On Finding Our Calling in Life

Regardless of whether we believe in fate, in a higher being who directs our lives, or that neither fate nor gods exist, we all know what someone means when they say they have found their calling in life: they feel they are doing the work that they were born to do, that they were put on this earth to do, that they were meant to do. We know what they mean when they say they've found their calling, and sometimes we feel left out, jealous, bitter, or sad, because we want that feeling too. We don't want to feel like we are just working for our paycheck, that we are working for someone else's dream, that we are wasting our lives. 

A calling is a powerful thing. It brings meaning to our lives. It gives our days and our work a purpose. It somehow transcends our individual existence, giving us the unshakeable feeling that we are part of something far greater than ourselves. We desperately need and crave this feeling, primarily because we evolved as highly social creatures whose aims have, for the entire history of our species, been directed toward achieving collective goals. 

I believe that each of us has a calling. I believe that it exists for every individual, and that each of us can find it no matter where we are in our lives. I believe that it's never too late. 

Most of the time, when we encounter people who have found a calling in life, or when we think about people who we identify as having found their calling in life, we think about people who fell in love with something at a young age. We think about people who fell in love with the stars, or with computers, or with becoming a doctor. We think about people who knew from a young age that they wanted, needed to become an astronaut, or a physicist, or a doctor. We think about these people, and we feel a little bit of bitterness, because we didn't find our calling when we were young - or perhaps we fell in love with the stars, and wanted to be an astronomer or an astronaut but it didn't work out the way we planned. 

I think that these people are anomalies. I don't think that this is how the majority of us will find our calling in life, nor do I think it's a realistic, accurate, good, or useful way to find our calling in life. First of all, it can be a really harmful, destructive way of looking at the world, encouraging the terrible black-and-white cognitive distortions that can lead to us experiencing depression if the calling we desired when we were younger doesn't work out. Second, I don't believe that we can know that a particular vocation is our calling if we don't understand what that vocation requires, if we don't know what strengths and personality traits we will absolutely need to have in order to succeed and find joy in it. 

I think there's a different approach we can take to finding our calling in life. It's deceptively simple, driven by the ancient greek maxim: know yourself. One's calling can be discovered through deliberate, sincere self-awareness and careful introspection. Know yourself, and then find a place in the world where you fit, find a vocation whose requirements align with who you are. 

There are several aspects of this, several things you can do to get started. The first is to identify your strengths. Find out what you are good at, what specific tasks you do particularly well, and, most importantly, why you do them well. This is important because it will allow you to determine the strengths you already have and why you have them - once you've done that, you can look at different careers and figure out which careers require the strengths that you have. 

The second aspect is finding out what types of activities bring you into flow states. The reason this is important is simple: how you spend your day, the tasks and things you work on throughout each day, is how you ultimately spend your life. Our lives are the sum over our days, and we need to structure our days so that at the end of our lives, we can look back on how we spent our days with pride. If we determine which tasks bring us fulfillment, and learn how to structure our days so that the things we do bring us into flow states, we can find vocations that let us accomplish these tasks. The best resource on the concept of flow is Csíkszentmihályi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Read this book, at least the first few chapters, then look very closely at your life and heart and identify the activities you have done that bring about these states of mind. 

Identifying our personality/character is the third aspect. By "personality/character" I mean the way we see the world around us, how we interact with it, how we structure it. I mean how our mind works, how we process information, and what our dispositions are. The way that I and many others have done this is by identifying our personality type using Kiersey's personality types (AKA the Meyers-Briggs personality types). You can take a quiz online and read up on the various personality types, but the quality of the quizzes and descriptions you will find will range from "complete crap" to "okay", so I highly recommend picking up a copy of Kiersey's Please Understand Me II: take the quiz in the front of the book, then read up on your personality type. 

The final aspect is understanding what motivates you. Are you motivated by helping others? Are you motivated by connecting with others? Are you motivated by achieving things? Are you motivated by understanding the world around you? There are more possibilities than I can list here, but I think this is the easiest part of the whole process. 

Once we've figured out who we are in these aspects, once we know who we are at the fundamental level, we can seek out opportunities and careers that align with our strengths, the tasks that will bring us into flow states, the way we structure the world, and the things that motivate us (we may even discover that we can find this alignment in our current job). This requires that, once we know ourselves well, we look for ways to identify possible vocations: we need to stay open, we need to learn about different things, different careers, different fields. We need to make ourselves vulnerable, allow ourselves to be okay with trying new things and failing. 

This may sound very abstract (and it is), so I'll use myself as an example. My biggest strengths are (i) that my mind is able to find patterns in both abstract and physical things, (ii) I am able to find connections between those patterns, and (iii) I am able to build new things using those patterns. I find joy and reach flow states by working on things that allow me to write, to architect, to work with abstract concepts, and to create order out of disordered systems. I am an INTJ, so I see the world in a very specific way: I care about abstractions and higher-level goals, not details. Finally, what motivates me is understanding the world: every single thing that brings me joy, that gets my heart and mind racing, is the thought that I might be able to understand something new about the world around me. 

These essential things about myself are why I love philosophy, computer science, and physics - fields whose requirements align with my strengths. It's why I am a site reliability engineer: my strengths align perfectly with specific aspects of this career, which requires understanding, building, running, and architecting large distributed systems. It's why I love learning, studying, researching, and writing about certain things in these fields: understanding them, and finding new ways to think about them, aligns perfectly with who I am at the most fundamental level. 

I've been searching for my calling ever since I was in my early teens, and I never had that eureka moment, but I've definitely found my calling. I found it during my philosophical education, when I became determined to understand who I was so that I could find what I was good at. It turns out that the "know yourself" approach to finding your calling has a wonderful property: I found out that I had many possible callings in life. I found that because I knew who I was at a very deep level, I could choose from many different vocations whose requirements aligned with my strengths. And I did! When I was studying philosophy, I felt that I was doing what I was meant to do in life. When I was studying physics and doing physics research, I knew deep in my heart that I was doing what I was put on this earth to do. Now, as I focus on computer science and software engineering, I feel like I'm doing the work I was born to do. 

This approach also has a wonderful side-effect: when you know your strengths, you can easily move between different fields and find your place within them. It's why I was able to learn physics and do physics research without any prior education in science or math. It's why I was able to jump into the world of software engineering without a degree in computer science. 

It may not work for everyone. This may not be the way that everyone finds their calling, but it's how I have found mine.