Here’s a question for you:
When you were a kid, what did you want to be?
If very little comes up, don’t be surprised – this question often puts people under pressure. And when something does emerge, it usually takes the form a sugar-coated anecdote.
Let’s try a different approach – one which is more revealing.
Without any self-judgement, answer this question:
As a kid, what odd interests/obsessions did you have?
‘Oddness’ is a relative term.
Depending on where you live and how you were raised, the oddest thing in the equation might actually be the ‘norms’ you were instructed to uphold.
From a very young age, we start picking up these cultural expectations – we quickly learn to sort our natural inclinations into two piles: Acceptable and Unacceptable.
Most of the time, this is a useful thing.
After all, as an adult it’s generally not good to go around smearing your faeces on the wall. Or, if you go around telling people you’re Spiderman, they’ll probably back away from you slowly.
But sometimes, suppressing our quirks comes back to bite us in the form of chronic unhappiness and feelings of emptiness.
Here’s an example of one of my own quirks – of how I didn’t always fit into a neat little box.
Seeing as I went on to train in medicine, you might think childhood Oli yearned to be a doctor, or that he was obsessed with human anatomy. But you would be wrong.
What about an Astronaut?
President of Earth?
Not this kid.
As an 8-year old boy – much to my mother’s chagrin – I wanted to be a postman.
“A postman? Why do you want to be a postman? Where did you pick up such a strange idea?”
Unsurprisingly, 8-year old me didn’t have much of an answer.
“I don’t know, I just kind of like it” I said sheepishly.
With my mum’s Jewish background, I might as well have informed her of my decision to become a platypus.
What happened next? You can probably guess. I never mentioned my curious fixation with the postal service again.
(That is, until I signed up for a paper round as a teenager!)
Do you feel a sense of calling?
That irresistible pull to serve people in a very particular way?
If you don’t – but you want to – try not to feel despondent. Very few people seem to fall into this situation naturally, whether through happy accident or superb parenting.
For the rest of us, there’s a lot of work to do.
In practice, this means peeling back the layers of social conditioning to uncover who we really are and what we truly care about.
One layer is schooling.
Trying to figure out your calling within the rigid confines of traditional educational systems can be a recipe for disaster.
Another layer is family.
You’ve probably absorbed values from your parents, learning which careers are worth pursuing and which aren’t. It can take a lot of painful introspection to peel back this layer.
Your parents and schoolteachers thought they knew what you needed to feel happy and successful, but they didn’t. Only you can figure that out for yourself.
They may have had good intentions, but that didn’t change the damage done every time someone made you feel self-conscious about your peculiarities.
If you’re like me, you were probably nudged toward boxes you didn’t belong anywhere near, let alone inside. But try as you might, you can never fit a square peg into a round hole (without breaking the peg itself).
One of my favourite books touching on this is Mastery, by Robert Greene.
Greene found a common pattern in people who find a calling: They were all willing to stare convention in the face, and if need be, defy it.
Very often, this meant connecting with their ‘primal inclinations’ – their seemingly bizarre childhood obsessions which held important clues about their unique personality and core talents.
Greene documented the story of one person who managed to leverage these primal inclinations – Temple Grandin.
Born autistic, Grandin’s physician predicted lifelong institutionalisation for her, when she was three. But against incredible odds, she progressed with speech therapists and went on to attend a regular school.
At some point, it became clear to Grandin that she had an unusual talent for sensing the inner experience of animals. She went on to become a professor of animal studies at Colorado State University, the world’s leading designer of livestock facilities. Grandin essentially created an entirely new field of research based on her unique gift for intuiting animal discomfort.
This is an inspiring case of how you can find your calling by adapting the world to yourself, instead of the other way around:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
To get in touch with your own sense of calling, you don’t necessarily need to revolutionise an entire field like Grandin did. But what you might need to do is revolutionise your relationship with yourself.
If you feel lost in your career, or just unclear where you’re going in life, sometimes it just doesn’t help to keep looking forward.
What you really need to do is start looking back.
With a spirit of curiosity and open-mindedness, begin unpacking salient themes from your childhood. Look for the peculiarities and oddities – clues about what your calling really is.
Be prepared for the answers not to fall into neat little boxes.
They’ll probably be unappealing to the part of you conditioned to want money, approval and recognition. Hence why they’ve been suppressed for so long. Just play with your memories and connect up the dots about who you are.
Here are 3 questions to ponder:
- Growing up, when did you feel like the odd one out? (What does that mean about your unique gifts)?
- As a child, what objects fascinated you? Why?
- What facts or ideas had you transfixed as a child? What could you memorise easily? (What could this mean about you?)
When I voiced an interest in being a postman all those years ago, it represented something about my authentic self. I wasn’t actually enthusiastic for becoming a postman – I was only 8 – but enthusiastic about the deeper themes.
For one, I loved (and still love) getting post. To me, post holds excitement and potential. Could it be an early birthday card? A letter from a friend? An unexpected parcel?
And who got to deliver these unexpected gifts? Postmen! It was service in the purest sense, and I loved something about it. I also loved the solitary nature of the job, the fact they worked outdoors, and that they had a single, clear job to do.
I took some of these insights forward in my own career, and I’m much happier as a result.
As you engage with the above questions, be patient. It could take a while, and fully formed answers might not come in one sitting.
Sleep on it, and consult with loved ones. Look at old family photos, revisit childhood places, do whatever it takes to stir up your memories.
It might be laborious stuff, but in the long-run this self-reflection will be so worth it. Reconnecting with your childhood wonder is a great step on the path to creating an enticing future and sense of calling.