Be Patient, Exercise Faith to Find Your Calling in Life
Once upon a time, there was a student who was very confused about her future. She felt unsettled in her major, and she wasn’t sure what job she wanted to pursue. So she went to the temple and prayed about it, and she got a clear answer and knew what to do. She went back to school and changed her major, completed it, found a dream job, and lived happily ever after. This story is a fairy tale. It never happened.
How many of you—I’d love to see a raise of hands—know precisely what you want to do professionally? A fair number of hands. How many of you feel a lot of stress because you don’t know what you want to do with your career? So maybe even a few more hands there. Now it may not be surprising that so many of you are still a little confused about where you are heading. A business degree tends to be a sort of fall-back degree for those who want to keep their options open because they are not sure precisely where they are headed. I am one of you. I got an MBA primarily because I didn’t know what else to do and I was hoping there would be a path there somewhere.
I would like to tell you a story about my MBA experience. We had a general authority come speak to us at orientation, and I believed at the time that that was the worst talk I had ever heard by a general authority. It actually made me really angry. This was about 20 years ago, and the general authority was an obscure member of the Quorum of the Seventy. His name was Henry B. Eyring. And I didn’t know much about him, but as you may know, he was a business professor himself. And he came to talk to the MBA group, and he said, “I know all of you have decided to get an MBA and not a PhD, but I have a challenge for you. And my challenge to you is to choose a dissertation in life. Choose a problem or an issue or a challenge that you will be world class at, that you can focus your career around, you can make your mark and really contribute to the world. Choose a dissertation.
That really made me mad. I didn’t want to hear that. I had been struggling with the idea of being a teacher and set it aside. I just wanted to go out and make money and provide for my family. And, I thought, I’m going to go home and forget all about this talk. Well, as you can see, I didn’t. It gnawed at me. It bothered me for weeks, and I couldn’t get rid of the idea, because in actuality, it was one of the best talks I had ever heard from a general authority. I just needed to prepare myself to hear it. And I came to find out about myself that I needed a sense of purpose. I needed to have that sense of cause.
Now I believe that I am fairly lucky because I feel like I have found that calling in life, and I would like to extend Elder Eyring’s—President Eyring’s—challenge to you to seek a dissertation in life. That might stress you out even more than you already are, as it did me. The good news is, you don’t need to know the answer right now. All you have to do is to be willing to go on the quest to find that purpose, to be willing to follow the Spirit and allow it to lead you to that cause.
I mentioned that I found my calling in life, I believe, but you need to know that it did not come easy or quickly for me. In fact, I spent a lot of my career really feeling lost. I encountered a diagram a few months ago on a blog, and I haven’t been able to track down the primary source, but you can see it. It’s a diagram of how you get to success, and I think that’s sort of comical, but there’s some truth to it. We often simplify the stories of other people’s success and heroism, and we don’t realize that they spent much of their time feeling pretty bewildered and lost along the way. And as I looked at that diagram, I thought about my own career path and how I might diagram my own career path. So here the next slide is how I would depict my career path early in my education. I had no idea where I was going, changed my major a few times. There were a lot of reversals.
A little bit later, fast-forwarding ahead—maybe this was a few years after I got my degree—the path is still looking pretty random, isn’t it? Life still—it looks like a blank page with endless possibilities, and I have to tell you, at this stage of my career, a few years after my graduation, I thought I was lost. There were moments, at least several in my life, where I thought, “I have taken the wrong path. I have diverged from Heavenly Father’s plan for me, and I can never get back on it. I’ve blown it. That’s it.” It was a really frightening time of my life.
Well, it turned out also to be completely unfounded. Let’s fast-forward to where I depict my career today. Are you starting to see a pattern? That pattern was not at all obvious to me at the time, but today as I look back, I can see that my twists and turns often marked the boundaries of where I should be heading. And now, as I look back, I can see a clear convergence toward my calling in life. You only get that in hindsight after a lot of years.
This whole experience of trying to chart out my pattern in life, and how I got to my calling, reminds me of a favorite scripture, Romans 8:28, which I think you’ll see up here. But “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Now that word “called” is an interesting one, isn’t it? We talk about callings at church all the time, and it means something very specific. It’s an assignment, from our bishop usually, to do a particular task. The world uses that word as well. When the world talks about calling, it often is referencing our career pursuits, and if you go to a bookstore and pick up any book on career enhancement, you are probably going to see the word, “calling.” The world uses that to indicate that there is some sense of where we ought to be in life.
The world kind of assigns a mystical quality to that word, makes it sound elusive, like it’s a dream job, or the role of a lifetime. But the world does a really poor job of teaching us what a calling really is and how to get it. So if we shine a gospel light on the idea of calling, I hope that I can convince you that it’s not that mystical at all. The idea of a calling is something that should mean a lot to us, both in church and professionally as well.
Let me give you a little idea of where the word “calling” came from. It was from the very beginning a religious concept, even though the world has adopted it now. It was introduced by Martin Luther, and Martin Luther actually revolutionized the way the world looks at the word. Prior to his day, work was seen as a necessary evil at best. The Romans and Greeks got slaves to do their work for them, so that they could focus on the more sublime things like poetry and philosophy. But Martin Luther, as he studied the Bible, came to believe that God has a plan for work, that God sees it as noble—in fact, that it is the way that we participate in the work of God. He talked about the cobbler who makes shoes. He says that the cobbler is called of God to put shoes on the feet of God’s children, and so he is participating in God’s work.
One famous quote that I believe you will see here is that Luther said, “A Christian tailor…will say: ‘I make these clothes because God has bidden me [to] do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.’” Luther believed that almost any type of work could be a calling, so long as it rendered service.
Next came John Calvin, and John Calvin built on Martin Luther’s ideas. But he added this idea: He said that the way you find your calling is by consulting the talents and gifts that Heavenly Father has given you. He taught that, because we each have unique talents and gifts, those gifts will guide us to our calling. And in this famous quote, he said, “For as God bestows any ability or gift upon any of us, He binds us to such as have need of us and as we are able to help.” [Sermons of John Calvin upon the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians, 1574, p. 307] Notice the sense of obligation there. Our gifts bind us to a duty.
So the roots of the idea of a professional calling are distinctly religious. However, the world has completely abandoned the spiritual roots of the idea of calling. It’s now a secular idea, which causes some problems. One sociologist, Max Weber, quoted, “The idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.” So we’re hanging onto this religious term that we’ve stripped away all of the spiritual significance [from]. Consequently, modern culture teaches us some pretty strange and distorted doctrines about finding our calling, and I would submit to you that the stress that you might feel about finding that job and your career all boil down to these distorted doctrines that the world teaches us. And so if we see what the restored gospel has to say about a calling, we can lose that anxiety.
I’ve spoken about these doctrines at a BYU Devotional. I think they merit repeating here, so if you’ve heard them before, I apologize. But I’d like to share them with you as heresies. And that’s a strong word, but I think they are heresies, because if we buy into what the world teaches us about work, we may be led far away from the path that our Father in Heaven intends for us.
The first heresy gets right to the heart of the anxiety we might feel. It is that we might have a calling if we’re lucky, or maybe we don’t—this mystical idea of calling. Are we the lucky one that is born knowing what we ought to do with life? Well, let’s look at a scripture that helps us sort of dispel that heresy. Doctrine and Covenants 58:27—I know you’ve read it before. The Lord here asks His children to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.” Brothers and sisters, there it is. That’s your calling. Heavenly Father instructs us to seek opportunities, to take initiative to do good and bless people.
You might be tempted to believe that that pertains to church work, that it isn’t really about my professional life. Are you sure about that? Would Heavenly Father give you a commandment to be anxiously engaged in a good cause if He knew that you were going to spend a vast majority of your waking hours at work? Why shouldn’t work be part of the good cause that we pursue?
There’s another part of this scripture that you may not have thought about. We rarely talk about the verse that comes after this one, but the next verse starts with this phrase: “For the power is in them.” (v. 28) I want you to think about that for a moment. Heavenly Father has given us a commandment to take initiative to do good things of our own free will, but He has also empowered us and given us the resources, the tools and the talents to do so. So if you ever think “maybe I don’t have a calling in life,” refer to this scripture. You have been given a charge and you have been given power and talents to pursue a calling in life.
But knowing that you have the power to do good is a different thing than knowing exactly what you should do, right? And that is what often stresses us out. How do you find your particular calling? We are perplexed, often, by a dizzying assortment of majors and job choices, and it can leave us feeling paralyzed. So we might start to get hung up on the second heresy, which is that you may have to find your one true calling in order to be fulfilled.
Now here’s another fairy tale story, right? Like there’s one true love in the fairy tale. Maybe there is one right, one perfect job, and unless I find it, I’ll never be truly happy. Doctrine and Covenants 46 helps us with this heresy. Doctrine and Covenants 46 enumerates spiritual gifts. It’s a wonderful section. It talks about gifts such as teaching and healing and prophecy and the gift of tongues. But let’s see what else it tells us. If we look at verses 11 and 12, we read: “For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” So notice there are many gifts. They are distributed differentially among us, and the purpose we’re given them is to bless one another.
The Lord has not said that our every spiritual gift shows up in D&C 46. In fact, Bruce R. McConkie taught that spiritual gifts are endless in number and infinite in variety. Could this endless, infinite list include things like technical skills? Mechanical capabilities? Interpersonal skills? Absolutely. If the list of spiritual gifts is infinite, then any talent we possess that allows us to serve other people is a spiritual gift, and it’s these gifts that guide us to our calling.
So how do you identify your spiritual gifts? Your patriarchal blessing will help. Pondering and prayer will help. Let me suggest another activity. I would encourage you to reflect back on your childhood. What did you play when you didn’t have to do anything else? Oftentimes, the things that we loved to do in childhood revealed spiritual gifts early on. Were you the kid who always organized the soccer game in your neighborhood? Maybe you have a spiritual gift for organizing collective action. Were you the kid who always told fantastical stories? Maybe you have a gift for communication and for capturing people’s imagination.
Were you the child who everyone came to for sympathy and a listening ear? Maybe you have a gift of perception, to read people’s emotions. These gifts may not seem like the sort of skills develop in a business school, but they have market value. People need them. They are also very portable. You can exercise those gifts in any number of jobs. So it may be that finding your calling in life is not so much about finding one right job as it is about using your spiritual gifts to bless people in whatever position you are blessed with at the time. If you exercise faith in the Lord and seek your gifts—I’ve seen it over and over again—you will be gradually led to the job that allows you to use your gifts to their best advantage.
You are going to have some jobs that kind of stink. I hate to break it to you. But what do we do when we have those jobs? Do we withdraw and watch the clock and wait for the better opportunity, or do we extend ourselves to use our gifts to bless other people’s lives? If we do the latter, we actually hone those gifts, we discover new ones, and people start to realize, hey, this person deserves an opportunity to do something else.
Now this principle is particularly important in today’s economy. You’ve heard about the financial crisis. I’m sure you are terribly attuned to that. We faculty are very aware of how hard it may be for some of you to find jobs today. You might find yourself temporarily underemployed or unemployed. Let me encourage you and challenge you, when you are in that state, to focus on your gifts, and develop them, and trust in your Heavenly Father that as you develop your gifts, He will find ways for you to use them professionally.
There may come a time when you are without a job and unemployed. We know from research that that can [have] a devastating long-term impact on your health, on your happiness, on your sense of success. It’s important, when you face those challenges in today’s economy, that you don’t define yourself by the economy—which is something you can’t control—but rather to define yourselves by your gifts. Remember what your talents are and exercise them. Contrary to what the world will tell you, you don’t need a job to exercise your calling in life. If you find that no one is willing to pay you for your gifts, consider donating them to worthy causes to give you an opportunity to hone and strengthen them, until the world reaches the point where it sees the value of your gifts and is willing to pay you for them.
I’d like to move to two other heresies, and I’m going to combine these two, because they are related. One is, when you find your calling, work will be bliss. And when you find your calling, people will applaud and celebrate your calling. In my academic research, I have studied a number of people who are very passionate about their work, because I like to study calling. One of the groups I studied were zookeepers. Why would I study zookeepers? Zookeepers are passionate about the work they do. At the same time they make very little money and have very little opportunity for upward career mobility. So we were interested, my co-author and I, in what calling meant to them.
As we studied zookeepers, we found that their work is extremely meaningful to them. To them, caring for the animals is like caring for a child. They have great satisfaction in enriching the lives of their animals or helping perpetuate an endangered species. They believe deeply in conservation. They see themselves as educators of the public. They are almost outrageously satisfied with their jobs—way more satisfied than they ought to be for how much they make, according to what the world says. But what was interesting, that I learned from them, is that as we talked to them about a calling, they didn’t just talk about satisfaction. They talked about sacrifice. They talked about coming late, in the middle of the night, to care for a sick animal. They talked about foregoing a lucrative career. They talked about doing unsavory work. You can only imagine some of the tasks zookeepers have to do.
I learned from them, as they talked about a calling, that their work was meaningful, not in spite of the trials, but precisely because of them. The sacrifice is what made their work sacred to them. That’s an important lesson for us who are looking for callings in life. We cannot expect to have deeply meaningful work unless we are willing to sacrifice for it and expect that times will be hard.
Now, Joseph Campbell was a famous professor of literature back in the 70s, and he studied hero myths. He talked about what made a hero a hero, and one thing was they pursued their passion rather than external rewards. In his speaking--he actually presented lectures on television--he coined this phrase that Brother Cherrington referred to, which was “follow your bliss.” And this became kind of a mantra of the day, in the 70s—the flower children, you know—the idea of following your bliss. Well, he became a little frustrated after some time when he recognized that phrase had taken on a life of its own, and he said, “What I should have said was ‘Follow your blisters.’ That’s what the hero does, is follow his blisters.”
So what about this idea that callings should bring to us status and prestige? We know, first of all, from sacrifice, that our job won’t be blissful every day. You may have an exciting, joyous job that means a lot to you; there are still going to be days that are very mundane and painful. That does not subtract from your sense of meaning. But can calling bring us status and prestige? Surely, if we are pursuing our calling, people should take notice, right? So if you expect the world to celebrate your calling, you might be a little disappointed.
It reminds me of one of the stories I heard from the zookeepers we studied. I was interviewing one of them, who shared a story about one day when he was busily caring for an animal in the pen, and a nun came by with a group of students. They were walking past the zookeeper, and within earshot, the nun turned to the kids and said, “See the kind of job you get when you don’t finish your education?” Ironically, that zookeeper had a master’s degree, so it was fairly painful for him to hear that. He recognized that his calling was not going to get him a lot of public accolades.
I’d like to tell you a story about a friend named Barb. Barb was a custodian in my building in the university I taught at previously. She was this tiny little ball of energy that would come to my office every day to empty my trash and clean up, just a ray of sunshine, always happy. She would always stop and ask me, “Is there something that I can do to make your office particularly clean? Anything you’d like me to do?” And I always felt bad asking for a special favor, so I never did. And I kind of feel bad about that now, because I think she really wanted me to.
I asked her one day, I said, “Barb, how do you like your job?”
And she beamed. She said, “I love what I do. I’m proud to be a part of this university, and I’m so glad that I have my little way of making it a better place.” As I reflected on that, I realized that Barb did make the university a better place. When I saw her example, it made me want to be a more devoted teacher and a better professor. She inspired me.
I’d like to challenge you to look for examples of nobility all around you, among people who do tasks that may seem menial. You’ll find many inspiring examples of people who use their spiritual gifts to put their unique stamp on the work that they do. We sometimes do a great service when we treat people who are doing less glamorous jobs as if they are invisible. They are offering their gifts to us, and I hope we are grateful for that and learn from that.
The Savior found nobility in the least of these. Are we finding that nobility as well?
The Book of Mormon suggests that our Heavenly Father has a very egalitarian view of work. In Alma, he talks about Nephite priests, and the priests probably had more status than anyone else in the community, but in Alma 1:26, he tells us that the priest, “not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer … and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.” There was not distinction in the value or the meaning of their work.
I’d like to move to the last heresy now, and this is probably the most dangerous and insidious one, which is “Meaningfulness in life is to be found at work.” I’ve become very concerned by the tendency for modern people to find spirituality and purpose and direction in their work organizations. This heresy is so dangerous because it’s almost true. We can indeed find great meaning in our work. We can find purpose, and we can find passion. But the danger is, if our work is very meaningful, it can sometimes distract us from what is of eternal significance.
A wise stake president once said that when all is said and done and we’re looking back on this life, we’ll probably view our jobs as mere playthings—as merely a stage upon which we acted out our service to God and man. And I think that idea puts work in its proper perspective, or at least our jobs in their proper perspective. So the fifth heresy is almost true, because worthwhile work can indeed give us a sense of meaning. But the problem with this heresy is that if we believe that we derive meaning from work, we’re entirely missing the point, because it focuses on the self.
I want you to think for a moment of a great artist. And let’s say this artist produces stunningly beautiful masterpieces. And she enjoys them so much that she puts them in her attic so she can look at them anytime she wants. And she keeps them to herself. Wouldn’t that be foolish? The service that an artist renders comes in sharing his or her work with the world and blessing others’ lives. So just as it would be laughable for an artist to hoard her work where no one could see them, what would it be like if we assumed that our work was all about us? Was all about what we got out of it?
I would change the heresy that we had up on the screen to read instead, “It is the duty of a Saint to render meaningful service through work.” True meaning, as always, comes from service.
I’d like to share an example, a story from my mission. As I was nearing my release date, I was growing concerned about the fact that soon I would no longer be serving full time. I had derived such meaning and purpose from my mission, and I recognized that soon I would have to think about my major and my income and my problems. And I was afraid that I was going to lose that joy that I was feeling. We had a zone conference near the end of my mission, and my mission president always did a Q&A at the end, so I took my opportunity to raise my hand and ask my mission president, I said, “After my mission is over and I am no longer a full-time servant of God, how can I keep my sense of purpose?”
He began to answer that question, and immediately his wife stood up and elbowed him aside and said, “I want to take this one.” I’ll never forget what she said, and as near as I can reconstruct, she said this: “When I am doing the laundry, I am building the kingdom of God. When I am ironing clothes, I am serving the Lord. When I am tidying the clutter, I am an instrument in His hands. I have a lot of unglamorous jobs to do, but if my eye is single to God and I am trying to serve my family, then I can feel as much purpose in my work as a missionary can.”
Those words reminded me of what King Benjamin said. King Benjamin, by the way, labored in the fields for his support. That’s not the image we usually have of a king. But talking about that labor, he said, “I do not desire to boast, for I have only been in the service of God.” (Mosiah 2:16) So perhaps our frame of mind and the state of our spirit has more to do with how meaningful our work is than what our job description is.
Doctrine and Covenants 117 reinforces this idea with a great story, and in this section, the Lord actually extends a professional calling to a man named Oliver Granger. That doesn’t happen often in scripture. What He says is, He calls Oliver Granger to come to Zion, and then He says, “He shall be made a merchant unto my name, saith the Lord, for the benefit of my people.” (verse 14) He’s called to be a merchant unto the name of the Lord. Notice that his mercantile duties are to be directed to the Lord. Only a couple of verses later, the scripture says the Lord promises to “overthrow the moneychangers in mine own due time.” (verse 16) What is the difference between “a merchant unto the Lord’s name” and a “moneychanger.” I submit to you that the work they do probably looks really similar. The difference is the intent and the motive, the desire for service that Oliver Granger brought to his work.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between shepherds and hirelings, as described in the Bible. As you know, ancient shepherds were very devoted to their sheep. They knew them by name. They developed such an intimate familiarity with them that they would come when called by name. A good shepherd would risk his life for the sheep, and the tenderness of that relationship is part of the reason why we refer to Jesus as “the Good Shepherd.”
But then you have the hireling, which Job in the Old Testament describes as a shepherd that “looketh for the reward of his work.” (Job 7:2) In other words, hirelings are in it for the money. They don’t bother to learn the sheep’s name or form an intimate relationship with them. Rather than call them by name, they’ll rely upon their dogs to nip at the heels of the sheep to get them to go where he wants them to go. What happens when the chips are down? Jesus describes the hireling’s response to a wolf attack when He said, in John 10: “But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
“The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.” (verses 12-13)
Maybe one of the reasons that so many people in the world have a hard time finding their calling is that they aren’t prepared to make the sort of sacrifice and commitment that only shepherds and zookeepers can understand. Do we see our work as a stewardship, as a flock that we’re responsible to tend? Are we willing to stand up and fight for it, to sacrifice for it? Callings don’t come cheap. They are a true principle of work. But you don’t get the transcendent experience of fulfillment that the zookeeper and the shepherd get unless you are willing to give almost everything for your stewardship.
It’s one of the great gospel ironies that when we lose ourselves we find ourselves. And work is exactly the same. If you focus your work first and foremost on serving others, not only will you be happy in the long run, despite the bumps and bruises on the way, you will also have the greatest opportunity to hone your skills and become truly remarkable at what you do. You will forget yourself into success in the professional world.
As I mentioned, this is a topic that means a great deal to me, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I would invite you, if you are interested, to read the devotional that I gave. [Go to byub.org and search: “What Is Your Calling in Life?”] I also invite you to visit a blog where I record some ideas and advice for people at your stage of life. I have no products that I sell and no benefit that derives from the blog; it’s one of the ways that I serve. So if it’s something that you want to think more about, I invite you to visit that. [Professor Thompson’s blog: yourlifecalling.blogspot.com]
In closing, brothers and sisters, I want to testify to you that your Heavenly Father is intimately involved in both your spiritual life and your professional life. I testify to you that He knows you individually and that there is a path that you cannot see yet, and that as you seek to serve, by following the Spirit and using the talents and gifts you’ve been given, that path will become obvious—probably only in hindsight. I testify to you that, as with all other great questions in life, when it comes to asking what your calling in life is, Jesus Christ is in the answer. I testify to you that His Atonement yields to us His grace. And that’s an interesting word to study. Grace is the enabling power of the Savior, which allows us to repent, and allows us to do other things that we otherwise are not capable of doing. Jesus Christ’s grace will operate in your professional life. He will allow you to stand up and accept and succeed in challenges that you think might overwhelm you, and through His grace you will discover gifts and talents that you didn’t know you had.
I testify to you also that you have gifts and talents. That your array and repertoire of spiritual gifts is as unique as your fingerprint. You have been sent here because you have a specific cause, a specific challenge, a dissertation if you will, that Heavenly Father desires you to fulfill. You should be very optimistic and hopeful and prayerful as you pursue the path that will lead you to your calling. I testify that these things are true, and I do so in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.