The Source of Calling and How Most Theories Fail (A Response To Michael Hyatt)

Calling comes from a deep place inside yourself— the very deepest. It’s a place where desire, fear, risk, and hope all tangle up into this ball of feelings connected to your identity. It’s a vulnerable place, and it’s a tender place. It’s not a place that’s easily or quickly accessed.

One of my favorite bloggers, Michael Hyatt wrote a blog post and a podcast on calling. I respect him tremendously. I read everything he writes and have been very influenced by his book. But I’m frustrated by the model he presented. I believe he missed the mark here— as people often do when they talk about calling.

He gave a great theoretical treatment of calling as the intersection of Passion, Proficiency, and Profitability and offered a couple questions related to these ideas: What do you love? What are you good at? And where can you make money?

Though they are great questions, they’re tremendously frustrating to anyone who is in the process of searching and feeling stuck or otherwise unsure of what’s next. Either you can’t answer those questions or you can, but they don’t offer any movement because they’re too abstract.

There is one reason for this:

These questions are all about the mind, and calling is a matter of the heart.

I know that sounds a bit touchy-feely, but let me explain: calling isn’t about what you love, what you’re good at, or how you make money. Calling is about making an impact that is meaningful— using your agency to create something that moves you and others. Meaning comes from your story — the places that you’ve experienced pain and goodness shape the meaning you desire to make. Therefore the best way to find your calling is to know the stories that shape you and name the ways in which they have formed your desire.

Another way of saying this is this:

The most meaningful work for you is work that helps others in ways that you’ve needed help.

Your calling is to offer goodness to others— goodness that is similar to what you have known and experienced.

Here are some examples:

Example 1

I have a friend who played sports his whole life. He played at a collegiate level and had some friends that went on to play professionally. Since college, he has stopped pursuing sports and has been learning a lot about how his experience in sports has shaped him. He’s realized that a lot of sports use shame and emotional manipulation as part of their culture, which takes a toll on athletes. He’s come to realize that he is passionate about bringing emotional healing to the world of athletes. This is where his calling comes from: he loves sports, but realizes how harmful the culture around them can be. His calling is to bring healing to others in the places where he has needed to be healed.

Example 2

One of my clients cares deeply about education. She pursued teaching in undergrad and spent her first years out of college in the classroom. Those years were difficult and painful for her. She was burnt out by the end. After a few years away from teaching, she’s found that she can’t quite shake education. She wants to see policy change. She wants to help support teachers. She wants so much for education because she’s been through so much at the hands of education. She wants to help teachers thrive because she knows the pain of barely holding it together in the classroom. That’s where calling comes from.

Example 3

Another of my clients works with special needs kids. She’s brilliant with them. When we first met, she was struggling with her job and wondering if she was in the right field. As we worked together she began to see the connection between what she does— helping kids communicate their needs and desires on a very practical level — and her story in which her voice wasn’t given much space. She found a really good reason to be doing this work. She also found that her job was a good place for her to do it, but she just needed more agency in the classroom. Her role only allowed her to do what the main therapist/teacher planned. As of a month ago, she’s been accepted into grad school to get her masters so she can be the one who runs the classroom.

I could go on. But here’s what you need to notice about what I just shared. I didn’t tell you anything about proficiency or monetization. I didn’t tell you if any of these people are good at what they did (maybe the third example, a little). I didn’t tell you how exactly they’re going to make money doing these things. It’s not that those things don’t matter. They do matter. It’s just that they don’t matter as much.

When you want to make an impact and commit yourself to it, there’s nothing that can stop you.[Tweet that]

You will find a way.

If you’re called to something, you can’t not do it.[Tweet that]

This is why Michael’s diagram doesn’t work for me. You can gain proficiency. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. It takes 10,000 hours. Anyone can do it if it matters enough to them. You can also figure out how to make money. Whether it’s a job through which you make your impact or starting your own thing, it’s possible.

Proficiency and monetization are related to jobs, but your calling is bigger than a job.

I’m not interested in another heady theoretical explanation of how to find your calling. I’m interested in who you are, the stories that have shaped you, the desires that you have, and the overlap between them. That’s where you will find your calling.

To be fully honest, the reason this bothers me so much is because I’ve been lost before and I’ve been frustrated by theories and diagrams like this. That’s why this work (and this blog) matters so much me. This is where my calling comes from: I know what it’s like to not know what to do. My passion/calling/vocation/mission/hope/dream/place-of-impact is helping others find their way.

I know what it’s like for someone to offer a recipe for finding your calling that totally misses where I am. This can leave you feeling more lost and feeling more broken than ever before.

I know some find Michael’s model helpful (see his comments). That’s really great. But for the rest of you (us), I want to say this: there are other ways. You have something to say and do, even if it doesn’t fit with that model.

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15 Comments

  1. Marlys April 17, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I just came home from a recruiters office, I was offered a job I would have loved – it tapped into my strengths, natural talents and passions AND paid about $85k plus bonus, plus….. I would have helped professional people and large corporations address staffing needs: grooming, coaching, facilitating, etc. Yet, deep inside, I desire to work with people who face difficult life challenges and barriers to employment, to facilitate their re-entry and advancement in the workforce and fostering their personal success.
    I hear my father (attorney) in my head, pushing for success, recognition and $$; yet I hear the call of my story, homeless as a teen who was significantly helped by a community training program and people who saw me. The collision and war of heart and head raged during my bus ride home.
    A deep sense of missing an huge opportunity, something I developed skills for over many years, with ambivalence, second-guessing and a weight on my chest, I open my email; after reading your article I embraced again what I truly desire > I choose meaning over money. I grieve the seed sown by my father and upbringing, yet I cherish the wounds and experience of my youth, which have formed me to see that a rich life is found in loving and seeing others who can benefit from what I may share.
    I choose a simple life; knowing I may make around $35k, with no benefits, the immense treasure of living with meaning provides abundant compensation for me.
    Thank you for the article Dan – it was the guidepost I needed!

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland April 18, 2014 at 7:49 am

      What an incredible story, Marlys. Thank you so much for sharing! You articulated the tension and the stories behind them so well. I’m very moved by it and grateful to be an encouragement in your process. I’m excited for the choice that you made and hopeful for the rich meaning you’ll be a part of in it! Way to go. Thanks again for your comment.

      Reply
  2. Neil Bruinsma April 22, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Dan, wow, I really appreciated this post. I read Michael Hyatt’s post too and was unsatisfied. There is a depth to calling that transcends a venn diagram. I appreciate your insight to the heart and story. Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland April 22, 2014 at 8:48 am

      Thanks Neil! I know these are things you’ve thought a lot about as well 😉

      Reply
  3. Ryan Kuja April 22, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Dan,
    Wow. This post is brimming with wisdom and insight, using language that feels particularly helpful to me right now. Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland April 23, 2014 at 8:25 am

      Thanks Ryan. That means a lot to hear. I’m glad it’s helpful!

      Reply
  4. Sophie February 16, 2015 at 10:31 pm

    “The most meaningful work for you is work that helps others in ways that you’ve needed help.” This just gave me an epiphany.

    I started a blog recently and was unsure about what I had to offer exactly because the market is so oversaturated. (I’m currently blogging about makeup, positivity, and writing.) I was concerned that I was talking about too many different things but your statement helped me realize that I chose those specific topics because I’m sharing tips that I wished I had known earlier.

    If I look at my blog from this perspective of me just trying to help other females toward a more impactful life, I don’t need to be scared or concerned about what or how well other bloggers are doing. Because our callings are not the same. T

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland February 17, 2015 at 10:25 am

      Wow. What a great shift, Sophie! I love it. I wonder if there’s some language you can put to it that would help clarify your topics to yourself and your readers? Clearly, these topics all matter to you and now you know why. The next step may just be to own it! Thanks for reading and writing!

      Reply
  5. amy May 11, 2016 at 10:13 am

    Dan,
    There is such great insight here. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. I agree with you 100% that we are most able to fill a calling by helping people with the same things we, ourselves have needed help with.
    I love the work you’re doing and I’m cheering you on!

    Reply
    1. dan May 11, 2016 at 10:38 am

      Thanks Amy! It looks like we do similar work. Glad to know you’re out there doing your work. Keep it up!

      Reply
  6. Sam Verret May 14, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    I read the Michael Hyatt post and too was unsatisfied. (BTW I am a huge Michael Hyatt fan) When I read this article it was not only informative and inspiring, it struck a chord in my heart. I don’t know if you read the Bible, but there is a verse in Proverbs that says, “The purposes of a man’s heart are as a deep well, and through understanding he draws it out.” What you wrote in this article is basically saying the same thing. Thanks. Love your mission and the stuff you share with us!

    Reply
    1. dan May 19, 2016 at 10:36 am

      Thanks Sam. I love a lot of what Michael Hyatt creates, and I hope this post doesn’t lead anyone to think otherwise! That’s a great Proverb. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  7. Janet Burton October 23, 2016 at 6:59 am

    Dan, you hit the nail on the head in this post. I too have been frustrated with models and theories. They are too neat and our lives are messy, a least mine is. I had made my decision to leave my job in November months ago, had some ideas of what I wanted to do, but didn’t have a clear path forward. I knew I want to write and speak to inspire others to live a life without regret and to break free from the victim mentality. Trying to fit into neat boxes was frustrating. I have followed your thinking about what really gets me excited, and doors of opportunity are opening up for me (not paying one yet, but exciting opportunities to share my story). Until recently I have been very hesitant to share my background and story. On the outside I have been the model women with meteoric rise in companies, successful at everything I turned my hand to, but despite all this there was a emptiness inside. A small voice that kept shouting – “there’s IS more to life than this.” What others didn’t see was my past and huge obstacles I had overcome. I didn’t want anyone to know the sordid things that had happened in my life. I didn’t want to be seen as a victim. But one day I had an epiphany – who am I to keep my story quiet when so many others in similar situations are struggling to find a way out, are struggling to find hope. My story can help bring that. So I am now dedicated to telling my story, in writing and in speaking, and I know the rest of this “model” will figure itself out.

    Reply
    1. Dan Cumberland October 26, 2016 at 10:04 am

      I love this Janet! Thanks for sharing. You’re taking bold, courageous, and vulnerable steps! I’m excited for what’s ahead!

      Reply
  8. Calvin Black July 20, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    Dan,
    This is a great correction to the common thinking of our day that reduces vocation to formulas that aren’t complete. I love the way you’ve broadened the horizon here to include how we make meaning from the past and pay attention to a calling that leads us into the future. How do you think we might properly honour our stories so that we are able to have a more robust appreciation for our calling?

    Reply

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