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?”

Order my book, The Art of Work and get $250 in bonuses including a free video course.

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