American writer and theologian Frederich Buechner wrote, “You find your calling where your deep passion meets the world’s deep need.”
Do you believe this?
I do. I truly believe each of us serves an important and unique purpose. I also believe that I am here to help meet others’ needs, just as so often others miraculously show up to meet mine. Believing in this is not tough; the tough part is doing – and persisting – in the work of paying attention and acting on the steps for the calling to unfold.
It would be so much easier if someone would just tell us what our passion is, right?
Well, recently I came across a great post about this topic. It was included in a newsletter by Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist author) who summarized a 2010 TED talk given in Austin, Texas, by communications pro Steven Tomlinson.
The point of his talk can be boiled down to two words: Don't discard.
You Don’t Need a Career, You Need a Calling
Tomlinson was not always a pro. He starts his story when he was a student trying to sort through his interests and figure out what to pursue. Here is a portion of the account Kleon wrote about Tomlinson’s talk:
“[Tomlinson] told this story: he was going around trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with his life, so he decided to visit a professor named Will Spong, who had a reputation for being a no-nonsense hardass. Tomlinson went to his office and explained how he loved business, he loved theater, and he loved the seminary, and then he asked Spong to tell him which one he should choose to pursue. This is how Spong answered:
“’This is the stupidest question anyone has asked me. You’re telling me that there are three things you love and you want me to tell you which two to cut off…so you can limp along on the other one? This is not how things work. The advice I have for you is: don’t discard. Find a way to keep all three of these things in the mix. We’ll find out [what you should do for a living]. Right now, what you do is spend 2 hours a week whole-heartedly engaged in each of those 3 things. Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen in your life that is unique and powerful.’
“[Spong] went on to explain, ‘You don’t need a career, you need a calling. And right now, you’re listening.’”
In the talk Tomlinson shares how he committed to that idea. Instead of singularly selecting one pursuit he decided to keep all the interests in play: business topics, playing in a band and attending a seminary. Remarkably, instead of the disparate interests taking away from each other, gradually new connections emerged. His interests melded to form unique contributions that he was ideally suited to do.
His biography includes traces of each interest: Among his accomplishments is that he is a founding master teacher at the Acton School of Business for Entrepreneurship. He is an adjunct professor of pastoral ministry at the Seminary of the Southwest. And finally he's an accomplished playwright and performer whose solo shows have won awards and been produced in Austin and off-Broadway.
The potent mix of his interests created an alchemy only he could create.
After years of single-minded workaholism, snared in my own ego about workplace maneuvering, permission to go broad instead of go deep is attractive. It strikes against the common advice to cut the distractions, and choose a line of endeavor. After all, we are a culture of doers; our Western heritage rewards work and productivity and while we may be indulgent of dreamers, they’re not following a recipe of tenacity and accomplishment, are they?
“What are you doing?” Tomlinson’s experience gives me food for thought on recrafting this answer. Coincidentally, “what are you doing?” was a question I recently responded to dozens of times in an 8-hour period. At a networking event? Nope, at a college reunion.
I probably would not have attended my 35th college reunion except that my bosom college buddy Vicki said she’d drive up from Memphis to go if I would. I thought she really wanted to attend so I agreed. Only to find out later she thought I was the one pining to get there.
So we were pretty lackadaisical about when to show up. The multi-day reunion -- which simultaneously hosted several different alumni classes - scheduled a mix of classes and sports and evening events. But we just wanted to see people. After scrutinizing the registration list and noting familiar names, we set off for the hour-drive to spend Saturday afternoon on campus. Ours was one of the smaller class gatherings; we figured it wouldn’t take long to scout out former roommates and classmates. I’d gone on an abroad program to England my senior year and it turned out a number of those friends would be at the reunion too.
The day was an irregular patchwork of grey clouds, intermittent with dark rain and bright passages of sunlight. So, too, was our erratic path from pub to various dorm living rooms to a stroll along the Mississippi River bluffs. We hurried through rain and rambled in sunshine when it broke through the clouds.
When you walk familiar paths, returning to the places where you played pranks or shared confidences or passionately argued ideas, phantoms begin to float. People from the past began to conjure up: "Remember…? What ever happened to…?"
Then in one dorm we found some old yearbooks. Now the ghosts smiled back at us! Turning the pages of black-and-white photos, peering at captions, the details of who people were and what was said or done were hazy, frozen in time. But the feelings from back then, the lighthearted freedom and passionate earnestness, rushed back in vivid color.
So when we left that building and began running into familiar people we’d mentally metamorphosed. Delightedly, I asked and responded to, “Hey, how are you? What are you doing? Family?” not as a marketing professional or mom of millennials but rather as the college-student self they knew. It was fun. Changes in new (or no!) hair, different last names or body shapes did not matter. Vicki and I recaptured our swagger. Though I shared bits of my adult description cheerfully, I loved feeling the recognition of being that college student again, before the resume began taking shape.
How refreshing to have the out-of-body experience of being my former self!
Keep All the Pieces in Play
Kleon uses a spooky analogy to describe the feeling of ignoring components of your own individuality:
“The thing is, you can cut off a couple passions and only focus on one, but after a while, you’ll start to feel phantom limb pain. I spent my teenage years obsessed with songwriting and playing in bands, but then I decided I needed to focus on *just* writing, so I spent half a decade hardly playing any music at all. The phantom pain got worse and worse. Luckily, about six months ago I started playing in a garage band with my friends every Sunday. Now, I’m starting to feel whole again. And the crazy thing is that rather than the music taking away from the art, I find it interacting with the art and making it better–new synapses firing, new connections being made, etc.”
Kleon’s words ring true to me. I’m convinced that the beautiful gift of our own individual expression is a never-ending unfoldment. Whatever one’s unique calling may be -- it’s important to pursue because it carries within it a gift that another needs.
Of course it’s hard to imagine what your alchemy of interests will cook up. But since this blog strives to show that in everything we do we believe in pushing through boundaries and the edges of limitation, why not the limits of our own imaginations?
The idea of faithfully keeping all one’s pieces in play (Spong’s formula is two hours/week for each interest!) is a new one for me. I’m trying to head down this path by writing more regularly. This last month my schedule got the better of me and I’ve been beating myself up for not getting the blog out. But that takes me to my final comment and what I learned from my college reunion.
Thank you for reading!