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Find a Calling, Make It Work

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You may find your calling at the place where your gifts intersect with other people’s needs.

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.

Jeff Thompson credit Lizzy Bean
credit: Lizzy Bean

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 what 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 refu- gee 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.

Financial concerns are another common hurdle that can prevent individuals from pursuing their calling. Thompson says the key to marrying income with a calling is to be clear about how much money you need to sustain yourself. “This is the kind of radical advice I give the students I teach in business school. They say, ‘I have a passion, but I want to make money. I want to support my family.’ I ask them, ‘Did you mean you want to be rich?’ When I hear people say that, I check them because if you really pour your heart into it, you’ll find a way to support a family even if it’s modestly.”

Alisha Wielfaert Lindley Battle Photography
credit: Lindley Battle Photography

ALISHA WIELFAERT is a creativity coach. She previously worked for 11 years in the insurance industry and then simply couldn’t muster the enthusiasm anymore. “I was personally, emotionally, and spiritually bankrupt,” she says. “I had a 401K, health insurance, and a salary people would kill for at a really good company, but I didn’t want to tell another person how to fill out an insurance application. I knew I was poisoning myself by staying. I needed to figure out how to change my attitude or move on.”

To decipher her next step, Wielfaert delved into self-help books, became a yoga teacher, hired coaches, and eventually opened a yoga studio. But while these activities helped, she still felt stuck at her job. “I was teaching yoga classes at 5:30 am before work. I was running payroll and newsletters for my yoga studio during lunch break. On weekends, I was teaching classes. Basically, I burned myself out.”

It was life coaching that really clued her into what to do next. “I really liked what they were doing. Because of my yoga and psychology background, I thought I could not only do this, but I could also do it just as well if not better than the coaches I was working with.” This insight led her to leave corporate America, sell her studio, and travel to places like Italy and India in search of inspiration.

After returning, Wielfaert took a part-time job at a local nonprofit so she could grow a network until she was ready to build her coaching business. Because it can take time to make money from a calling, she suggests individuals start with an idea and do their research. “Start building your email list. Start testing your market. See if people want
to buy what you have to sell,” she advises. “Start piecing, diversifying your income stream.”

Wielfaert also says there’s no shame in taking additional gigs “as long as they are in alignment with your core values.” When fear shows up, she says that having faith in your journey, following your core values, and surrounding yourself with supportive people can guide you through the dark nights when doors slam and the universe makes you question yourself. “It’s been a difficult road for me, but when I get to sit outside on a warm day and do my work, it gives me a sense of sovereignty that I never had when I was doing other things.”

Jim Stevens
credit: Jim Stevens

For artist JIM STEVENS, it was both a traumatic event and a job ending that led him to his calling. As a child, he learned to draw and paint from his grandmother.

But, he says, “It’s not something I ever expected to do professionally.” In fact, when he proudly told his father that he wanted to be an artist and a writer when he grew up, he was punished for it.

“My father beat me black and blue and said no son of his was going to be an artist starving in an attic somewhere.”

Stevens’ career took many turns, from being in the army to doing commercial diving to working in a precious metals refinery. Eventually he found a job teaching. It took a rock bottom moment to force him to make a career from art.

“Bullet fragments in my head from Vietnam combined with a migraine and caused a stroke in my visual cortex,” he says. “I lost my eyesight in 30 minutes; my vision got crunched down to a pin-dot.” Following that, Stevens lost his job and his wife left him, leaving him with two daughters to raise. “It took a year for Social Security to recognize me as disabled. I had a minimal income, just barely enough money to support the three of us.” It was his daughter’s insistence that threw him back into his art. It took two years of “very focused, very hard work,” which involved learning how to see again by continually moving his eyes. Today he is making a living from his art. From his calling.

“I think success starts in a dumpster. I know it did for me. That first step takes courage. The rest of the journey takes flexibility, determination, perseverance.”

Kylie3 credit Andrew Reed
credit: Andrew Reed

KYLIE SLAVIK, the director of storytelling and brand development at Conscious Marketer, says, “I think there’s a lot of resistance to career and business with spiritual folks. One of the reasons is that spiritual people are more sensitive and don’t want to create any harm. People don’t realize there’s another way.”

As a child, Slavik wrote stories. She became a performance poet as an adult. She believed many of the myths about money, which is why she says she “freaked out” when a spiritual teacher in New Zealand told her she needed to be an entrepreneur. “I thought it meant harming the planet. I remember going to a bookstore and this book on marketing lit up and caught my attention as I walked past it. I picked it up and read the whole book. I realized it’s just communication, like my poetry.”

A second shift happened when she interviewed motivational speaker and author Mark Victor Hansen, who told her with certainty that he wanted to eradicate hunger. In that moment Slavik realized marketing didn’t have to be about manipulating or coercing people. “I realized I’m a natural marketer and have to empower people who have these visions.” She believes spiritual people have a huge potential to change the world for the good. “You can empower people through the marketing that you do. Showing people how to do that is my calling. I wake up in the morning and can’t believe this is my life. I get to create from my heart every day and help people.”

While Thompson, Wielfaert, Stevens, and Slavik all ended up in different careers and discovered them in various ways, they shared an inner knowing about what their calling was. But as Slavik says, the reason people don’t follow their calling isn’t because they can’t figure out what it is, it’s because they know on a deep soul level that pursuing it will engender some monumental challenge. “At the level of our DNA, we’re called to what we’re resistant to do. At some point, the consequence becomes intense,” she says. The very nature of pursuing a calling requires you to push past self-doubt and fear and to stretch beyond your comfort zone. However, not pursuing that meaningful career can be difficult as well. Not having an impact can be painful.

If you feel called but scared, Slavik suggests you ask, “What is at stake for me in my life? What can the world look like?”