Traditionally, vocational discernment referred to a woman or man’s process of recognizing and following a call towards a role in the church. Thus, vocations mostly existed in the religious sphere. Now aspects of vocational discernment can be realized by lay people, or the common man or woman, to guide them in finding their greater purpose, their calling. Discernment techniques do not provide an instant answer. Instead, they equip individuals with tools to use in everyday life to recognize clues, reflect upon what they experience, and even to pursue small and seemingly unrelated opportunities. Vocational discernment can assist people in noticing “dots” in their life. A keen discerner can, over time, begin to notice those “dots” connecting into something recognizable, much like a constellation of stars.
Your vocation, or calling, may not be limited to one thing. It may not even be something that is already written, as a job description is a pre-written role for you to fill, and it may likely consume your time and thoughts outside of normal business hours. Vocations tend to be something that make you question, “Do I really have what it takes to do this?” “Am I willing to make the sacrifices necessary for this role?” They often draw from a unique space within you, a space that brings out the best version of yourself. They demand a willingness to align with something far greater than oneself. The focus of a vocation is not “making a living” but rather “living a life.” It is less about what you do and more about who you are while you are doing it.
An extreme version of someone who identified his vocation is Mahatma Gandhi of India. He did not grow up knowing he was going to revolutionize his country by non-violent protest for the rights of the oppressed. He found significance in certain events and listened to what was arising around him. Gandhi fed his passion forward, meanwhile shaping himself as a leader. In a time before instant mass communication and the ability to amplify sound, Gandhi had the ability to draw a crowd of thousands, simply by stating to one source that he was going to speak at a time and place. There used to be stands constructed at points in the crowd to carry on his message for everyone to hear. Gandhi spoke, and the person atop the closest stand would repeat his words to the crowd. The person on the next stand continued his words to the people even further away, and this continued for miles. Countless poor Indians traveling from their homes, missing work, in the extreme heat to hear only a reiteration of a man’s speech illuminates just how incredibly magnetic and compelling Gandhi was. People followed him not only because of what he believed but also because of who he was and how he interacted with others. He was constantly in pursuit of his best self, and he was able to use it for good. He became larger than himself as he dedicated his life to his calling and pursued his highest potential. Of course, Gandhi had many things to fear. His life ended with assassination due to his pursuit for equality. But he never allowed himself to be guided by fear to a path that stifled his potential or interrupted the pursuit of his larger purpose.
People who pursue their vocations are usually not as infamous as Gandhi, and perhaps they prefer not to be. Many aspects of Gandhi’s journey can be applied to everyday discernment. Gandhi responded to an obvious need of his time. The road before him was filled with uncertainties, failures, sacrifices, and seemingly insurmountable challenges. Though he was the specific face of the revolution, he was more interested in the universal truth by which he was abiding. His life became his message.
The process of vocational discernment involves much reflection on what you have done to guide you to where you should go next. It entails answering three main questions:
- What am I passionate about? / What brings me joy?
- What are my gifts and talents?
- What does the world need?
Let’s take a closer look at the questions, and how to answer them for yourself.
What am I passionate about? What brings me joy?
This question refers more to tasks at hand rather than larger issues. A big part of understanding this question means understanding the experience of “flow.”
Flow is a mental state within which a person is completely immersed in an energized focus on a given task at hand. The person is fully involved in the process of their task and is experiencing joy and euphoria from their deep alignment with the task and that task alone. People may feel so channeled into their activity that they may forget to eat or may delay urination! Their focus is not on themselves or their identity, and this allows their ego to dissipate.
Flow activities may have precise goals that are reachable and are appropriate for a person’s abilities. The activity often provides immediate feedback, allowing an individual to fine-tune their approach while engaged in the activity. Flow states typically require high levels of concentration and may provide a challenge, however because of the deep enjoyment of the task, it seems almost effortless. This allows people to lose self-consciousness and fuse their awareness with action until what is left is the action alone. People may come away from their task having lost track of time. Five hours may have felt like fifteen minutes.
Have you ever watched a professional violinist? Or a pianist? Have you noticed the way they may close their eyes, relax their body, and create touchingly beautiful music as a result of their ecstasy? Performing musicians sometimes lose track of time when they are on stage. A huge crowd may be watching them, but the only thing of which they are aware is the sound of their instrument. To them, in that moment, there is nothing else. They may even lose track of where they end, and the instrument begins. Operating from this level, musicians no longer need to think about the placement of their fingers or what the next key should be. Their movements wash from their core. They are experiencing the state of flow!
Many things can allow us to enter into a state of flow. Dancing, drawing, rock climbing, deep conversations with others, waitressing, writing, teaching, mechanics, mopping a floor. The state of flow is typically a very rewarding experience and people feel fulfilled by it, even when they are not actively in the state. Learning to recognize flow when it happens for you is one part of the discernment process. It provides clues to answer “What brings me joy?” It can help create a “dot” that may or may not begin to connect to other “dots.”
What are my gifts and talents?
Just as many things can lead us into a state of flow, we as individuals possess many unique gifts and talents. Some of those talents may be crowd-pleasing. Some talents may be silly. Some may be of the artistic, or academic, or physical realm. Some talents could be found in the ability to connect with others, and some could be in the understanding of how things work. There are abilities that come naturally to us, and there are others we need to work for. Occasionally, we may think we are really good at something, but feedback from others states that we actually are quite average at it. And likewise, there may be things we do while having no idea how spectacular we really are at them.
Coming to realize your gifts and talents takes experience. Answering this question relies largely on feedback from others, whether directly or indirectly. Have you ever had a teacher, boss, or friend tell you over and over again how great of a writer you are? Ever notice how friends always call you for financial advice? Or parenting advice? For a listening ear?
Begin to listen more seriously when people give you feedback. Don’t brush it off! When people ask for your advice on something they are providing another type of feedback. They respect your knowledge base and skill level in that area and are genuinely interested in what you have to offer. Expediting the discernment process, you could even ask a colleague, friend, parent, or partner what your gifts are. I have heard my mother say, “Even as a toddler Molly’s fine motor skills were far beyond her years. She could button little buttons on her doll clothes, tie the ties, and give her little Barbie a new hairstyle.” Looking back, I understand why growing up people gave me their knots to untangle. My line of work today often utilizes these fine motor skills!
So maybe Prudence is passionate about painting and experiences much joy from the act of painting. Perhaps she even experiences flow while painting! Nevertheless, her paintings are not all that good. She has tried to sell them and found no buyers. She has even tried to give them away, and no one wants them. Painting is NOT her vocation. Prudence should definitely keep painting in her life for the sake of her joy, but she should not pursue painting as her calling.
When you do notice an area in which you are talented, plant another “dot.” Your skillful act does not need to be something as grand as directing a Grammy-winning Leonardo Dicaprio movie, nor does it need to be something during which you experience flow (although that is a big plus). Becoming aware of all your gifts, as well as limitations, will help guide you to understand what your vocation can involve.
What does the world need?
When vocational discernment was first referred to, there were no cellphones, no internet, and the far reaches of the world were a lot less accessible. Answering this question then may have been different than answering it now. The world today and the life living on it have many, many needs. And there are structures in place that allow individuals to move halfway around the globe to live out their vocation. A very exciting time to be a vocation discerner, while also overwhelming! So many needs, and so many opportunities.
Reframing this question as “What does your world need?” makes it a little more approachable. My dear friend from the United States is pursuing her vocation while living in East Africa promoting sustainable businesses among the poorest of the poor. She inspires me every day. However, many people discover that their vocation is right in their vicinity. They neither need to nor should have to move far away to answer their call. Start becoming more in tune with your surrounding community and begin to notice the unique needs of the time and place. Global challenges too. Keep a running list in the back of your mind that you can call upon when needed. Be aware that sometimes you may want your community to need something that they don’t, just so you can offer it (or sell it). Honesty within yourself can help you identify the true needs.
Sebastian may be an incredible goat herder. He is passionate about it, and he experiences flow when he is engaging with goats. But Sebastian lives in downtown Chicago and no one needs Sebastian to herd any goats even though he is more than willing. Goat herding is not his vocation.
But like most people, Sebastian finds excitement in more activities than goat herding, and he has different types of skills. Sebastian often experiences flow when building things. And he is quite good at it. People even offer to pay him for his products! Sebastian also loves spending time with people and having truthful conversations with them. People like him, and they tend to trust him and open up. As we know, Sebastian lives in downtown Chicago and he has noticed areas around him that suffer from violence, poor access to healthcare and safe housing, as well as low income. Has he ever thought of teaching low-income youth in the surrounding areas how to build furniture? Could he even start a non-profit school to teach them? Or a store where they could sell their pieces? Perhaps he might intentionally source from ethical companies and use eco-friendly products because he is aware that the world needs environmentally friendly products. Maybe he begins by feeling a surge of excitement when he stumbles upon a job position that is already doing this. The options are endless!
By combining our joys, passions, gifts, and knowledge, we can find our unique way to address a need in the world. It can take years of listening and noticing “dots” before a person begins to understand what their vocation may be and see the dots connect. It can be a quiet persistence. For some, those years of discerning becomes part of them. All it takes is an “aha” moment when they come to a realization. For others, they may have a gut feeling or an idea and may act on it. They may watch their idea grow and path unfold until they are living a life they had not imagined. Each discernment process is unique, and no one else can tell you what your vocation is.
- What am I passionate about? What brings me joy?
- Can be uncovered through self-reflection.
- What are my gifts and talents?
- Can be realized through your experiences and feedback.
- What does the world need?
- Can be better understood through relationships with others.
Begin by reflecting on the questions above and some helpful questions below:
- Who am I?
- Who do I want to be?
- How do I want to make choices?
- How important are my desires?
- What does success look like for me?
- What does failure look like for me?
- What am I afraid of?
- What makes a life significant?
- What makes life worth living?
To begin discerning your vocation, reflect upon these questions as you continue to live your life. Begin to notice where you may experience joy, what your talents are, and what the world around you needs. Slowly, an inclination may emerge, you may have an “aha” moment, or your process may take another form. Talk to people who you think shine in their work and life. Ask them about their path that got them to where they are now. Ask them for advice. Be honest with yourself. Be humble. Stay in tune with your fears. Are your fears causing you to turn away from your true potential? Writing, starting a dream journal, or other creative pursuits can help open the doors for more exploration. Your life is your message, and your potential awaits.