieve beyond. It’s there, on the tip of your tongue, your heart, the ledge you’re terrified to leap off of. It’s the art, the venture, the revolution that’s pleasing to the deepest, widest, highest part of who you are. It’s what energizes you, interests you, flirts with you. Your work is that which pouts and stomps her feet each time you ignore her or distract yourself with something other than her holiness.
Originally, this section was called ‘Do what you love’. But that can so easily be conflated with do whatever you feel like doing and for those of us who feel like kickin’ back and smokin’ joints and feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t have the right conditions to pursue our dreams, well, that ain’t the work. Further, doing your work doesn’t always feel like something you love, it doesn’t come through everyone in the form of ecstasy or joy. For most of us, in fact, there are mountains to climb and walls to scale in order to do our work, which demands a whole lot of muscle, panting and sweating. Doing your work isn’t always easy. Which is why knowing who you are is plenty helpful. Doing what you love and are called to do means taking risks and overcoming resistance. It means honouring what stirs within over whatever beliefs, teachings and demands from others conflict with this. Sometimes there’s decades of other work that leads up to even feeling like we’re truly on our path at all.
So what’s your work? Maybe you know it, maybe it’s right there without a doubt or a quiver. Or maybe it’s quiet and suffocating beneath years of obligation and denial of possibility. What is so interesting, exciting, liberating, important or comes so easily to you that you’d do it for free all day long if you knew you’d get food on your table? Do that. There are many places we can look and a ton of definitions and distinctions we can hang on what our work is. Maybe it’s what you knew you wanted to do when you were five or what others are doing that you most envy or what you’d pursue if you actually believed you could make it happen. Maybe it’s what your mother would be horrified by that you can’t bring yourself to accept is what you’re called to. Maybe it’s what your family most wants you to do and despite your love for it, you won’t give them the satisfaction. It’s what you’d do if you could just relax about the money, your reputation, what others would think, where you’re supposed to be by now, what you believe is possible and how it’d impact your family, friends or identity.
For me, the experience of doing my work is one of being energized and expanded. It’s what fires up my creativity and connects me to the hearts and longings of others. It’s where I’m scared and know I must lean into. It’s leadership. I feel a sense of push and a sense of pull. The push is within me, to wrestle through and overcome whatever is between me and that which wants to be created. The pull is from outside of me. I’m called toward something, can feel something wanted of me, the future of what I have to offer waiting for me to embody her.
I’m a coach and a writer. The writing I’m most called to is that which bridges our interior experiences with our exterior worlds. That’s what I’m working to do with this article, feeling into the interior aspects of ourselves in relationship to our work and in relationship to our outer worlds. I want to reach into you. I want you to have access to me. Through that, we can connect our worlds intimately, close the gaps of our own experiences and a have greater understanding of ourselves and each other, which may impact how we bring who we are, out. With coaching, the majority of my clients are entrepreneurs. Most of what we work on is in the realm of life’s purpose, lining up the interior calling, desires and deepest impulses with external actions and results. This is where we take our work into the world.
In The World
Gettin’ ‘er done. Your work is only your work if something’s happening. Let’s not confuse this with ‘I’m getting the result I want.’ Results take a while to come into form and usually they’re not what we expected. Doing our work in the world requires a dance of action and allowing, showing up and letting the cards fall where they may. Our work isn’t our work if we’re just envisioning it, dreaming about it, planning what we’ll do one day when things are different. That’s imaginary. If our work isn’t taken out into action in the world, it won’t grow. It needs to be fed. Work gets fed through feedback. I don’t mean feedback, like reviews, although that’s part of it. But both interior and exterior feedback. When we do something, something happens. We get a result or a feeling, a reaction, it feels right or it feels off. When we’re awake to what’s happening, we can sense into what’s needed next. This may be plodding away at a project, the feedback being, as we see our body of work growing, it gives us something at our back, to rest into and press on with. This feedback could be in the form of what we’re trying to do being stagnant, not moving. The lack of motion tells us that we must do something else, maybe it’s time to call in support, get braver, tweak or even repeat.
I was a writer before I could read. I used to fill up binders with pictures of the stories I couldn’t write out yet. But the difference between wanting to be a writer one day and knowing myself as a writer, is actually writing and doing something with it. My poor dear friend Miranda suffered four months of traveling through Thailand with me when we were 18, listening to all the fucking things I planned on writing without a word to page. I wasn’t doing my work in the world. As a result I was anxious, self-conscious, drunk and a little bit crazy. When I’d even just sit down and write a crappy little poem, then share it with her, all was released and I was sated. Writing that crappy poem in my head wasn’t enough if it wasn’t coming out into the world. Was the result what I wanted it to be? Is my work crappy poems? Of course not. But waiting for perfection to emerge before acting births nothing and thus nothing grows. Month by month, week by week, the more I produce of what I’m called to do, the more I put it out into the world, the better it gets, the more lined up the results become to what I really want to be doing.
In my late teens and early twenties, I was more interested in human development than anything else. Still am. Also, since I was raised in a bubble of work loving hippies, it wasn’t until I got my first job that I realized that some people don’t like their work. Back then I knew I wanted to work with people on loving their work, but I didn’t yet have the skills, confidence and understanding to just go about coaching and consulting people when I’d yet to hold down a job for more than a year. So when I opened a hair salon, which I knew wasn’t what I wanted to do long term and wasn’t an industry I was particularly interested in, I knew it was a place that I could practice and do in the world, some of what I’m called to do. I got to merge the interior expression to the exterior aesthetics of thousands of people, making their salon experience less about emulating some celebrity and more about expressing their own unique style. I created an environment for my staff that was creatively empowering and juiced up with love and respect and ensured they really loved their work. I knew what I was moving towards, but didn’t know how that would look. By the time I moved from running that salon into coaching and consulting, I had enough experience at my back to be able to move into the next iteration and really offer something out into the world.
For the World
Work is something that you produce. Something’s happening. Asking what it’s for or on behalf of is an interesting and important question.
This planet cannot sustain itself while it’s inhabited by billions of human beings who are out for themselves, their own consumption and endless growth. Our denial of this must be ruthlessly exterminated. Your work is not for you. My work is not for me. Do I want to feel pleasure and satisfaction? Yes. Do I want to be taken care of, provided for, and remunerated through my work? Hell yeah. But is my work for my own personal gain, regardless or even at the expense of the world? Never. That wouldn’t be my work. That would be a distraction. I cannot and will not reconcile that one human being’s life’s purpose could ever only go in one direction, toward them. In my mind, that is not life’s work, but a shallow hologram, out to keep us from the depth of effort, risk and vulnerability that comes from doing real work. If your work isn’t some kind of offering for this world, for its betterment, if your work is about using the resources of others for your own comfort, consumption and gratification, please do the rest of us a favour and ask yourself why you’re doing that and to what end.
I’m not trying to impart that we should be martyrs or that our calling needs to be expressed in direct service of others. Nor do I suggest that bigger is better, that the further the reach and greater the impact, the better your work. When I say for the world, I don’t mean global causes, although that might be your schtick. Very small may be your own divine flavour of purpose. Some life work goes on a massive scale, some is humble and quiet and barely leaving a trace. The distinction for me is, is your work an offering or a taking? Are you fixated on what you’re getting from the world or what you can give to it? Giving up what you’ve got for the greater good, even when the greater good is a small circle around you, you expand outward with that giving. And things get easier. Maybe you’re offering art, ideas or help. Maybe you’re offering heartfelt smiles and impeccable punctuality. Maybe you’re offering some direct and much needed challenge of stale and broken systems. Your unique You-ness can be expressed and offered in many different ways. When we’re rightly concerned with our own survival, it can feel counter-intuitive to give outward. But if we were all offering out more, each of us would have to less to worry about in terms of getting our needs met, because we’d be able to trust that we’re all looking for ways to take care of each other, rather than taking care of the one and only Me.
Weaving the Interior and Exterior Together
Throughout your days, in regards to your work, what are the overall themes of what you’re paying attention to? Is it, what needs to get done and how much you’ve checked off that list? What you really wish you could do and all the ways in which what you’re spending your time on isn’t that? How much energy you have? How about your financial situation and your survival? Maybe you’re paying attention to meeting certain goals, of your own or given to you by your company. Perhaps your attention repeatedly flits to how you’re doing in the eyes of others, if you’re measuring up to what they want or what you think they want.
Each of us has our own preferences when it comes to how things are going in our lives. We have ideas of ideals that we check against, usually unconsciously and without questioning what’s driving these ideals. “I’ve had a good day if…”
In my experience, when chipping away at, shaping and building our life’s work, expanding what we’re checking for allows for a deeper sense of satisfaction and contribution. Using each of the above as a reference point for checking is a helpful way to begin to notice our own preferences and ways of orienting and navigating through our work. We scan through our experience and check inside for who we are, what’s important, what we want, need and ache for. We also check inside ourselves for what wants to be expressed, what we have to say, are passionate and fired up about or quietly yearn to produce. We check for where and how we’re honouring these inner worlds, how we bring them out in the world. We check for opportunities and explore possibilities to bring ourselves out in nourishing and useful ways. We check into our outer worlds as sounding boards, for how we’re being received and then check back in about how that sound reverberates within us. Then we bring out the next iteration into the world. We check our results and impact, we notice what’s happening and are curious about the impact we’re having or not having.
Our checking and what we’re paying attention to becomes a tapestry, continually weaving our inner selves with our outer worlds. When we offer up what we’ve got and pay attention to what happens, continuing to be both receptive and active, a feedback loop gets created that allows us to refine, grow and develop our life’s work. When one of these gets left out, an imbalanced feedback loop occurs, which skews our capacity to create what we really must create.
When knowing who we are gets left out, we’re not awake to how we’re experiencing or reacting to what’s happening and thus can’t track our interior evolution. Our action taking isn’t grounded in what matters to us and over time, we can end up way off track, far away from who we really know ourselves and our work to be and have a foggy sense of wondering how we’ve ended up here. The feedback loop becomes one of checking externally, trying to make the world ‘out there’ give us some form of interior satisfaction, which we wouldn’t be able to experience or identify even if it did because we don’t have sufficient contact with our interior.
When doing our work gets left out, fertile ground for addiction gets created. Denying our calling, or that we have a calling, offends the soul. If we’re not checking for our calling, our connection to it and the ways in which we are expressing it, the feelings of self-betrayal can become excruciating. This will typically drive us towards continuing to check for what will soothe us or get us to some circumstance we believe will be better for doing our work. This kind of fixation becomes addictive because the more we look away from our calling, the more pissed off our calling becomes and the greater the distractions or substances need to be in order to numb out, dull or ignore our work.
When we’re not checking for what we’re actually doing in the world and paying attention to enacting what stirs within, we can get lost in an inner swirl of how things need to be before we can act. When we’re not checking for our calling being expressed in action in some way, we’ll think that what’s off in doing our work has to do with something other than what’s truly missing, action. We check for whether the path is clear or the fear is gone. We check for whether the vision is perfect or the results are a given. We check for what others are doing and how we measure up. When we’re not taking the work into action in some small way, the feedback loop reinforces lack of action, or action as distraction because it gets harder and harder to act on what we’re actually called to do. Waiting to offer, launch or act until the circumstances are perfect and we feel safe and secure to do so will leave us in endless loops of restlessness and self-flagellation.
Abandoning the World
When doing our work for the world gets left out, our fixation on ourselves intensifies and makes doing our work far more difficult for a few reasons. First, when we fixate only on our own wants and needs, our world becomes smaller and thus closes down our ability to produce good work. Secondly, we can all smell a narcissist. You can count on that over the long haul, people will be able to tell when you’re just in it for you and won’t want to work with you. For those of us who want to offer our work out to others, we want to see that work ripple further and if we know it ends with you, we won’t feel so compelled to give. I love working with people on having them express their life’s calling, not just because it’s good for them, but because I know it’s good for the world to be inhabited by people who are expressing their purpose.
Bringing It All Together
There’s an interesting paradox that I’ve repeatedly seen in myself and in others. When we’re checking externally and are externally fixated on what the world ‘out there’ will provide for us, or who we should be by its standards, we become increasingly more internally obsessed and confused. We compare ourselves and our work to that of others and more often than not, fall short. We become someone who must fit into something ‘out there’, measure up or compete.
But when we begin by checking internally, looking for what inside us can be offered outward, providing for the world, we become less fixated on ourselves and our world expands. It benefits us to serve. So selfishly, your work will feel better and be more successful if you’re focused on what you can give, create, solve, expand, heal and make happen for all of us.
This world needs us, all of us, to really step up and represent. Individuality and self-expression are important, very very important. But when they are all that lead us, it insults the part of ourselves that is never separate – from each other, the earth, any of this. But, when we only pay attention to what we’re doing to serve and not take care of our own wants and needs, not having our service line up with our own unique flavour of self-expression and individuality, we insult our calling. So we need both, a continuous bridging of these inner and outer worlds such that we can each more fully bring the entirety of who we are to our life, our work and our world.