The Complicated But Beautiful Process of Finding Your Calling

When people used to ask me how I became a full-time writer, I struggled to give an intelligent answer. How do you chase a dream? It’s complicated.

The Complicated But Beautiful Process of Finding Your Calling
Photo Credit: gail m tang via Compfight cc

My last day of working a day job also happened to be my thirtieth birthday, which made it a milestone in many ways. The truth, though, is the day itself, as climactic as it was, was less significant than the process it took to get there.

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How I came closer to my calling

For years, I wanted to write. I kept a blog and wrote for magazines but never took it too seriously. When Ashley and I decided to have a baby, all that changed. We couldn’t live off just my income and she wanted to stay home to be a mom, so I became determined to make that happen.

For two years, I stayed up late and got up early, squeezing in a few extra minutes of writing whenever I could. I didn’t quite know what I was doing or even how I would do it, but I just kept writing and sharing my work and trying to grow an audience. I knew that if I could get people to pay attention to my work, I’d find a way to make a living off my words.

Then after 18 months of hustle, a few opportunities emerged. Over the course of six months, I launched two books (one self-published and another traditionally published), started speaking at conferences, and released an online course.

By the end of the year, we tripled our income. I was so focused on the goal of replacing Ashley’s income that I wasn’t paying attention to how much momentum was building. It took a wake-up call from a friend for me to realize what was really happening.

My wake-up call

“What’s happened to you is rare,” my friend Mark said to me one day while we were discussing about whether or not I should quit my job.

“Nobody saw it coming. I know you, Jeff, and I didn’t see it coming. You have to consider the possibility that if you don’t do this, it might be an act of disobedience to God.”

After that conversation, I stopped thinking of this as an opportunity or even a dream and replaced it with a much weightier word: calling. And a month later, I met with my boss to tell him what I had been working through. I said I was afraid of disappointing him.

“Jeff,” he said, smiling. “I’m not disappointed. I’m proud. The truth is I’ve been waiting for this conversation. I think it’s time.”

So on March 31, I worked my last day at the only real job I ever had, turned 30, and began my career as a professional writer.

But that’s not the whole story…

This is the story I tell when people ask me how I got here. But there’s so much more to it.

Like the seven years of learning about marketing and business while working at a nonprofit. Or the unintentional practice I got in college as a writing tutor. Or how my mom used to read me the dictionary on long road trips.

The experience of finding your calling is both mysterious and practical. It takes effort but also seems to happen to you at times. What I’ve come to understand is that finding your purpose is more of a path than a plan: it involves unexpected twists and turns that at times look like accidents but actually are a part of the process.

Everyone, I think, is searching for a purpose, for something to satisfy their deepest desires. I believe that “something” is a calling. What does that mean? To me, a calling means the reason you were born. It’s that thing you were meant to do.

And finding it is never as simple or as easy as we’d like it to be.

What I learned

When I began working on my new book The Art of Work, I thought I knew what the process of finding your calling looked like, but what I learned surprised me.

Discovering your life’s purpose, it turns out, isn’t quite so simple. The journey looks different for everyone, but there are also common themes that tend to appear.

So I had a thought: What if what happened to me wasn’t so rare? What if everyone has a calling? So for a year and a half, I’ve been trying to answer that question. And after interviewing hundreds of people, reading tons of biographies, and reflecting more honestly on my own story, here’s what I’ve learned:

  • You can’t do this on your own. You need help. Mark was one of many guides who helped me understand my life and what to do with it.
  • You’ll have to practice. It won’t be easy. If you want to discover your life’s work, you’ll have to fight for it.
  • You won’t “just know.” Discovery happens in stages and clarity will come with action. The most important thing you can do is take the next step.

In the book, I feature stories of everyday people whose names you probably won’t recognize, and that was intentional. I wanted to communicate that calling is not something for “chose ones,” but for everyone. And in these seemingly ordinary stories, I think we understand our own lives a little better.

At times, I think we all feel like our own stories are a little too ordinary for our liking. But what if in that ordinariness, there was something extraordinary we could tap into? That’s the idea of the book.

Get the book!

I hope The Art of Work helps you make sense of your life, gain a greater understanding of your purpose, and know what to do next.

What was a time when you discovered something about yourself that surprised you? Share in the comments.

43 thoughts on “The Complicated But Beautiful Process of Finding Your Calling

  1. Hi Jeff, my heart skipped a beat when I read what you wrote about featuring every day people not just recognizable because finding your calling is for everyone! This is so true!

    As someone that’s mentored entrepreneurs for years and of course from my own personal experiences on this journey I’ve learned something very fundamental when it comes to finding out what your purpose is.

    First of all, there are separators – what I mean by that is there are people who struggle and people who seem to move along okay and find great success. The separators are people who find success and their purpose tend to have a higher level of enlightened consciousness. The second separator is they have tremendous clarity – which is the real deal-breaker. Now here’s where people tend to get it wrong and struggle….clarity is NOT a mental or heavy thinking process. In fact clarity is an action process. You have to be involved in the journey even though you’re failing and getting knocked down, you have to keep going. A lot of entrepreneurs stand still and they’re frozen with indecision. If this happens you’ll never find your purpose. I had rather see ANY entrepreneur going forward and making a million mistakes than standing still and going no where.

    Be active in your journey, be brave enough to keep moving and you will find it. I remember when I had no earthly idea what in the hell I was doing and I was so exhausted but a little feeling in my stomach told me just keep going. So I did. 🙂

  2. One of my favorite things about your story, Jeff, is that easily translates. So many people have the same struggle with discovering their calling and iteratively showing up to do the work that makes it happen.

    Thank you for going first.

  3. I love this: “You have to consider the possibility that if you don’t do this, it might be an act of disobedience to God.” Exactly. And who are we to disobey God?

  4. I loved reading about your story Jeff, it’s really so inspiring. I think I’m a rare case of always knowing I wanted to be a writer – but, it took me many many years to believe in myself enough to do the work to make that dream a reality, which as far as a financial return is concerned, is still a work in progress 🙂

  5. Hi Jeff,

    I love the service and inspiration you’re providing for aspiring writers!

    For me, drowning out my ego shouting with more time spent in silence allowed me to listen to my intuitive nudge. I felt the urge to write, and to write, and to write, and my calling seemed to find me as I did less stuff I needed to do, and more stuff I wanted to do. I’d publish an in-depth post, or an eBook, or maybe I’d shoot an inspired video, and I felt more and more detached from the process.

    My calling found me the more calm I became, and the more I pulled back from my work, to play more frequently.

    Keep on inspiring Jeff!


  6. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I thought it was my calling to be in the fitness industry, either as a sponsored rep or a trainer. Unfortunately, the more I got involved, the less I enjoyed it.

    I still love fitness, but have been making it more of a personal thing than a public display. I’ve always had a love for online marketing and writing, and found myself wanting to talk about this stuff on my fitness website.

    Of course, this wouldn’t make sense to most of my readers, so I decided to get back into the marketing field and I am so glad I did. Your articles help a ton with improving my writing and storytelling. Thank you for this!

  7. Jeff, this is beautifully written. I’ve been studying and living this topic my entire life and it still goose-bumped and teared me up from your truths. You made that magical connection every writer hopes to achieve. Congrats!

    Writing is a Super Power and embracing it as my calling helped me achieve early retirement. It continues to pay dividends in every part of my life. Yes, the journey was difficult. But it is the work and growth along the way that turns you into the person who is worthy to claim the dream that seemed so far-fetched way back when.

    I look forward to reading your book on the topic!


  8. Hi Jeff, you asked: What was a time when you discovered something about yourself that surprised you? I have loved the sound of words for as long as I can remember. I have written a variety of things over the years. Short stories, poems, newspaper articles, blog posts, and even a book. But the most surprising thing to me is when I am introduced as “This is Charlene, she’s an artist.” or “This is Charlene, the artist I told you about.” I have always dabbled in creative arts, whether it is writing or doing crafts, self designed cross stitches, and painting. But I picked up some gel pens and sharpies several years ago and started drawing pictures with them. When I am introduced like that, I want to look around to see the person they are really talking about. I find it humbling to hear how much people love what I do, and that my art speaks to them.
    I really love your story about your mom reading the dictionary to you. Reminds me of the time that I would sit at my desk and read through one just so that I would have something to do. It always tickled me when my boss would stop by my desk and ask me which letter I was on that day. Looking back I find it amazing that he never asked me to stop doing that, I think he got a kick out of me doing that too.
    Thanks for your post.

  9. I still remember siting in sixth grade health class confused, staring at the picture of the unshaven man laying on the park bench, captioned as an “alcoholic”. Thinking, surely he could stop, mimicking the gesture of my hand tilting toward my mouth. Only two short years later, I would learn why the man on the bench couldn’t stop. At age 16 I discovered that I was an alcoholic. Then came 25 years of drinking and drugging, added with bouts of occasional success, combined mostly with misery. During this the whole time, I made exhaustive attempts at six different treatment centers. Finally, after closing in on eight years of sobriety, I am realizing I have a chance. And Maybe even a strong one.
    I want to thank you, as I have enjoyed opening random emails that you have written, allowing me to effortlessly read stories, I’m not normally accustom too. While the fog has mostly lifted, my mind is welcoming the idea that I have, still a lot to do. As my age would have it, a mid life crisis seems to be more convincing, but what I’m finding is that it’s more likely to be a mid life awakening. And as my mind becomes more open, with the willingness to be more forgiving, the thought of a calling is slowly appearing to be more likely.

    1. You go Jerry! I needed to read what you had written. My significant other struggles with this problem. He has journalism experience in his past and I am encouraging him to share his struggles by writing. I too wish that my “sig. other” could be more forgiving, because resentment blocks creativity. It’s good to read that you now know this too because you have “the thought of a calling slowly appearing.” Keep reading Jeff’s newsletters. He inspires in such a way that it reaches many areas of life, including the writing life. Jerry Frye should do more writing on these struggles. Writing not only saves your own life, but you could definitely help other people by sharing your experience.

  10. Jeff, your story and the stories of others you share in your new book, are inspiring. A lot of folks are searching. Even when we arrive at a place that seems to fit, new searches seem to begin. The destination is often the journey. Thanks for inspiring us.

  11. How I love your caring and sharing of not just your own story Jeff, but the story in all of us. The making-writing-giving of ourselves in the form of words is no easy task. Yet, still you have a way of showing us, and weaving us into your courage, to be brave ourselves. I love that magnetic community you bring to each post. I have recently discovered the purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give your gift away. The gift is our calling, the giving it away in our art is making the difference in ourselves but also in others. “May we be the change we want to see in others.” ~ someone said this in history, one ordinary person took time to write down wisdom. Thank you Jeff for sharing your calling but encouraging us to give of ourselves by doing the the same.

  12. Hey Jeff, great stuff! I have been subscribed to your blog and receiving your emails for several months now. I am working through this “calling” stuff myself. I think that I have been trying to figure it out my whole life. The one thing that you have done to encourage me and many others is that you have given us permission to write. That may sound weird, but for me just to say, if only in my own head or around my family, that I write has been very liberating. Thanks, and God bless.

  13. I appreciate this post, Jeff. I am a family physician and although the practice of medicine has been good to me and I believe I am good at it, I have always felt something was missing.

    The best way I can explain what this feels like to me is by way of an example. As you know, what we do day-in and day-out requires the use of a lot of exam gloves. Over the years I have tried on countless myriad gloves in various sizes from an array of manufacturers composed of various materials – latex, PVC, nitrile, synthetic rubber, etc. I have tried them all.

    To date, none of them have ever felt as though they fit my hands perfectly. I wear them and I can always get the job done while wearing them. But, this “not quite right feeling” is emblematic of how I have felt for the past 23 years in the practice of medicine.

    I have never been able to shake that feeling. In spite of feeling this way I put my head down and worked hard for many years. I was able to accomplish a lot and succeed in many areas of medicine as a clinician, speaker, volunteer and teacher.

    A few years ago I began to search for a way to satisfy this inner longing I had to express myself in other ways. I started a blog. I produced a podcast. I have written a soon to be published book. At the age of 60 I can tell you I feel more comfortable in my own skin while writing more than anything else I do or have done.

    I want to thank you because reading your posts and listening to your podcasts over this last year have helped me to find my voice. The next time you offer Tribe Writers, let me know. I’ll be the first sign up.

    Many heart felt thanks,

  14. Jeff.. You write that you read hundreds of biographies in the process.. Is there any chance you can list some of them at some point? 🙂

  15. What surprised me about my calling is how the venue changed. I have always been an encourager, which I did through practicing medicine for twenty years. Along the way it gave me opportunities to teach and speak as well. When my health failed, I was given time to realize my true heart’s desire- writing. I love reading your advice, but it scares me a little that you verbalize my thoughts so well. I recently referred to myself as a wannabe. I will stop, but I think my hesitation is due to the twelve years and countless credentials I had to go through before I could call myself a doctor. It was so easy to tell people I was a physician, but recently when I was asked, “What do you do?” I answered, “I am a writer.” Then I proceeded to turn red as a beet. Can I really just write and call myself a writer?

  16. Well said Jeff! I think for many years I expected my calling to jump out from behind the couch and yell “Surprise!”

    It took me a few more years to understand that finding your calling is much more process than surprise party.

  17. Nicely done Jeff! I loved the part about the calling and how we all have our own calling. I am a writer of my very own blog thanks to your inspirational words. Keep Inspiring 🙂

  18. Jeff, I love reading stories like this. I’ll never forget driving back from a weekend getaway with my wife, sharing with her these ideas I kept having, but feeling embarrassed about the thought of turning that into writing. She said, “Then you should write about it. Seriously!” To hear my best friend see the possibility and affirm what I was already thinking was liberating.

    Then, as you mentioned similarly in this post, I started to recall all of these points along the journey. My mom being a writer (duh, I thought—and why I never considered this), and our countless games of Scrabble and crossword puzzles, and the poems and little stories I wrote as a child. And how I could whip out a story for school the night before it was due, and how it turned out not great, but not too bad either. It is amazing how if we take the time to reminisce, we’ll start to see it coming together across those moments. Great post, by the way.

  19. After years of being in a rotation for working in children’s church and hating every moment of it (I tried to quit twice, but God wouldn’t let me), my pastor asked me if I would be the coordinator. Over a process of time, I stopped seeing this as babysitting and embraced it as a ministry. Usually, I serve about once every 4 months. Recently, I served two Sundays in a row and actually found myself excited about the second Sunday. I even led a little girl to the Lord a few months ago. I have prayed for someone dedicated to take this on as a ministry. I am beginning to think I am going to be the answer to my own prayer.

    1. I dated someone whom I was head over heels for back in 2001-2002, and I feel I was only with him to lead him to the Lord. He ended up leaving me, which was very hard for me afterwards, but at least I led him to God and my task was complete. I figure that’s the only reason we dated….he was a ministry for me. Around the end of our relationship I used to sing church hymns and play Christian cd’s for him. Then, it was just like, over. But I found out he started going to church afterwards….probably so God would forgive him for treating me bad and using me when we were together.

  20. I left an abusive marriage and wound up a midlife college student working toward the degree I never had a chance to obtain as a young woman. At the same time I was managing an apartment building and writing for MSN Money.
    By the time I got the degree I had been out of the traditional workforce for nine years. All along I kept telling myself I would go back to a “real” job when I got my degree.
    Once I had the degree I realized something pretty surprising: I had no desire to look for a full-time job. I wanted to keep freelancing full-time vs. looking for a steady salary.
    It felt terrifying, but I did it. And I’ve never been sorry, even when MSN Money fired all its writers on the same day a couple of years ago. I’ve continued to make a living as a writer, on my own terms.

    1. Wow! Your story is truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with us here, Donna! 🙂

  21. Jeff, I would love to have a copy of this book. But I stay in the other part of the world, in India, Asia. As you are not open to these regions I see that I am going to miss out on all the offers that you provide. Could you please think a bit about us. We too want to be writers or at least hope to find our calling.
    I have been a ardent follower of all your posts for the last few years.

  22. As much as I like your work, there is something that crosses my mind. In the Eastern Orthodox church there is recognized the concept of ‘prelest’, the idea of some elation or some high coming to you to prove you were supposedly meant to do something but at the same time having some flaw that could taint your witness. So it is in secular terms. People may actually desire a so-called ‘calling’ for one reason but be unaware of a flaw or weakness in their service or actions that could potentially distort or lead themselves and others astray. For example, a nun with strong suicidal tendencies having an elated experience believing she has to go into solitude to better herself, when in fact she does not have a history of being strong to deal with this. It could be interpreted on secular terms as stemming from psychological problems and a need for control in ones life to change people in certain ways which only feeds the weakness, and often these views stem from an already flawed and tainted worldview in which the person is distant from having a sound, humble understanding of who they are and the world around them. I understand this somewhat. The idea of being called to influence or debate people when I still struggle heavily with being easily frustrated and angered by fairly small things may be more of a spiritual delusion and problem than an actual calling. Of course, there’s always the matter of going on a journey to consecrate one’s life for that purpose but it could be a lot of harm before you even manage to realize whether it was worth it at all. I’ll leave the answer up to you.

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