How to Find Your Calling (And Why Most People Get This Wrong)

Practical tips for finding your purpose.

It never fails. Every week someone asks me what the "secret" is to doing work you love, to finding your purpose. They think because I work for myself that somehow I've got it all figured out, that I set a goal and made it happen—no problems or bumps along the way.

But the truth is, finding your calling is a process full of tensions to be managed. And it's just as much about responding to the signs God is trying to reveal to you as it is about taking action.

As Christians, we're told constantly that we were created with a purpose. And it's true, you were made to do good works, born to leave a legacy. The events of your life are directly related to your understanding of this. And whether you believe it or not, you're living a story. Whether it's worth telling is up to you.

So how do you find that purpose? If you're like many people who are striving to live meaningful and intentional lives, it will come in the form of what many refer to as "a calling."

Whether you believe it or not, you're living a story. Whether it's worth telling or not is up to you.

Two camps

There are two camps when it comes to this idea of calling:

1. "The need is the call." 

Look around and you'll see a world in need. Can you help those needs? Great. This camp claims that if you can see a way to help, that's your calling. If there is some good you can do, then you have a responsibility to do it.

As my dad says to cars that remain parked in an intersection after the light has turned green, "What're you looking for—an engraved invitation?!"

2. "Pursue your passion." 

Your heart knows what you were made to do, claims the second camp. You can trust your heart. Once you submit to your passion, you will begin to find your purpose.

Howard Thurman once said, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

But unfortunately, both of these common camps are tragically flawed.

The first leads to a passionless existence, in which you only pursue things out of obligation. The second is equally dangerous, as you can aimlessly wander from one thrill-seeking adventure to the next without ever committing to anything.

The reality is we have to learn to live in the tension between what makes us come alive and what resonates with others.

A practical solution

One of the trickiest parts of finding your calling is understanding the importance of what my former boss calls your "voice." 

You might think of this as your unique contribution to the world, the things that you are especially gifted at. What can you do that nobody else can do? 

This is your voice. Finding it involves a thoughtful combination of your own skills, the world's need for those skills, and your own desire.

So how do you do this, practically? 

First, identify your core competencies. What is it that people are constantly complimenting you about? Make a list, if you need to organize your thoughts.

Second, look at the needs around you. If you're an entrepreneur, this might mean finding a market before you create your product. Or if you're called to be a missionary, maybe it means first finding the people you want to reach before spending years in training. The point is, instead of planning for the sake of having a plan, find people you can help right now and then plan around that more immediate, practical need.

Third, think about what you love doing. What really gets you excited about life? What gets your blood boiling? Make a list of the things that you do in your free time, when nobody is watching, and consider whether or not there may be something deeper to that desire.

Now, put all three of these together. Draw a Venn diagram if it helps. The intersection of your own skills, needs of the world, and what you love is a good place to start exploring your calling.

I'm not saying this is a flawless method, but it's better than most places to begin. Find a few ways to do something that meets those three fields. Try a few things out and see what happens. Is there fruit? Do you enjoy the work? Is it sustainable (i.e. can you get paid to do it?)

Like many things in life, finding your calling is a paradox.


If the answer to all of the above questions is "yes" and you feel peace in your heart, then you're in a good place. Keep trying things and trusting the results. 

Learning to live in the tension

This isn't hocus pocus (but it sure ain't science, either). So many people wait for their calling. They complain about their lives, lamenting that God hasn't shown them the path yet. Others live agnostically, as if everything depends on them. Neither of these is particularly fulfilling.

What does seem true is that we have a choice. Not to make our lives awesome or dull, but to choose to courageously follow the path ahead of us or not. At times, it will feel like everything is riding on you, but it's not. At others, it will feel as if you don't have to do any work and can just submit to the process; that is also not true.

Like many things in life, finding your calling is a paradox. It's a mixture of need, passion, and skill—you can embrace this or ignore it. Good luck.

16 Comments

Jonathan Galliher

4

Jonathan Galliher commented…

So how does this fit with the actually available jobs? Should we assume that the folks who stock the shelves at retail stores so that you can pick out what you want are only doing this as a temporary way-station on their way to fulfilling their real vocation, or is there some Venn diagram we can write that leads that individual to aim at stocking shelves for a living? Ditto for the people that cook and serve your food at fast food restaurants.

And where does pay fit in with all this, since some ministries (like being a stay-at-home mother) don't directly pay at all while plenty of other lines-of-work pay tremendously poorly even though they're essential to our way of life (like those shelf-stockers and fast food workers)?

I think we're much better off going with the idea that we should live our lives in a manner appropriate to those who live with God, and completely drop the idea that we're supposed to leave a legacy for those who come after us. And to hell with all the ego-stroking words about passion and needs we've clung to to make ourselves feel important.

Caleb Amesbury

1

Caleb Amesbury commented…

Does knowing "your calling" involve getting to know God, reading/studying His Word? Walking with Him and growing a prayer life? Or does it involve Mat 28:19-20? Can you really rely on God's will in a Venn Diagram?

Paul Sohn

53

Paul Sohn commented…

Jeff's article is a reasonable Calling 101 - suitable for those who've seldom thought about 'calling' before. Jeff's Venn Diagram of intersections of talent, passion, and need of the world is spot on. The definitive description of calling I believe comes from Os Guinness: "Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we do, everything we have, everything we are invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service." The leading pioneer on 'calling' is Valerie Myers. Here's an informative article that sheds deeper insight into calling, if you're interested: http://paulsohn.org/interview-with-valerie-myers-conversations-about-cal...

Modupe Oloruntoba

2

Modupe Oloruntoba commented…

pleasantly surprised to find Jeff Goins here. :)

Hans Chung-Otterson

2

Hans Chung-Otterson commented…

I've never found a better or more truer thought on calling than this one by Frederick Buechner: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

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