For most of my adult life, beginning at about 19, I did what was right in front of me. I did the next course in college, the next thing in my romantic/intimate relationship (get married and have a child), and the next thing in my learning — be a mom, learn to cook and keep house, make friends with other young mothers. It was 1963. It was emphatically NOT what my purpose had been — to finish a bachelors degree, apply and be accepted to the Peace Corps, serve in the Peace Corps and then apply to and be accepted by the Diplomatic Corps. I might think about marriage later in my 30s or 40s. Ha! You can see the divergence in the reality and the plan/purpose. But remember it was 1963!
A woman having a career was still rather rare. Being a mom and a great cook and a home decorator was still more the norm. There were aspects of my life at 19–36 that I loved. I became a good enough cook to be hired at a local art center to run their restaurant, only open for lunch when my kids were in school. I worked with a decorator to enliven a house in Minnesota on Lake Minnetonka so that when my first husband and I separated, the house sold in one day, for significantly more than we had paid for it. I loved my three daughters, and they thrived.
I did not love myself. I was good at my life as it was. I wanted so much more and didn’t know how to, or couldn’t afford to, follow the original plan. I went back to school to finish a bachelors degree in Elementary Education at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut where we had lived, when my youngest daughter was 3. I chose to pursue a degree in elementary education because I had three examples (my children) of how I wanted to nurture them and all young children. After the family moved to Minneapolis, I finished that degree in Journalism, as advisers noted that there were very few jobs then (1973) available in elementary education.
As there were also very few jobs in the kind of journalism I’d studied, I ran two non-profits. Then I was a stockbroker for seven years. Then a graduate student at a Protestant seminary in preparation for ordination. Then I found my calling — in my mid-forties. For the last 30+ years I have taught, coached and counseled people in transition — from one job to another, from one life stage to another. I’m not an expert, but a fellow traveler. I ask questions because I’m curious. I encourage because I know that transitions are hard. And I love them. I know that’s a big word but it is the truth. I think it is the love that helps more than anything.
This has also enabled me to love myself. When I step into a classroom, or turn on my computer to Zoom, I feel confident and peaceful. I am with my people.This is my purpose, to give life support to those who want to move from where they are to someplace/something better. This is what gives my life meaning.
There are many other stories about finding your calling or purpose, of course. Many women wanted to be wives and mothers in 1963, and for one reason or another they couldn’t or didn’t. Perhaps they could not conceive a child, or they married someone who turned out to be abusive. Perhaps a man didn’t want to be a corporate executive in 1963 when Mad Men strongly suggested that they did. Or he was gay. That was really hard in 1963.
Even though it took me 25 years to find what I wanted to do and be, I am lucky. Many never find their calling. They work at jobs that pay them well enough to support families, but that don’t feed their deepest wants. Emily Smith found that only one third to one half of all workers see their work as calling. I include unpaid work here such as parenting and volunteering. But even if those workers don’t ever find what they would describe as a calling, they can find purpose.
In her 2017 book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith defines purpose as “a goal toward which we are always working. It is the forward pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives.” It also involves a contribution to the world, to something bigger and outside of ourselves. This aspect, of making a contribution to the world, is what gives meaning to so many lives.
It doesn’t mean we have a sweeping agenda. I facilitate groups of older adults. Together we figure out how to make our lives more meaningful. It is a smallish group and not a worldwide movement. Smith tells us that the four most common jobs in America are retail salesperson, cashier, food preparer/server, and office clerk. None of these have a sweeping agenda. Yet I know at least five retail salespeople who see their calling as helping women and men to look and feel better about themselves, and several administrative assistants who make the lives of their bosses run smoothly because of what they do. Smith tells a story of a traffic regulator at a construction site who switches his sign from Stop to Slow all day, about as boring a job as I can think of. Yet he sees a clear purpose — to keep his fellow workers safe, as well as the drivers who navigate the sites. He has a service mindset. Most jobs can be thought of as service. And research shows that when one has such a mindset, serving a larger purpose than the traffic sign or the diaper needing infant can provide meaning to the unlikeliest of people. Meaning and purpose are not about money, and not about power. They are about nurturing our individual souls, and making a contribution.