It’s probably safe to assume that at some point you’ve been asked, “What do you do?”
Your reply has probably been what your profession is or which company you work for. The person asking probably remarks how interesting they find this work and that they also know someone who does the same thing.
Have you, on the other hand, ever been asked what your calling is? In fact, have you ever asked yourself this question?
Due to my background as a language teacher and having spent long parts of my life in the UK and Germany, I love to examine specific words. One common word to describe the notion of work in German is Beruf; it has a common enough meaning these days — that of “your job”, but its roots come from the German verb rufen — to call, a calling. In Latin this is vocatio, in English, vocation. This is perhaps more than just, “what do you do to earn money?”.
“All the world’s a stage”, is one of Shakespeare’s most quoted phrases, referring as it does to the seven stages of a person’s life. For centuries, we have tended to define ourselves through our work — what do you do. Work is something that people have used and continue to use as a yardstick for success in life.
Life was nicely segmented; whether it was Shakespeare’s life stages or something similar, things in the past appeared somehow balanced. Many people would learn a trade, become proficient in it and retire out of it. Game over. With few exceptions, work was work, neither a calling nor a vocation, nor something that you necessarily had to enjoy. In German there is a word for the end of work and the beginning of the relaxing part of the day; Feierabend, where you are released in the evening from the necessity to work.
Shakespeare’s stages for life cannot be applied quite so well today, however. According to some studies, the “old” are becoming older, the “young” are also becoming older and middle age is spreading across up to 5 decades of our lives. People at 65 are not behaving exactly the way that previous generations did at that age; they may still be working, and they may still even be enjoying it.
Let me give you my last German word; the concept of having ausgelernt (literally to have stopped or finished learning). This notion also stems from an earlier time when people were seen to have “done” with learning; all that was then needed was a dash more experience, a pinch of accumulated wisdom — and you are settled for life.
The fact is that with learning you are not done — and this is a good thing. There is an increasingly strong connection between what we define as our work — the work that belongs to us that we have consciously decided to do — and our learning more about it to be great at it.
Work needs to be something that calls to us and provides the motivation and energy for us to really embrace what we do and learn more about it. Steve Jobs in his 2005 Stanford Commencement address talked about this love of work:
You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.
Once you have found work that calls to you, it is not only rewarding, but also life prolonging. This, possibly rash statement, is supported by a 15-year study published in 2015 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Preventing Chronic Disease. It proposed that people who worked beyond 65 were about three times more likely to report that they were in good health and about half as likely to have serious health problems.
A year later, an 18-year study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health proposed that working even 1 year beyond the typical retirement age could be associated with a 9% to 11% lower risk of dying. More anecdotally, there is a great article by Anna I. Corwin in Yes! Magazine in which she writes about why nuns tend to outlive the rest of us. What could you do to find your calling?
Learning is for life — you are never done, and you don’t need to be!
Find what you like to do and do it well — don’t be average! This is best explained by Todd Rose in “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness” where he writes about how education blunts our passions and makes us interchangeable with everyone else.
Keep branching out and discovering, use individualized learning opportunities, such as MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses].
Don’t think in terms of conventional categories. Let me conclude with Doc Brown’s quote from the movie Back to the Future: Part III, which sums it all up:
“It means your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has! Your future is whatever you make it. So, make it a good one!”