Whatever your life work is, do it well.
Do it so well that no one else could do it better.
If it falls on your lot to be a street sweeper,
sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures,
like Shakespeare wrote poetry,
like Beethoven composed music;
sweep streets so well that
all the hosts of heaven and earth
will have to pause and say,
“Here lived a great street sweeper.”
— MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Because most people pondering their “purpose in life” are thinking about either their career or their calling, let’s clarify the meaning of these two terms.
Your career refers to a service you perform — trading your time, effort, attention, knowledge, skills, and experience for a salary or other income and benefits. You may refer to it as your employment, work, livelihood, occupation, living, trade, vocation, profession, or “just a job.” You may have many reasons to go to work each day — but unless you are independently wealthy, earning an income is a primary career motive.
Your calling refers to a personal interest, attraction, inclination, drive, or passion that is usually (but not always) of a higher order. It isn’t just something you want to do, but rather something you need to do, something that captures your imagination, touches you deeply and absorbs you, whether or not you can explain why. A calling may (or may not) earn an income or become a career.
A calling can take the form of an art, craft, or other creative endeavor, such as writing, painting, or playing a musical instrument. Or it may involve volunteer service, such as teaching, working with children or the elderly, or charitable work. Some people, wanting to make a difference in their community or the larger world, are called to a religious order, others to military service, politics, or environmental (or other) causes. Parenthood — minding the home front and raising children — may be one of the highest and most fundamental of callings.
Since a true calling is often associated with serving others, personal leisure activities such as golf or bowling, hunting or fishing, sewing or reading, knitting or building miniature ships fall into the realm of hobbies or avocations. But if we end up performing or teaching that hobby, sharing it with others, then our avocation may become both calling and career — an absorbing professional path of learning and growth.
Career and Calling: Merged or Separate?
The primary difference between a career and a calling is that we pursue a career primarily for income and a calling primarily for innate satisfaction. But if you love your career so much that you’d do it for free (if you could afford to do so), then it has likely become a calling as well. And if a calling begins to produce a good income, then it has also become a career.
Why are such distinctions important? Because many of us cling to a calling yet struggle financially because we ignore or resist the practical need for an income-producing day job, insisting, “I must be free to follow my heart and devote my life to my art.” Others among us focus so much on climbing a career ladder to success that we abandon a life-affirming calling that might bring even more joy and meaning to our life.
For some of us, career and calling have merged into one; for others, they remain separate and distinct. One way is not necessarily better than another. We each have our own unique process.
A Late Bloomer Calling
The following story relates how a late bloomer found his calling and transformed it into a career with a surprising twist.
Kevin Kohler found his calling early on but showed little tolerance for paycheck-driven work. Kevin’s passion during high school and college was the game of Ultimate Frisbee. His many hours throwing the flying disk led to a certain expertise, but his pastime showed little promise as a profession.
Eventually, Kevin’s parents suggested that he move out of his childhood bedroom and into his own apartment — after all, he was by this time thirty-two years old. Soon after, while he was taking a hot shower, an idea popped into Kevin’s mind. Thrilled by his revelation, he quickly dried off, dressed, and made a call to the Wham-O Corporation, which manufactured the Frisbee, and finally got through to a decision maker in their marketing department.
“Here’s my idea,” said Kevin. “I’d like you to give me five hundred free Frisbees with the words World Peace written in both English and the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. Then I’d like you to pay my way to Russia and put me up for a month. What I’ll do for you is to become a Frisbee goodwill ambassador — I’ll go to Red Square every day, once we get permission, and I’ll teach people to throw Frisbees. It will be a great cultural exchange and help open up a market for you.”
This was back in the 1960s, during the Cold War. The company agreed, since it was not a big investment and might do some good. Kevin traveled to Russia (then part of the USSR), learned to speak the language, and ended up leading numerous Frisbee goodwill tours there. He even married a Russian woman.
Since Kevin couldn’t find work that suited him, he did what he loved and got someone to pay him for it. His calling, for some years, became his career.
Not many of us will materialize a career (and calling) based on an idea that appears in a flash, but Kevin’s life testifies to what’s possible.
Flying from Career to Calling
The story of Stuart Anders represents yet another approach to career and calling.
I met Stuart Anders for the first time when I began my four-year tenure as head gymnastics coach at Stanford University. Before my first day meeting the team, the athletic director drew me aside and explained, “Dan, for the past ten years, a man named Stuart Anders has been showing up regularly as a volunteer assistant coach. I realize that you don’t know him, but he’s a good guy and totally reliable. He only did a little gymnastics years ago, but he loves the sport. It’s your call, of course, but it would be a nice gesture if you’d let him come in and help in any way he can.” I said I’d be glad to meet with Stuart and see how it went.
As it turned out, he was a relaxed, easygoing guy with a likable personality, who did show up on time, every day. We didn’t have much time to talk personally, since we were both focused on training. But it seemed that we’d get on fine.
Then one day a month or two later, Stuart arrived about an hour late. He apologized, explaining that he’d been out flying and a complication had kept him from arriving on time. Curious, and a little surprised that Stuart had a pilot’s license, I asked, “What kind of plane were you flying — a Cessna or Piper Cub?”
“It’s a larger craft,” Stuart answered. “Boeing’s newest, called a 747. I was checking its glide path.” It turned out that Stuart was an aeronautical engineer and test pilot for NASA who worked at Moffett Federal Airfield in nearby Mountain View. I also learned that he restored old Porsches as a hobby and was building a one-man experimental jet, rivet by rivet, in his garage.
I had known Stuart only through one of his callings — helping young gymnasts hone their craft — even as he devoted most of his day to another calling and professional career, testing aircraft on the cutting edge of flight technology.
Pursuing Your Calling at Home or After Retirement
Not everyone chooses to have children, but those who do so may take a break in career pursuits to raise children as their primary service. Some may later return to a career outside the home; others find a lifelong calling as parents. Others live full and meaningful lives without having to define themselves by a career, serving in whatever circumstances life presents.
Despite the saying that “life begins at forty,” we can sometimes experience a rebirth decades later. Retirees who have completed their career arc may find a new calling. Take the case of Bud Gardner.
Bud Gardner, former college English teacher, writer, and writing coach, prepared to follow his heart and play golf into his retirement years. Then he read a study about how playing a musical instrument late in life was good for aging brains (and spirits). So he surprised himself by buying a harmonica.
It wasn’t entirely out of the blue; he had played old favorites on the mouth organ for sixty years, ever since his dad had taught him. Soon bored playing the same old three songs, he placed an ad in a local paper hoping to find someone to teach him more. After twenty people showed up at their first meeting, the “Harmonicoots” group — the Coots, for short — was born. For the seven years since then, the Coots — sixty men and women over fifty-five — have met weekly with three goals: having fun, learning new songs, and playing together.
They have since played more than 250 gigs in retirement homes, hospitals, parades, elementary schools, and churches, often bringing tears to grateful listeners. The Coots now have a mission to “entice the world” to the joys of playing, inspiring and exciting young and old to a lifetime of musical enjoyment. They’ve helped hospital residents improve their breathing capacity, and they’ve played carols on harmonica over the holidays. Some of the members have traveled worldwide.
What began as a postretirement whim turned into a new calling — and could have also become a late-blooming career, except that Bud and the Coots use any income they make to purchase harmonicas that they donate to elementary school students. Thanks to the Coots, these students enjoy a fresh breath of life.
Believing in Yourself and Your Calling
This final story relates how a young man followed a call to accomplish something great against all odds.
In 2001, during a severe drought in his village in Malawi, fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba was forced to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford the tuition. It was all they could do to sustain themselves on one meal a day from their meager farm income.
Young William spent his time in a nearby library, fascinated by a book on windmills. Not knowing any better, he believed that he could build a windmill for his village, assembled from old car batteries, bike parts, tractor fans, and plastic pipes. Spent wood from local blue-gum trees would serve as a tower. His parents and everyone else thought he’d lost his reason, but their doubt only increased this young man’s determination.
Three months later, William illuminated his family’s home with a lightbulb powered by his first windmill. He later built four more in his village, including one at a local school where he taught others how to build windmills. This resulted in electricity for the village, which enabled them to pump in their own water — a gift that became a village treasure.
And What About You?
William’s story and the stories that preceded it are but a tiny sampling among millions of stories of career and calling, as interesting and varied as the people on our planet. Yet the most significant story is your own. Your personal memories are your treasures — and each story, each memory, can provide teachable moments.
It doesn’t ultimately matter whether your career and calling are united or are two separate parts of your life. In an ideal world, career and calling might merge — we would feel drawn, as if from above, to do the work we do each day. But this is the real world, where not every calling becomes a career or every career a calling. Most of us go to work, put in our time, enjoy aspects of our job, then look forward to doing what we do for love alone during our discretionary time.
There are, after all, benefits in not centering your life around your career. When your work is “just a job” that you leave behind each evening, you aren’t as likely to get overly stressed or define your worth by the work you do, even as you strive to do your work well. Your family may also benefit from the extra time, attention, and energy you have to spend with them.
The balance between career, calling, and family will naturally change over time, so reevaluating and fine-tuning this balance can help transform midlife crises into midcourse corrections and create a space for refueling and recharging. Maintaining such balance involves a process of self-examination and insight that ripens over time.
Subtitles by InnerSelf
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, HJ Kramer/
New World Library. ©2011, 2016. www.newworldlibrary.com
The Four Purposes of Life: Finding Meaning and Direction in a Changing World
by Dan Millman.
About the Author
Dan Millman — a former world champion athlete, coach, martial arts instructor, and college professor — is the author of numerous books read by millions of people in twenty-nine languages. He teaches worldwide, and for three decades has influenced people from all walks of life, including leaders in the fields of health, psychology, education, business, politics, sports, entertainment, and the arts. For details: www.peacefulwarrior.com.