Some quickly find their calling—they find a career that engages, satisfies, and pays them. But for many of us, it’s not that simple. We end up drifting about, meandering down one path and then another, always wondering what it is we’re really meant to do.
After many years of having only a vague sense of career direction (and often grateful just to make ends meet), I pondered a series of questions and finally reached clarity about what I want to do.
But before sharing the questions I used, I want to point out that it’s perfectly fine—and often part of the process—to not be clear on what you want to do in life. Life is not a straight line from A to B, and sometimes you need to go through several transformations to gain the necessary context to find your calling.
During times when you’re unclear, the following advice may be helpful:
- Follow your curiosity, as Elizabeth Gilbert says. I’ve had several life junctions where I felt an overwhelming desire to study something, spend time with someone, change cities, or travel. Those whims often didn’t feel logical at the time, but pursuing them led to opportunities and insights that brought me further down my path.
- Put in the hard work to gain valuable skills. Cal Newport argues that ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice, and advises instead to “put in the hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy this leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate.” His book So Good They Can’t Ignore You and the tl;dr blog post version are highly recommended.
Without further ado, here are the questions for finding your life’s calling:
1. If I died today, what would I be sad that I didn’t do?
Imagine you were to die tonight in your sleep. What are you most sad you didn’t get to do?
Another way to approach this: “If I were to die happy and satisfied, how would I have lived?”
2. What did I like doing when I was young?
Reflect on your childhood and see if any memories call to you.
I have a vivid memory of coating an elementary school worksheet in stripes of glitter crayon. I was worried that this act would be admonished, but I couldn’t resist making the drab worksheet more attractive. It turns out that this root desire to make ideas and information more alluring is my calling!
3. If I had all the money I needed, what would I do?
Often our sense of career is deeply intertwined with the obligation to make money. While of course our career must sustain us, this question can help us see past any money issues that may be skewing our perception.
4. What brings me satisfaction?
This question helps calibrate the previous one. If in the last question you pictured yourself laying in a pool sipping champagne, you’re unlikely to envision the same in this one.
Related questions: “What do I feel proud of?” or “What would I feel proud of?”
5. What do I do where I lose track of time?
Losing track of time lost in an activity happens when you are in a “flow state.” This state is often deeply satisfying and brings about our best work, so your answer to this question may indicate an activity to double-down on in your professional career.
6. Where do I gain energy, and where do I lose it?
Do you gain energy from working with people or working alone, or in a particular combination? What sort of challenges inspire and motivate you, and which drain your batteries? This question is posed to help you find a sustainable work situation.
7. Whose life am I jealous of?
I found this question after becoming green with envy upon hearing Tim Ferriss’s writing schedule. His schedule was something like waking up, taking a swim, doing writing, eating the same daily lunch, reviewing writing, and then meeting up for friends in the evening. I wanted that life so much—me against a blank canvas, every day—that I realized I should orient my career around that sort of “maker” schedule.
Related question: “What does a perfect Saturday look like?”
8. What am I good at?
Alternative questions: “What do friends ask me to do for them that I find easy?” and “What am I bad at?”
9. What are my “factions,” and what do they want?
This question is a way of finding a calling that encompasses all the different aspects of you.
I have three factions—aka inner drives—that are often in conflict with each other:
The caring faction that wants to save the world.
The artistic faction that wants to excel at creative expression.
The fearful faction that wants to be secure.
If I spend too much energy tending to any one or two factions, the omitted factions will start rebelling and demanding all of my energy.
Many times I’ve tried to go a path that only satisfies one of the three (e.g., a high-paying job for the fearful faction, or renouncing financial security to live a life of service), but inevitably I become unhappy because I haven’t fulfilled all of my drives.
10. What would I do if I could start over?
You might resist your calling because there’s a sizable gap between where you are now and where you would need to be to pursue that calling. Perhaps that’s a gap in skillset, knowledge, degree, network, funding, or identity. This question is a way to get around any resistance of the “but I don’t have X so…” or “but it’s too late to…” variety.
You may find as I did that the answers to these questions may not come all at once, but after many months of reflection.
What questions and processes have you found helpful? Please comment below!
1. Log off social media, turn off the news
Like laughter, fear is contagious. You can see this in birds where one of them starts acting nervous and a moment later the whole flock takes flight. For several weeks I went down the coronavirus news hole, and my emotions went right down with me. Then one day I shut my laptop and noticed the shining sun and swaying trees outside. In that moment, I decided that I was the one who would decide my experience of this time. While I still check the news and Twitter, I do my best to limit exposure.
2. Tune in, breathe, and feel
Soothe anxiety as you would a crying child: hold it, listen to it, be with it. To ritualize this emotional processing, each evening I take time to tune into my body, breathe, and feel through any emotions present. The book Deep Listening is a fantastic guide to this practice.
Troubled by circling thoughts? Try using the 4-7-8 breathing: inhale through the nose for 4, hold the breath for 7, breathe out the mouth for 8. The counting acts as a chew toy for the mind, while the breathing technique helps the nervous system switch out of fight-or-flight. To shift from shallow chest breathing to big belly breaths, tuck your chin and place one hand on the heart and one hand on the belly.
Another breathing practice I’ve found particularly useful is qi gong. It might feel silly to do at first, but I’ve never found anything that pacifies turbulent emotions so effectively. An easy way to start is this YouTube.
3. Be kind
If you’re living with others, go out of your way to do something nice for them. If you’re not, send friends and family thoughtful messages and reflect on the good times you’ve shared. Performing acts of kindness will help you as much as others.
4. Get going on your secret dream
Look! Everyone’s distracted and all your plans are canceled. Now’s the time to take up watercolor, learn to make ravioli, finish that David Foster Wallace novel, or whatever else you’ve been relegating to the forbidden land of someday. That someday is today—unless, of course, you are on 24/7 lockdown with kids. Then grab a beer and Netflix, you deserve it.
As the Stoics would say, the situation is as it is, but you still have a hand to play—even if it’s just choosing to consciously breathe through this time.
Is there another technique that you’ve found helpful? Please comment and share. We’re all in this together.
It started with a lingering sadness. My head was a lead balloon, my arms pinned by sandbag hands.
“I get it now,” I thought, recalling people’s tales of depression weighting them to the bed. Anxiety, my lifelong companion, looked productive by comparison. At least anxiety offered a nervous attentiveness I could use to fuel overwork. This depression seemed to not bear any gifts.
I made a pact with myself. Before losing myself completely to this void, I would fight. I would do everything everyone says to do to beat depression. I would get regular sleep. I would exercise. I would spend time with people instead of closing myself off. I would stop treating sugar and caffeine like major food groups.
And little by little, the depression lifted. But when I read Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, and how psychedelics help the brain find new routes instead of spinning the same faulty circuit, I decided to try it—if only for insurance against the void.
I did a quick Google search for legal psychedelic sessions. One of the first results was for a group psilocybin retreat in the Netherlands, a rare refuge where psilocybin truffles were legal, hosted by the UK Psychedelic Society. I wasn’t keen on tripping balls with a bunch of randos from the internet. I wanted an experience like Pollan had. He found an underground therapist who watched over him, 1:1, as he journeyed. But I was a millennial, too lazy to network and find one of these elusive practitioners. I filled out their short application.
Day one of the retreat arrived. In the first of many group check-ins, they asked how people came to be here. One by one, we recounted our tale. “I read Michael Pollan’s book. Then I searched on Google. Now I’m here,” said two people before me. I repeated the story, my identity as a unique snowflake melting.
According to the facilitator, the groups used to attract people seeking novel experiences. Now, with the changing perception of psychedelics, more and more people arrived in search of healing.
I came hoping to chill out, trip, and bounce, but the facilitators—beautiful bright beings you couldn’t help but like—had other plans. They coaxed us through one group exercise after another. The activities prodded us into dropping our defenses. We gazed into each other’s eyes and traded closely held secrets. Reluctantly, I engaged. There was something healing about being a part of a group of people sharing openly. I became less trapped in my own little story. Maybe I didn’t need psychedelics. Maybe I just needed a dose of humanity, a sense of belonging and sharing the truth of what living feels like.
But all this authentic relating was a bit intense. My mounting anxiety about the trip was slowly being outpaced by a desire to be left alone.
At last, it was time. We settled onto mats and were handed eyeshades and cups of honeyed ginger tea to pour over our shrooms. Almost immediately, swirling shapes appeared over my vision. My heart beat rapidly, a chunk of icy fear growing in my chest. Clinging onto reality, I downed what I perceived to be the minimum dose.
I donned the black silk eyeshades and shut out the room. Closing my eyes, a universe appeared. It was dark, but there existed… something. Swirls of colored smoke entwined around the edges, framing a stage. Scene after scene of never-ending strife unfolded on this stage. Scenes of galactic wars were followed by scenes of factory-farmed animals who never knew anything but a cruel and wretched existence. In one scene I clung to my boyfriend as bombs exploded in our city.
There was no escape. I had been mistaken about life. In the end, this eternity of suffering was all there was.
I was vaguely aware I was tripping, that this kaleidoscope of horrors would end sometime, and that I had the option to never ever do this again. That sounded nice.
The facilitators were there for us in case we should want help navigating troubled waters. They so sincerely wanted to help. But… what could they do to stop all reality from ultimately being endless strife and darkness without redemption? There was no help. I was quite certain that this was all that existed.
Then a thought sprang into my awarenss: “The only good in the world is that which we create.” This sentiment was a spark that pierced the darkness. There was still the darkness, but now also the kindness created by those who care. I saw that there was still time for me to join that group and use my life to make life better for others. Such precious grace! I recommitted my life to altruism.
The golden rays of the setting sun filled the room. We were coming down. The facilitators took us on a walk, which turned out to be less of a walk and more a herding of newborn kittens with stumbling legs and awe-filled eyes.
Overhead, a giant sky was streaked with voluminous spiraling purple-blue clouds so majestic they looked shaped by Zeus himself. Everything looked realer than real, like we had taken the offramp from Flatland. Does the sky usually look like this? How could I not have noticed before?
It was October and the start of fall. The leaves on the ground stretched the gamut of sunset hues. How could the leaves fall so perfectly, with each square foot of ground like a Monet? Again, I wondered how I could have walked this path before without noticing such immaculate beauty.
At the sharing circle that night, I learned that I had one of the more trying experiences of the group. Some people had full-blown mystical experiences—love and light, deep insights, whatever.
I tried to contain my envy.
I wasn’t sure what my trip taught me. Ok, I should be a better person and use my life to improve others’. But it still seemed horrible and dark. It seemed clearer what the retreat taught me: how to be. I realized I spent my life rushing out of the inadequate present to some perfect future that… probably didn’t exist.
The retreat was all about taking time to be. At a group activity, I would think: “Okay, this must be the end of this activity.” No. “Now this must be the end.” No. “Now this must be the end.” Nope. With nothing else to do, I started leaning into the moment instead of rushing to the next.
Centered in the moment, I breathed deeply, feeling through my emotions. To my surprise, I discovered a whole store of very old emotions stuck waiting to be felt. I breathed into the emotions of myself as an alarmed infant, screaming alone. Maybe in my never-ending rush for accomplishment and self-acceptance, I had never learned to just be a human, breathing and feeling. Now I sat breathing in the moment as it was, with all its wants and faults and hurts.
I realized my anxiety was nothing more than a mounting queue of unfelt emotions, and that if I took the time I could breathe through the debt of feeling, like patiently combing through tangled knots of hair.
There were too many aspects of my life that changed around this time to objectively tell what effect the retreat had on me. But depression, my original motivation for the trip, didn’t visit me again.
A year later, as I once more waded through autumn leaves, I realized what that trip had been about: it was all of my fears about the world. All of my fears were offered to me so I could confront and integrate them. From that perspective, the trip looked less like a nightmare and more like a very kind offering. Maybe the world wasn’t so dark after all.
Many thanks to the UK Psychedelic Society for facilitating the retreat. While these retreats may not be right for everyone, I felt the retreat helped me become more emotionally integrated and more capable of contributing positively towards society.