Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Before You Decide What You Want to Do with Your Life, Do This First

Note: This is an adapted excerpt from my upcoming book, The Art of Work, which you can order today and get $250 in bonuses.

Many people wander through life, unaware of their purpose, blindly following the whims of the world.

Picture of a hiker

Photo Credit: jjay69 via Compfight cc

To them, those who reach their potential seem to possess an extraordinary gift. But what if pursuing your calling wasn’t a luxury reserved for the elite? What if it was needed to live life, fully alive? Where would you start?

Listen to your life. That’s Frederick Buechner’s advice. An author who spent part of his life as a schoolteacher and another part as a minister, he observed that finding your vocation is less about grand moments of discovery and more about a habit of awareness. In his memoir Now and Then, he wrote:

See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments…

What Buechner was saying is that knowing what you’re meant to do doesn’t just happen. It’s an awareness that has to be cultivated. In other words, you don’t just know. It takes time and practice to figure out your calling.

Why we don’t listen

In a world full of distractions, this is what we are inclined not to do. We would rather sign up for a seminar or attend a conference to instruct us. Take this step. Follow that program. Adhere to these six principles. 

But such experiences are poor substitutes for the “fathomless mystery” of life, as Buechner put it.

We have been raised to believe that anything is possible, that our potential is unlimited, and that we are entitled to our dreams. But finding your calling is not so simple. Just because you can become an astronaut or a newspaper deliveryman does not mean you should.

Each person is responsible to not only do what she is capable of but also what she is meant to do. To paraphrase Parker Palmer: Don’t just tell your life what you want to do with it; listen to what it wants to do with you. [Tweet]

Listening to your life 101

Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify major events in your life and write them down.
  2. Note every significant detail, even the things that seem silly or irrelevant but come to mind anyway.
  3. Look for a common thread or recurring theme.

Don’t try to decode the meaning. Just put down everything you can think of.

Can you see how one event, without any intention or planning on your part, influenced another? How that late-night trip to the diner led to meeting the love of your life? How a series of useless internships influenced your career choice?

When I went through this exercise years ago, a few memories emerged:

  • I thought of when I won the sixth grade spelling bee, beating my eight grade opponent with the winning word, acquiescence.
  • I thought about how my mom used to read the dictionary to me on family vacations.
  • I thought of how I always loved to write.

It was this exercise, a simple process of identifying the core themes of my life, that helped me learn that I was supposed to be a writer. Maybe it’ll help you figure out what you’re supposed to do, too.

Applying this process to your life

When you pay attention to your life and the lessons it can teach you, you won’t feel so lost. Your story will seem less like a series of disjointed events and more like a beautifully complex narrative unfolding before you.

You will understand each setback, inconvenience, and frustration as something more than what it appears to be. And perhaps, as you listen to it, your life will speak.

It may call to you in the early morning or late at night and tell you what you are meant to do with your gifts, your passions, and your abilities. This voice might help you make sense of what has happened to you, and it may even give you guidance. Or it might unravel a whole new thread or theme you never before considered.

You will begin to see a theme, a surprisingly obvious thread that ties it all together. Will it be clear at first? Of course not. This is just the start. But there’s less intrigue to this process than we think.

Your life, though a mystery, is trying to tell you something. The question is, “Are you listening?”

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When you listen to your life, what does it tell you about yourself? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • I love this- so much. I’ve been trying to listen to my life more in 2015, and I am paying attention to what I am drawn to do in my alone times, my quiet moments, my free time. For me, if I happen to have the planets align and have the time, energy and actually am alone (or in the middle of Panera), I sit down with a good book, a journal for writing in, and my Bible. That activity is the winner-take-all every time. I read. I think. I ruminate. I write down what comes to me – be it a daily event or an idea for a blog post. It’s my therapy. It’s where I recharge and rejuvinate. And the bonus is….. it gives God time to speak to me, when I am finally quiet enough to listen.

  • Melinda

    Dear Jeff, Another good one. This should be taught to every High school and College student. I see now after 72 years of life what I should have been doing most of it. I didn’t even think about going into the legal field until I retired and volunteered as a court advocate. I am fascinated at the legal system and how it worked.
    I am not feeling sorry for myself but I was married to a man that made me believe that I did not have a brain in my head. It was after I left him and went out in the working world that I found that I did have a brain.
    Now I am enjoying as an outlet my writing and your blog has been a valuable source of information and pleasure to me. Thank you Jeff.

    • I agree with what you said- that this should be a course in high school and college! I have a teaching degree, and if there were a course about this, I would know what I should be doing with my life- teaching THAT! 🙂

      • I appreciate your sharing that, Melinda and Beth! I agree. This is an important exercise to understand what you should do with your life.

  • I love it, Jeff! I’m working on a project that’s similar to “finding your calling,” and in it, I describe how our distraction-filled society jumbles up the clarity of our calling. That’s how it happened to me. It helped reading it in your words. Shows me that I’m not alone.
    Thanks for your words!

  • Great post, Jeff. Now I can’t wait to dive into the book!
    I love the part about working hard to find our calling. Most people just expect to wake up one day and know what their calling is. But it’s the achingly slow progress towards what feels right and good that actually builds up into a calling. A calling isn’t found in a moment. It’s what all the moments of your life put together lead up to.

  • resh

    Great post jeff. I would like to thank you for your inspirational writings. I started writing when I was 12years old. I used to write meaningless stories and articles but all I knew was it made me happy. But I couldn’t continue it when I started my higher education. Now after reading all your works. I, seriously started to know what I actually wanted.

  • Hassler

    Your recent post is relevant to my current situation. After more than twenty years as a teacher, I’ve realized that I need to do something else. Thanks for great insights and suggestions.

  • Teya

    When I sat down and started writing points in my life, I was not surprised by each event per say, because I lived them. What surprised me was remember that I would write between each things. Even that however was understandable. What I was shock to find was that each event most were tragic or trying to find a way of expression after fear drove me to push my writing back. Also seeing how I was lead without ever seeing it.
    All my growing up I was a pianist. I didn’t have a grandmother I had a piano teacher. In my senior year I was involved in an accident which I almost ended up in a coma, and gained amnesia. Now I have all but the year before the accident. So I missed a concert where big people high in the industry were scouting out musicians. That was not even the most tragic.
    What I found was each led to something better and made me stronger for the next trial. Even two years ago where I almost died again with an evasive intestinal surgery where my insides literally tried to end my life. On the 4th day of recovery I had an insight and conversation with my Heavenly Father that I need to once again change. I don’t suggest almost dying to change the direction of you life. No, not fun. I find I’m at my best when I’m creating something. Deeper and more specific, is when I’m writing. Writing, where a whole world opens up or in what I’m guided to write. Even deeper when I write, I feel freedom and an open link with God. That in itself is a revelation.
    Jeff thanks for putting yourself out there in this book, which in turn helped me pull what I needed to go on and do my life’s work.

    • Very interesting, Teya. Thanks for sharing!

  • Michelle

    I know that I am called to be a writer. My dad says that I wanted a ‘hypiter’ (typewriter) when I was 2 and could read billboards when I was 4. I always had a stack of library books and still do today. I also loved writing letters to grandparents and relatives when younger. I only work a few hours a week around homeschooling and all the other wife/mother stuff, but I truly enjoy it and find it a rewarding challenge.
    My husband is thinking about going back to school after working with computers since his Air Force retirement. I think he will be happier to do something hands on rather than existing in a cubicle farm. We are researching schools and scholarships at this point.
    I think a lot of people are miserable because they don’t know their purpose or call on their life. It’s sad.
    Thanks for your encouragement to many who want to find that peace and contentment they are looking for.

  • Of late, when I listen to my life, it tells me to hang up the gun belt, pick up my fountain pen and get busy. Your new book prompted me to uncover other bread crumbs from my past, reaffirming the artful course I’m on.

    • Really cool, John. I love hearing about your journey. I’m a fan!

  • Micah Judd

    Childhood was beautiful, filled by nature, comfort, wonder, games, mystery, warmth and parents who couldn’t give much emotionally, but made up for it with available space for sprawling in the natural world. Since then my life’s themes have been change, loss, death, questions, confusion, difficulty in partnership, motherhood, birth, will, renewal, sanctuary, darkness, adventure, escape, grief, anger, curiousity, expression, self-destruction, deliberate optimism and beauty. Nature has been my surrogate mother, aquaintances have been my family, family has been my proving ground. Failure and snippets of success are the red thread woven into my earth colored tapestry. Something about motherhood seems to hold my attention. I’m not sure how to investigate that gravitational pull, but I will ponder it. It seems to be the experience which holds the strongest of feelings in my life experience. Thank you for sharing this question and inviting me into this practice of awareness.

    • This is beautiful

    • Retti Waara

      Lovely. I too call nature my surrogate mother. 🙂

  • Beautiful article. One of the main reasons why I read your articles is that I love words and I love to write. I had to smile when I read that your mother used to read the dictionary out to you. One my hobbies was to read the dictionary.Although I have a short public school background (the conservative English system), it was not the OED that I read but the Chambers dictionary.

    Those doing crossword puzzles know the importance of that special dictionary. Anyway, reading that brought me in touching with etymology and also the richness of language by increasing and improving my diction. I did make use of this treasure when I wrote my article The prostitution of Education (https://therebelliousvoice.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/prostitution-of-education/)

    For quite some time I have realised that my calling is to write and one the biggest hurdles I need to overcome is quite a silly one: laziness. Yet the inspiration is there, the desire to observe life is very much strong and have started putting into practice what I desire most: to write. With the in mind I completely altered the purpose of my site http://www.mintyourfortune.com to satiate that hunger, to quench the thirst.

    Quite a few times, I did play with the thought of writing about my own life, a journey that was not at all easy. I am not yet sure, whether I should open it to the public. Kafka comes to mind. sigh

    Thank you just the same, for the motivation that your newsletters provide.

    Suren

  • Linda K. Bridges

    Thanks Jeff for this great thought.”Your life, though a mystery, is trying to tell you something. The question is, “Are you listening?”
    I’m trying to listen, as you so aptly stated, and to ponder the big AND small things that have shaped my life and left an imprint on me thoughts and attitudes, my desires and actions. I’ve just transitioned from my full time life career to writing full time. Sometimes during this transition, I’ve wondered, “Is this it? Is this what I should give this next decade or more of my life to doing?” I can see some patterns emerging. I hope that I will be able to listen well, and not jump back into the comfort of doing things that I am familiar with–instead of doing the hard work of pushing through to birth the work God has been gently calling me to do now-at this stage of my life. (I just wrote and illustrated and published my first children’s storybook on Amazon Kids, and the Kindle version just went up thus weekend. It is exillerating to see this accomplishment and I’m working on book #2.) I want to learn more about the ‘listening’ in my life journey– and just what that might look like in a ‘call to action’ afterwards. Any ideas?

  • Carol Anne Olsen Malone

    I’m still working to find what resonates with me, what strikes me deeply enough to act as my brand, or show to the world who I am. Jeff has suggested this lesson in Listening to your life 101. That’s what I need to do more of. I’ve been coasting through life allowing it to shove me where it wanted me to go. At age 60, it’s time to take life by the horns and life it my way and that means more spiritually, more physically, and more intellectually. Jeff is the catalyst for a lot of this drive. But I still would like to know who you listen for the things that resonate and how do you recognize them as what will push you to deciding what I want to do with my life–well, what little I have left?

    • Retti Waara

      Hi Carol, I am 70 and finally beginning to follow my true path! So don’t think you are too old! I have found that whatever excites me and make me lose track of time is where I need to head. There are things I have to do, like tech set up and such, that don’t excite me, but if they are part of my whole of doing what I love, I can get through it. I love this quote:
      Best Wishes, Retti Waara

      • Retti Waara

        Oops my quote didn’t copy, here it is:
        “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 are people who have come alive.” Harold Whitman

  • Retti Waara

    Thank you Jeff! this post came at exactly the right time for me. I have found the path to do what I love as a writer, photographer and helper of those wanting to find themselves. Today I had a breakdown and realized I need to tweak my approach to make it truly me, and not follow all those directives that seminars and training programs dictate to us. I was jolted out of my comfort zone by this realization, and was falling helplessly when this post caught me in its net. You bounced me in the direction I need to go! Thank you!

  • Donna Freedman

    My path to the writing life is the most roundabout way imaginable. I’m among the few people in the U.S. who became a newspaper journalist without a college degree. Later I went on to start the Smart Spending and Frugal Nation blogs at MSN Money.
    (How both those things happened is too complicated to explain in a comments section. Short form: One year of college, single parenthood, abusive marriage, return to college in midlife and now supporting myself as a freelancer vs. a salaried reporter.)
    Throughout my life I’ve gone through some extremely difficult emotional and financial issues. Off and on I’d wonder, “Why me?”
    Ultimately I realized two things:
    –Why NOT me? Stuff happens. LIFE happens. It’s not personal.
    –Having been a self-taught writer and having been both financially broke and emotionally broken allowed me to reach readers in a way that not everyone can. Writers whose lives have gone swimmingly can’t really understand how complicated life can be, and thus cannot connect with everyday people.
    Now I listen to my life all the time. Specifically, when something difficult or painful happens I ask myself one question: “What am I supposed to learn from this?”
    Sure, the difficult/painful things still hurt. These days, however, I come out on the other side with more than just the memory of pain.

    • Melinda Taylor

      Thank you Donna, I am finally trying my hand at writing at 72. I too, have had a life similar to yours.

      • Donna Freedman

        Melinda: My best friend is 71 and she’s writing all the time. I believe you can do it, too.
        Would love to see what you write. You can contact me at SurvivingAndThriving (at) live (dot) com.

        • Melinda Taylor

          I will send you just a couple of things that I have written. Thank you.

  • Melinda Taylor

    I went on a Missions trip to an Indian reservation in Northern Mn. I tried to go to sleep but a story kept rolling around in my head. i got up at 5:30 AM and finally got the story down on paper. I named it “I saw God Through you today. I also met a little girl with a pad and she liked to draw so when I helped the children with crafts I sat beside her and asked her to draw me a picture and I would write a story about it. She drew the colored leaves on the tree and I wrote a poem called “October Whisperings.” Thank you for your articles Jeff.

  • Louis

    Just wanted to say Thanks You. Lately, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been traveling in the mists and “whims of the world”. Today, after being deeply moved by the movie “Creed” (a surprisingly really great movie), your words seem to hit me deeply. I’m looking forward to be continually moved by your words/work. I just started getting into your books, so I guess this is another path on my hero’s journey.

  • When I look at my life, I see that, even as a child, I was destined to be a writer. Although, the funniest thing is, I hated English in school. I despised it, until I started to make up stories and put them on paper. The rest is history 🙂
    Our whole lives, I think God tries to show us what we’re meant to do, and who we’re meant to be. The problem is, as this article so beautifully says, we’re not listening. I thank God that He opened my eyes enough to see why I’m here and what I’m meant to do. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t a writer.
    thanks for the article!

  • Raymund Turner

    I remember clearly now about me having entered a writing competition sponsored by “Reader’a Digest Magazine (American edition). That was way back in the 70’s. The topic was about seasonal migratory patterns of birds and how they succeed in detecting Earth’s geomagnetic alignment. I was surprised when i won a Casio wrist watch. During English language classes i seemed to have written commendable topical essays. I even dropped out of The Writer’s Bureau training institute – lessons were dry. Thanks Jeff for helping me remember some interesting trends in the past.

  • Melinda Taylor

    I do like to write but it has been in my older life that I thought I would pursue it. Everytime I read a story that I have written people say “you have to get it out there, the picture comes right before my eyes like I am there.” I am at a lose on how to do that. I just write short stories of a page or two and I have no desire to write a book. How do I do that? I am frustrated.

  • First of all – acquiescence is such a beautiful word. Second, thank you. I haven’t formally tied all the major events in my life. I have never had a great memory, but I think the ones that stick out are important. And while writing and admin assistance are my passions, thinking back, I’m definitely a multipod with a few diverse interests.