Sunday, June 7, 2015

Robbing the World Twice

A Bad Nurse
After my wife's second C-section, she had to spend a few days in the hospital recovering. Because we had family nearby, I was able to spend most of this time with her in the hospital, while the nurses came and went. Most of these nurses had similar temperaments: they were lively and kind and seemed to be driven by a combination of empathy and an almost codependent sense of responsibility for my wife's comfort and well-being.

All except one of them. She was flustered, dour, depressed, and bitter. It's possible she was just having a bad day, but to my wife and I it seemed that she was in the wrong line of work. She was clearly someone who had the intelligence and dedication to complete the competitive and demanding requirements of a nursing degree, and she was almost certainly a good-hearted person who wanted to help others. But her soul was not suited to being a nurse and, surrounded as she was by natural nurses, she stuck out like a cat in a tub of turtles. Where the others were energized by the daily work of caring for patients, she was stressed and suffering.

Don't get me wrong here. I think there can be immense value in suffering and sacrifice. But I don't recommend it as a way of life, and I think this particular woman should have been working in some other field.


I've known a few men who were obviously in the exact right place, professionally, and I have always admired them and wished I fit into my own professional niche as well as they fit into theirs. One of them is an acupuncturist - possibly the most accomplished healer I have ever known. Another is a mechanic who runs his own shop and has been fixing cars for my family since I was in diapers. Both are tremendous blessings to the people they serve.

But the first time I really became aware of the concept of a vocation was talking to the father of an amazing kid I used to babysit. He is a goldsmith, and he gave me a couple of nuggets of wisdom two decades before I was really ready to digest them.

The first was what he called the be, do, have sequence. "A lot of people," he told me, "imagine themselves doing something, and think they need to get the right equipment in order to do it properly. A guy might fall in love with the idea of being a photographer, buy a bunch of fancy camera equipment, and then try to do photography, and thus become a photographer. The problem is he has it all backward. He's trying to have the right equipment first, so that he can then do photography, so that he can be a photographer. But a true photographer is a photographer first, in his soul. Driven by what he is, he uses whatever equipment and materials are available to him (even if they're super cheap and basic) to do photography. Then, as he grows his photographic business, he can begin to acquire and have fancier equipment. He starts by being, moves through doing, and ends up having. Be, do, have."

The second was his story of falling in love with his own vocation. He was about 20 years old, and his parents were paying for him to complete dental school - his plan was to eventually become a dentist. One day, while he was out with a friend, the friend wanted to stop by another friend's apartment for some reason, so they both headed up to this other friend's place for a quick visit. This other friend happened to be a goldsmith, and when my charge's father laid eyes on the goldsmithing studio at the top of the stairs, he was hit with a sudden certainty that that was what he wanted to be doing. From that moment on, he knew he would have to abandon dentistry and become a goldsmith. His parents were dismayed, but there was no turning back for him. He knew what his vocation was from that moment on.

A Bad Worker
I always envied his certainty, but the truth is I've had the same certainty of my own vocation since I was a child - I just haven't had the same degree of conviction. I am a writer by vocation - perhaps not a very good writer, but I will never really know until I muster the gumption (and set aside the time) to really write seriously. I haven't done so because of doubt and fear - at first I didn't think I had enough experience to write, and by the time I began to think maybe I'd accumulated enough experience, I had a family to provide for, an office job, and little to no spare time for frivolous pursuits like making up and writing down fairy stories.

I still have a hard time believing I will ever be able to provide for a family by writing - after all, how many people want to be authors (or movie stars or musicians or astronauts or presidents) and how many of them have to settle for janitorial or clerical or service work instead?

But I've been trying for close to a decade to provide for my family with boring corporate work, and am essentially failing at that anyway. I make enough to pay the bills and buy groceries, but only because we're living with my in-laws. If I had to pay rent... well, I couldn't pay rent in the area I work in - nearby housing is going for about twice what I bring home in a month. I was failing to keep our family in the black when we lived in Colorado, and would be failing to do so here too were it not for the fact that my wife's parents have given us a room in their house. My hair has gone gray with the stress and the long hours I've been working, but despite working really hard at boring corporate jobs for the last ten years, my performance is mediocre, I'm being paid accordingly, and I don't really fit in with the bright, driven, high-performance kids I work with. I feel a bit like an idiot-savant: better than my colleagues at certain technical tasks than they will ever be, but fundamentally broken when it comes to navigating the cultural currents of the world I work in. There are some things they just get - things I don't, things they seem to have no way of communicating to me.

Like the nurse who tended my wife after her C-section, I am working twice as hard to be half as good, because I am working against the current of my nature. I am also, like that nurse, robbing the world twice: first by depriving the world of the work I was born to do, and second by occupying a spot in my current job that should be filled by someone who is genuinely called to that kind of work. I don't want to be a management consultant, I am not very good at it, and I should really vacate the position for someone who really belongs there.

Failing at What You Don't Want
I used to think that the right and noble thing for me would be to put aside my silly dreams of being a writer, get a boring job like everyone else, and suck it up for my family's sake. After all, history is full of people doing work they hate so that they can provide for their families: everything from picking crops to mopping up floors to mining coal. No one really wants to do any of those things, but most of us have to because most of us are not really good enough to "make it" in our dream jobs.

Now I'm not so sure, for a few reasons.

First, while I don't think anything in this world is guaranteed, I do think it's possible to imagine an economy where everyone is fulfilled and the dirty work still gets done. It would require a greater degree of individual proprietorship than the employer/employee corporate model we currently live under, but it's not inconceivable. While I don't think anyone is called to be a janitor or a fry cook, perhaps some people are called to operate private cleaning services and burger-and-fry stands.

Second, I am failing at what I don't want. I ignored my vocation in favor of security, took the safe path, and discovered that the safe path wasn't actually safe at all. As Jim Carrey pointed out in his famous commencement speech last year,
So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it... 
My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. 
I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.
And finally, I think I am finally coming to understand that my deepest desires are often more realistic than my most banal assumptions about reality. That's been proven true for me already in my romantic and family life (I have an incredible wife and amazing children) and I am now beginning to believe it might also be true in my work life.

I'm not sure where I will find the time to write, or how it's going to work out. I'm not even terribly confident that what I write will be worth reading, much less lucrative. But I'm ready to stop giving myself to an office job, and start committing to writing in a serious way. I have my wife's support (she's twice the dreamer I am) - all I need now is to work out the transition.

Discerning Your Vocation
Now that I've accepted my vocation, it seems very simple to me (if not at all easy.) But while I was struggling to understand it, I did a lot of reading and thinking about vocation, and I have a few thoughts that might be useful if you find yourself wondering how you can identify yours.

First, read up on what other people have written about vocations. The two best sources I've found are the series on vocation on the Art of Manliness blog, and 48 Days to the Work That You Love, by Dan Miller. I was also very inspired by what Crystal O'Connor wrote about entrepreneurship in her book Unleash Your Moxie (which I edited.)

Second, what you love and desire is often buried under so much faux realism that you may not be capable of admitting to yourself what it is you really want. I always wanted to be with a woman just exactly like my wife, but I spent so much time talking myself out of those trite and unrealistic fantasies that when I finally met the woman of my dreams, I didn't know how to relate to her - I actually thought that the lack of friction and drama between us was a bad sign! Don't let that voice in your head talk you out of your dreams by telling you they are unrealistic. While it's true that not everyone can be a musician or an astronaut, it's also true that someone has to do those jobs. You can say, "Who am I to get to do such a cool job?" but remember that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Some people dream of being an actor or a CEO, but neither of those jobs appeal to me in the slightest. Your dream job isn't everyone's dream job, and maybe it's okay for you to embrace your dream instead of someone else's plans for you.

Third, pay attention to your energy levels when you think about or talk about or do things. If there's something that really makes your eyes light up, something that makes you feel excited and energized, something that makes the hours fly by like minutes... that something may be a significant part of your vocation. It may not feel like something you should do for work, because it's so easy and it's so fun, but that may be exactly why you're the right person for the job. If the current of your heart and your nature is flowing in that direction already, your efforts will be amplified by that current, and you will be much more effective at that task than at another task that is less in keeping with your nature. Conversely, if certain things bore you, turn you off, or cause you to shut down physically and emotionally, you will always be fighting against your nature as you try to get things done. Like me in my current job, you will be exhausting yourself applying 200% effort to achieve 50% results. Working with your nature is much more efficient than working against it.

Fourth and finally, pay attention to frustration and admiration in your interactions with others. Everyone I've ever met is brilliant in some ways and blind in others. The reason the human species is as effective as we are is because we have figured out ways of working together that enable us to collectively use our brilliance to fill in our blind spots. However, it is very easy to go through life assuming everyone else is more or less like you, with the same areas of brilliance and blindness. Consequently, when someone else is blind in an area in which you are brilliant, you may find yourself becoming very frustrated with them, and asking yourself what on earth is wrong with them that they can't grasp something so simple (to you.) In the same way, when you are blind in an area where someone else is brilliant, you may find yourself in awe of their abilities, amazed that something that seems magical to you seems natural to them. If you are frustrated by the incompetence of others in a given area, or others are frequently in awe of your ability to do something far out of proportion to the actual difficulty involved (for you) that is a good indication that you're gifted in that area. And gifts are meant to be used.

It's Okay To Use Your Talents

It will be as when a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one — to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. 
The one who had received five talents came forward bringing the additional five. He said, "Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more." 
His master said to him, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy." 
[Then] the one who had received two talents also came forward and said, "Master, you gave me two talents. See, I have made two more." 
His master said to him, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy." 
Then the one who had received the one talent came forward and said, "Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground. Here it is back." 
His master said to him in reply, "You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I did not plant and gather where I did not scatter? Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return? Now then! Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."
Matthew 25:14-30 
It can be scary to acknowledge that you have been entrusted with talents. What if you're not as good as you hope you are? What if you fail? What if you're wrong about your calling? What if what you're really supposed to do is to suck it up and go back to your job as a bank teller or bookkeeper or cashier? What if pursuing your vocation isn't safe?

Actually, work isn't safe. It isn't supposed to be. Nothing about life is supposed to be - not love, not family, not friends, and not work either. There is no security - only cages that look like security from certain angles.

But I have faith that there is a meaning and an order to the universe. There is a right and a wrong. You have dreams and desires and inclinations for a reason, and if we all worked in alignment with those inclinations, everything about our society would work better, and everyone would be happier. We would all be more effective, more energized, more alive. We could work half as hard, and still be twice as good, instead of the other way around.

So stop robbing the world twice. Stop taking up space in a job you aren't suited to - leave it to someone who will enjoy it and do it better than you. And start doing the work you were made to do. You may fail (after all, nothing is safe or guaranteed in life) but you can fail at what you don't want too, "so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love."

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