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.
5– What feels natural?
We all have innate tempos that are either kindled or disrupted by what we do each day. Why not bring your work in step with your natural rhythms? If you move in slow and deliberate measures on your time off, you might thrive as an artisan or researcher—fields that will reward your commitment to deep focus, accuracy, and craft. If you compulsively zip from activity to activity all weekend long, perhaps you should pursue work in media, politics, sales, or some other field in which frenetic energy and multitasking are indispensable assets.
6– What does your family tell you?
From Ben Franklin to Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey, American heroes seem always to be the self-made man or woman who strode into the world all on their own. It’s almost a source of shame to follow in a parent’s footsteps. But, actually, it’s a great idea to study the example of your ancestors, as revealed in the stories of how they spent their lives. You may find clues to what to do based on shared talents, dispositions, or interests. There may be a compelling reason beyond good connections why so many medical school students have a parent who’s a doctor or why farmers or firefighters run in some families. But you may find signs that are just as strong about what not to do. If your mother despised sitting in an office all day, you might think twice about business school. On the other hand, if Uncle Louie wore out early as a construction worker, a desk job might not look too bad.
7– What should you wear?
Henry David Thoreau warned against "enterprises that require a new set of clothes." Don’t take that as a hard and fast rule, but it’s important to remember the link between looking comfortable and feeling comfortable as you seek out your calling. If you’re happiest in shorts and sandals, scrap that plan of becoming a courtroom attorney, maitre d’, ski instructor, or toxic waste disposal specialist.
8– Who are your heroes?
This one’s tricky. Who you admire can reveal a lot about who you want to be, but it can also become an albatross. Consider Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the classic Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita: "Better to do one’s own duty imperfectly than to do another man’s well." It’s important for most people to have someone to look up to and emulate, but in order to achieve your own true calling, at some point it might be necessary to kill your gods.
9– What do your friends say?
Utne senior editor Jon Spayde recommends convening an ad hoc committee of friends who agree to help you make important decisions about your life. "Pick a manageable but ample number of folks who know you, love you, and won’t bullshit you," Spayde says. "Invite them for coffee or dinner and leave enough time for a good talk. Make your problems, desires, and values clear to them, and ask for their frank assessment of where you are and where you might go next." Whatever you do, don’t invite your family, Spayde warns: "They’re too likely to counsel caution and make you self-conscious."
10– What about money?
Everybody harbors fantasies about escaping the life they’re trapped in, but let’s face it: To quit your job and devote a year or two to studying Zen, building a house by hand, writing the great American novel, or living out any other cherished dream usually takes some combination of money, savvy, wild luck, and privilege. Most people who hear a calling can’t simply walk away from a life ordered by job requirements, family obligations, and monthly bills. On the other hand, living beyond your means is a sure sign that you’re not fulfilled by what you’re doing. Take a good, hard look at your finances. You may need less money than you think.
11– Are you being fair to yourself?
There’s another way to look at the whole idea of callings. Even as you yearn to discover what you think you want to be, be fair to yourself about who you already are. Remember George Bailey, the hero in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life? Time and again, family duties and community obligations thwarted him from realizing his dream of traveling the world. To follow your calling might be a luxury that you (and many others) ultimately can’t afford—but that’s okay. If the amazing popularity of Capra’s movie tells us anything, it’s that doing one’s duty is a calling as noble as any other.
Anjula Razdan is assistant editor of Utne.