I used to be a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, back in my 20’s, and after working there for a the better part of a decade, I reached a thresholdthe word in this case having a double meaning as both a point of transition and a measurement of my tolerance for pain.
At this threshold I began hearing a call to quit my job and become a freelance writer, a decision that’s not exactly designed to reassure your parents, and one that I couldn’t bring myself to make for years anyway, though the gods were drumming their fingers, and though I was slowly overripening and rotting on the vine.
Like most people, however, I will not follow a calling until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so, though I am routinely appalled at how high a threshold I have for this quality of pain. But eventually the prospect of emotional and even financial turmoil, the disapproval of others, and the various conniptions of change seemed preferable to the psychological death I was experiencing by staying putat which point I followed a bit of cowboy wisdom: when your horse dies, get off!
Still, like anyone who chooses passion over security, I was plagued by the fear that scares away sleep. And it wasn’t that I finally overcame the fear. It was that something else became more important than the fear. I still sweated through leaving behind a regular paycheck, medical benefits, a pension coming in two years, the prestige of being a big fish in a good-sized pond, and that wonderful organizational budget that can take up the slack created by almost any amount of individual goofing off: clock-watching, coming in to work late and leaving early, extra-long lunches, indiscriminate wastes of supplies, and those sick days I came back from with a tanthose little paid vacations my company didn't know it was giving me. These are all standard behaviors exhibited by people who feel about their jobs the way they felt about their senior year in high school: psychologically out-the-door, but punching in Monday through Friday just to collect the diploma.
The ancient Romans used to say that the Fates lead those who will, and those who won’t they drag. My own experience has also taught me that those who get dragged tend to put a drag on others, and if those others are the people they work with and for, you've got your basic lose-lose situation.
Passion and Productivity
Creating passionate, productive and callings-inspired work and workplaces begins with the individual, with the corpus (body) that defines the corporation. It involves the sometimes pick-and-shovel work of aligning or re-aligning with your passion and sense of purpose, with your deepest values rather than just the advertised values, and with a fit between who you are and what you do, which I consider the best kind of success. The more passionate you are, the more productivethe more you desire to produceand the less hot condensed breath managers will need to leave on the back of your neck.
In fact, any leap you want to make in your professional or personal life that will bring you this sense of alignment and aliveness is, by definition, a calling. That calling could be to leave your job altogether or come to it in a new way, to take on a new role or let go of an old one, to make a creative leap or launch a new venture or style of leadership, or to simply make the kind of course-correction in your life or work that will make your life literally come true.
And what goes for the individual goes for the company you keep. If it is challenging to walk your talk, to honor your mission and your values, to reconcile your visions with your resources, to juggle the higher calling and the bottom line, it is exponentially more so for the corporate body-politic of which each employee is a single cell.
But the more we as individuals address these issues and conundrums in our lives, and the more we face head-on our own struggles with alignment or mis-alignment, the more we encourage our corporations to do the same. There is a reason why some of the world’s great myths, like Sleeping Beauty and the Grail King, speak to the idea that when we sleep, those around us also sleep and the kingdom goes dormant, but when we awaken, those around us also awaken and the kingdom flowers.
Work is merely one of the arenas in which we play The Gamethe one that the gods are watching from their press-box atop Mount Olympus, sipping mint juleps. It is only one of the arenas (along with relationship, community, sports and spirituality, among others) in which we express our humanity, search for meaning, play out our destinies and our dreams, contribute our energies and gifts to the world, and spend our precious nick of time. But it is also an arena in which we spend two-thirds of our waking lives, most of us, and it is legitimate to love our work! Life is a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves, Nietzsche said.
It is no coincidence that the American Medical Association discovered some years back that the majority of heart attacks occur around nine o’clock on Monday mornings. This undoubtedly has something to do with what most of us are doing around nine o’clock on Monday mornings, which is going back to work. Or more precisely, going back to work we don’t like, work that doesn’t match our spirits, work that can literally break your heart.
The Cost of Security
Unfortunately, most people simply tune out the callings and longings they feel rather than confront and act on them, trading authenticity for security and settling for less. In this sense, money costs too much. The price people are willing to pay to have it is way too steep. It’s terribly easy to build yourself a velvet cage: the money is great, the perks enviable (OK, so what if the only reason you’re using your medical benefits is that your job is making you sick), the surroundings are familiar, and the security comfortingbut you end up becoming at best a recreational user of your passion and creativity. You lose; your company loses; the world loses.
We’re all conservatives when it comes to change. We want to conserve the status quo. We want to protect our investments, and the more investments we have, and the more success, the harder it is to let it go. So although the soul doesn’t seem to care what price we have to pay to follow our callings, we still react to change with a reflexive flinch, the way snails recoil at the touch. We still let our passions turn into ten-car pileups inside us. We still twist ourselves into pretzels in order to ensure the continued flow of other people’s approval, even if it’s only measured out by the eyedropper. As an acquaintance of mine once put it, You shall know the truth and it shall make you nap.
Those who refuse their passions and purposes in life, who are afraid of becoming what they perhaps already areunhappywill not of course experience the unrest (or the joy) that usually accompanies the embrace of a calling. Having attempted nothing, they haven’t failed, and they can console themselves that if none of their dreams come true, than at least neither will their nightmares.
The rub is that the human psyche is like the Earthit is a closed system. There is no out as in throwing the garbage out. There is no trash icon. Whatever energies we ignore or repress will come up somewhere else, at the very least in our dreams and fantasies. And the frustrations and regrets in our lives become like tombstones, reminding us of where someone is buried.
Remembering What We Already Know
The soul is a spiritual organ that we carry to work with us every day, and it informs and observes every move we make. There is no ignoring its demands with impunity. It is capable of meting out punishments as real as any that could be meted out by a boss. It is the ultimate BS-detector, the part of us that absolutely knows what it knows, that knows the feel of integrity and the feel of its absence. It is also the part of us that sees the big picture of our lives, the blueprint against which all our actions are compared, and which is hardwired into each of us.
As the cells in a fertilized human egg multiply, very early on they reach a point when subtle indentations appear in the cell-ball, which distinguish the head from the hindquarters (a distinction that seems to be lost entirely on some people). Nonetheless, if at this point you take a cell from the head and place it down at the hindquarters, it will migrate back up. In other words, it knows what it is. It knows what it’s supposed to become. And at some level, so do we! The work is to remember something we already know, at a cellular level.
I included a fellow in my book, Callings, who described an interaction he once had with his seven-year-old daughter. She came to him one day and asked him what he did at work. He told her that he worked at the college, and his job was to teach people how to draw. He said she looked back at him, incredulous, and said, You mean they forget?
A calling is an organism, a living entity, with an animus all its own. It exerts a centrifugal force on our lives, continually pushing out from within. It drives us toward authenticity and aliveness, against the tyranny of fear and inertia and occasionally reason, and it is metered by the knocking in our hearts that signals the hour. If we are at all faithful to our calls, to the driving force of soul in our lives, it will lead us to a point of decision. Here we must decide whether to say yes or no, now or later, ready or not. And it will keep coming back until we give it an answer.
Saying yes to a call tends to place us on a path that half of ourselves thinks doesn’t make a bit of sense, but the other half knows our lives won’t make sense without. We find ourselves following the blind spiritual instinct that tells us our lives have purpose and meaning, that this calling is part of it, and that we must act on it despite the temptations to back down and run for cover that will divide even the most grimly resolute against themselves.
The Mach1 Experience
Saying yessometimes merely thinking about saying yesalso tends to throw very opposing energies into our lives. The voices of Yes and No. The voices of head and heart. And you can count on the head to say, Have you taken a look at your savings account lately? or That’s not company policy. And you can count on the heart to ask, Where would the world be if all of its heroes followed the bottom line?
One part of you wants to awaken, one part wants to sleep. One part wants to follow the call, the other wants to run like hell. Courage is joined at the hip with anxiety. And whether these contrary exertions inside us feel like two gladiators tied together for a fight to the finish, or like the swimming bodies of yin and yang swirling around in the same fishbowl, the space they occupy is like an ecotone, a transition zone between two ecological communities like forest and grassland or river and desert. They compete, yesthe word ecotone means a house divided, a system in tension. But they also exchange, swapping juices, information and resources. Ecotones have tremendous biological diversity and resilience. I’ve heard it said that heroism, or heroinism, can be redefined for the modern age as the ability to tolerate paradox. To hold two competing forces inside us at the same time and still retain the ability to function. To allow our souls to become boxing rings and still hang onto our marbles.
In the movie The Right Stuff, there is a scene in which the pilot Chuck Yeager is attempting to break the sound barrier for the first time, and just before he hits that illustrious Mach1 (roughly 750 miles per hour), the plane starts shaking and shuddering and threatening to break apart. Then suddenly at Mach1 he breaks through and experiences a glorious silence, and a perfectly smooth ride. There is something of a Mach1 experience in any attempt at a breakthrough. There is resistance, shaking and shuddering, and it’s not opposed to the breakthrough; it’s part of it. But it takes a resilient corpus and a resilient corporation to encourage and harness this chain-reaction, which begins as soon as someone follows a calling, as soon as someone says yes to passion and soul.
Without the shuddering, though, there is no growth. A chemist named Ilya Prigogine demonstrated that for us in a theory that won him the Nobel Prize. He showed that the capacity to be shaken up is, ironically, the key to growth, and that any systemwhether at the molecular level, or the chemical or physical or social or psychological or spiritualthat is protected from disturbance is also protected from change and becomes stagnant.
I’d Rather Be Sailing
I used to do a lot of stone sculpting, and when you want to find out whether a stone is true, you bang on it with a hammer. If it gives off a dull tone, it means the stone has faults running through it that will crack it apart when you work on it. But if it gives off a clear ring, one that hangs in the air for a moment, it means the stone is true, has integrity, and most importantly will hold up under repeated blows.
That is the same information we want about our visions and ventures and callings. We want to know that they’re going to hold up under repeated blows, and among the best ways to determine this is simply to bang on them some, and listen. To take them out, or rather down from the abstract into the physical, and let them get banged on by the mortal world. Let the fear and resistance come, let people have their say, let the chaos blow through, because you understand that disturbance=growth, that moving and shaking go together, and that chaos is part of the creative process.
In the central creation story in Western cosmologyThe BibleChaos with a capital C is described as simply the condition of the Earth before it was formed. In other words, Chaos precedes Creation. We deny ourselves one, we deny ourselves the other.
Ultimately, none of us want bumper stickers on our cars that say, I’d rather be sailing, or The worst day fishing is better than the best day working. We want to do what we’d rather be doing. We want our livesand the work to which we are devoting our livesto catch fire and burn blue, not smolder. We want to feel called, not just driven. We want work to be a channel through which we express our passion and vitality, not a chin-up bar we have to pull ourselves up to every morning. And we want success to be a way we feel, not just a thing we achieve.
To do this, we must incorporate into our lives and our work the understanding that hidden deep in the clockworks of the human heart is the beneficent fear of living life, as Henry Miller once put it, without ever leaving the birdcage, and that this fear can be the beginning of great things. Outside the cage, there is life in all its toothsome grandeur, all the spill and stomp and shout of it, all the come and go of it, all of it waiting for us to act on the one hand, and on the other hand rushing down the hourglass.
Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life (Random House), from which this piece is adapted, as well as This Business of Writing (Writer’s Digest Books). He has written for The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Omni, Psychology Today, and others, as well as for corporate, promotional and television projects. Recipient of a first-place feature writing award from the Associated Press, and former adjunct professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, he lives in Tucson, Arizona. He can be reached via email at email@example.com, or by phone at 520-760-1231. His website is www.gregglevoy.com.