Do You Have a Calling? Should You Actually Want One?

Confused

Another 37, Day 31

It’s hard to swing a sack full of existential dilemmas without hitting a book about finding your Calling in life. Or a website. Or someone who approaches you in the mall and asks if you have found a life coach. It is not hard to understand why this is such a pervasive and lucrative industry. Most of us have a vague feeling that our lives are not what we want them to be, and that we could do better and achieve sublime happiness if we just knew how.

It’s possible that this sense of unfulfillment is worse in our era of abundance and individualism than it has ever been, but it’s been with humanity at least as long as we’ve been writing things down. A wide variety of solutions have been proposed over the millennia. In ancient India, the solution was to meditate enough so that you achieve enlightenment and won’t have to worry about it the next time around. In ancient Rome, it was to man up and deal with it—or, if it got bad enough, to fall on your sword. In medieval Europe, it was to be a good and obedient enough person to be rewarded in the afterlife where they don’t have these kinds of problems. If these sound like oversimplifications, it’s because:

  1. They are, and
  2. This problem is so deep, so complicated, and so pervasive that any solution will always been an oversimplification.

In the modern Western world, some of us still follow these solutions. But more and more our culture is pervaded by the sense that the way to get out of what the Buddha called dukkha—a word often translated as “suffering” but which literally means something closer to “the fact that life just kind of sucks no matter what you do”–is to find your Calling. Your Purpose. That perfect job or art or volunteer work that you are Supposed To Do, and that will therefore lead to USC—Ultimate Satisfaction and Contentment.

But does this really work? Is it possible to find your Calling? What’s more, would you even want to? The very concept of the Calling is problematic. Not because it isn’t a beautiful idea. On the purpose if it finding your purpose in life sounds fantastic. But when explored more deeply it is a difficult and flawed idea, with some unsettling implications. How can it not be? It’s a blend of two worldviews, both of which are very popular in our society, which really don’t work together. I call these two views the Great CEO in the Sky and the Existential Entrepreneur.

The Great CEO in the Sky is evolved from Christianity, but it is a very modern version of it. The idea is that God has a Purpose for you. A job for you to do during your time in this world. God is kind of like your boss. Only He’s everyone’s boss, the CEO and founder of the entire company. But He is a very hands on kind of CEO. He takes a personal interest in every single employee, and since he build the whole organization and knows everything about everything that goes on within in, He has designed the perfect job for you and you alone, and structured the organization such that you and everyone else are exactly where you need to be, and all of our positions intermingle into a perfect synchronous whole.

It might sound like this doesn’t leave much room for free will, but the Great CEO doesn’t require that you do your job. He’s not going to fire you, or anything, and you’ll continue to get your paycheck in the form of the continued ability to breathe. But you won’t be happy. The only way to achieve true happiness is to figure out what God wants you to do. It’s not always obvious—our CEO moves in mysterious board rooms. But He leaves hints. Sometimes he puts obstacles in your way, because why else have a flawed material existence at all if there aren’t going to be challenges? But it’s okay. The job He’s got for you is perfectly designed for your exact character and life, and He’s always closing doors and opening windows, so you’ll never get stuck for very long.

The Existential Entrepreneur view is evolved from the existentialist philosophy of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. In this view there either isn’t a god at all, or else He’s out there but he doesn’t get involved. He set the whole thing up and gave us brains and muscles, but now He lets us do what we want because he is a staunch believer in Adam Smith and the free market economy. In this viewpoint there is no intrinsic meaning to life. You don’t have any prescribed Purpose. You just have skills and capabilities and a world to explore and make your way in. Like Minecraft. Only you are compelled to play all of the time, whether or not you are having a good time. Like Minecraft.

This might sound like a depressing worldview, but they way they get around that is much the same way that Libertarians get around the idea that a cut-throat free market driven by self interest is depressing. Without the Divine Federal Government setting regulations and zoning restrictions and telling you what to do, you can do whatever you want. You are left to find your own path, and what’s more, to choose your own path. No one designed you to be a baker or a fighter pilot or the world’s hairiest UFC fighter. If any of those appeal to you, go for it. The purpose of your life is whatever you want to be. If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do. The fact that this is a quote from Angel doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Both of these worldviews have their good points and their bad points. In Great CEO, you have the comfort of having a flawless and completely fulfilling plan all laid out for you. But at the same time you never really had a choice. Sure you could not follow the plan, but that’s going to be a crappy boss, and it risks angering the boss. What the hell kind of choice is that? In Existential Entrepreneur, you have choices and you get to decide your own destiny. But deep down, you have to accept that nothing really matters. Sure it’s great for people for whom it works out. But what if you suffer from depression? What if your house burns down? There is no one looking out for you, and no guarantee that things aren’t just going to keep getting worse. Plus, you kind of have to accept the fact that some people do and always will just have it better than others.

The idea of the Calling tries to solve all of these problems by squish the dough of both of these worldviews together and baking it into a single cookie that has the advantages of each of them and the disadvantages of neither. The Calling worldview sometimes features a God, but sometimes it replaces it with “the universe.” In this view, you have a purpose, but there is nothing deterministic about it. It’s not part of a Grand Design in some kind of divine business plan kind of way. It’s more that there is something that you are perfect for. Something that, once you find it, will bring you ultimate fulfillment. This is true for everyone, just by virtue of being human. Unlike in the other two worldviews, there is no explanation as to why this should be the case. It just is, because…wouldn’t it be nice? Doesn’t it make sense?

The answer is no. To go back to the free market metaphor, this would be like saying that it’s inevitable that there is some kind of perfect business for everyone in which they are guaranteed to succeed. That everyone has inside of them an ideal product or service or marketing technique, and all you need to do is find it and it’ll explode onto the scene and make you a billionaire. And indeed, plenty of Calling books are geared towards would-be entrepreneurs, and make exactly this argument with fancier words.

But it doesn’t work that way. There is no reason to think that it’s inevitable that you’ll find perfect fulfillment just by doing the right thing. But the unrealism of this approach is only the beginning. It can also be dangerous. Much like the idea that everyone has a Soul Mate, and that once we set eyes on this perfect the world will erupt into a chorus of bright stars and symphony music and we will be happy for the rest of our lives. The Calling theory suggests that once you find your Thing, you are all set. You get that fantastic job in your dream profession, and you’ll be satisfied and full of joy for all of your days. But what if you and your Soul Mate start fighting? Or what if your dream job starts to pale after a few years and you get fed up with the more tedious aspects? The only option in this worldview is to say, “Oh, well, I guess he wasn’t really my Soul Mate. I guess I wasn’t really supposed to be the manager of a Twinkie Factory. I guess I’ll ditch this path and start over. Next time, it’s gonna be great!”

Life doesn’t work that way. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s great, and there probably really are jobs or arts or people who will make you happy. Go for them! They are worth pursuing! But once you decide they are The One, once you decide you have found your One And Only Purpose In Life for All Time, you’ve set yourself up for disappointment. What’s worse, you’ve locked yourself in. You might stay in a relationship or a job for far too long, because once you make something part of your identity it is very, very difficult to tell when it’s time to move on. If the idea of finding your Calling motivations you to do great things, then by all means continue to read those books. Models can be useful, even when they aren’t true. But just recognize that a model is all it is, and that you shouldn’t cling to it too tightly.

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