Can't hear your inner voice?

11 questions to help you find your mission in life

Follow your bliss? Easier said than done. Whether it’s nagging guilt about hundreds of unanswered e-mails, piercing wails from upset kids, or the never-ending drone of modern life in general, it can be difficult to hear your inner voice. "There are millions of people in the world," writes career coach Richard Leider in Whistle While You Work:Heeding Your Life’s Calling (Berrett-Koehler, 2001), "who, unfortunately, are deaf to the passionate spirit that speaks within them." Caught up in a world that demands our attention 24-7, how do you find the time to think, much less reflect, intuit, or divine? Maybe you’ve even begun to suspect that you don’t have an inner voice. What then? Are you all alone trying to find your direction in a world that’s more overwhelming every day?

Frankly, the whole notion of answering a calling can sound a little lofty and rarefied. But there are ways to help us find our true mission that don’t depend on a full-blown Proustian examination of our personal essence. If you’re not by nature (or by circumstances of an overloaded life) drawn to heady soul searching, why not consult the concrete signs in your everyday existence? Look at who you are—right here, right now. Be more archaeologist than psychoanalyst, and sift through your life for clues that you can see and feel.

1– What (or who) makes you envious?
Although envy is one of the seven deadly sins, interpreted differently, it "can tip you off to the kind of life you may resentfully admire in another and only reluctantly imagine for yourself," notes Pythia Peay, author of the lead article in this cover section. Maybe you envy the fact that teachers get summers off, that clergy are listened to, that bartenders meet musicians. These twinges can be telling clues to your true place in the world.

2– Where do you want to be, right now?
It’s not superficial to admit that you feel uninspired on the flat plains of the Midwest or that you yearn for the comforts of a small town. Everyone—from ecopsychologists to humanist geographers like Yi-Fu Tuan—attests to the strong relationship between human beings and their place on earth. The landscape, Tuan writes in Topophilia (University of Minnesota Press, 1972) is a "source of assurance and pleasure, [an] object of profound attachment and love." Are you a sun worshipper? Do you feel most alive when the sea breeze blows across your face? Instead of a dream job, your calling may arrive in the form of an intense geographic attraction, a spot on the globe where you know you’re meant to be.

3– Do you want a good job or a good life?
"The ideal of ‘meaningful work’ butchers nearly all of us," says novelist Jim Harrison. And how. Keep in mind that your "true work" is often different from "what pays the bills." Some of the greatest artists and social leaders, and many of the happiest people, have pursued their passions outside of the job. Poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance agent and foreign policy expert Noam Chomsky teaches linguistics. You might even prefer keeping your calling unsullied by the rigors of the daily grind.

4– What’s your body trying to show you?
The body is a sensitive compass that can guide you toward a vocation, writes Peay. Does your work literally make you sick and tired? Are you plagued by anxiety or troubled sleep? Though Peay notes that even the perfect calling can provoke stress, those feelings tend to be different from the disabling effects of work you’re not meant to do. Imagine different careers or activities and then gauge your body’s response—peaceful or tense, cold or warm—to discover where your essential self truly belongs.

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