Brian Cronin illustration
Illustration: Brian Cronin
One of the first questions we face when we meet new acquaintances is "What do you do?" And according to how we answer, they will either be delighted to see us or look with embarrassment at their watches and shuffle away. The fact is, we live in a world where we are defined almost entirely by our work.

This can be hugely liberating for people who are happily employed. But the problem for many of us is that we don't know what job we're supposed to do and, as a result, are still waiting to learn who we should be. The idea that we have missed out on our true calling—that somehow we ought to have intuited what we should be doing with our lives long before we finished our degrees, started families, and advanced through the ranks—torments us. This notion, however, can be an illusion. The term calling came into circulation in a Christian context during the medieval period to describe the abrupt imperative people might encounter to devote themselves to Jesus' teachings. Now a secularized version has survived, which is prone to give us an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed in a ready-made and decisive form, rendering us permanently immune to confusion, envy, and regret.

I prefer to borrow from psychologist Abraham Maslow, who said: It isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.

To begin to find a more fulfilling vocation, it is not enough to simply ask yourself what you might like to do. Concerns about money and status long ago extinguished most people's ability to think authentically about their options. Instead, I would suggest free-associating around clusters of concerns that delight and excite you, without attempting to settle upon anything as rigid as the frame of a career.

In searching for their aptitudes, people should act like treasure hunters passing over the ground with metal detectors, listening out for beeps of joy. A woman might get her first intimation that her real interest lies in poetry not by hearing a holy voice as she pages through a book of verse but from the thrill she feels as she stands in a parking lot on the edge of town overlooking a misty valley. Or a politician, long before she belongs to any party or has any profound understanding of statecraft, might register a telling signal when successfully healing a rift between two members of her family.

We should also remember that the first ingredient usually missing when people can't choose a life direction is confidence. Whatever cerebral understanding we apply to our lives, we retain a few humblingly simple needs, among them a steady hunger for support and love. It's therefore helpful to identify—and engage with—the internal voices that emphasize our chances of failure. Many such voices can be traced back to a critical instructor or unhelpful parent: a math teacher who berated us for poor algebra skills or a father who insisted that our sister was good at art and we should stick to the schoolbooks. The forming of an individual in the early years is as sensitive and important a task as the correct casting of a skyscraper's foundation, and the slightest abuse introduced at this primary stage can unbalance us until our dying days.

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