How I Rediscovered My Calling
Updated: Jan 24, 2019
"Revelation must be terrible knowing you can never hide your voice again." - David Whyte
Settling into my seat for a ten-hour flight home from vacation, I felt a sense of dread at logging back into my computer Monday morning and reentering my work life. The thought of sitting down in my office chair and assuming my normal responsibilities made me want to crawl in the overhead bin and not come out.
I know I am not the first person to feel a certain melancholy at the end of a nice, long vacation or cringe at the prospect of hundreds or thousands of unread emails, but this felt different. It wasn’t that I was upset at my vacation being over—I was actually happy to be coming home—and it wasn’t that I felt low motivation and excitement at the prospect of working. In fact, I was overflowing with energy for all the things I wanted to do when I got home. Just none of it overlapped with my job.
This was not totally out of the blue. Having spent nearly a year on assignment in New York City, I found myself with many nights alone in my Chelsea apartment, which was conducive to getting to know myself again. I rekindled my journaling. I closed my eyes in meditation. I unrolled my yoga mat and did my first downward-facing dog in years (ah, did that feel good).
As I started reconnecting with myself, I reflected on the past several years and what I wanted for the future. The vitality and possibilities of the city around me seeped into my mind, luring me toward change. As I wandered the streets and took advantage of being only a ferry ride away from my brother and his family, I realized that I belonged back on the East Coast.
This had long been a “maybe someday” kind of wish, but in that moment, I realized that all the reasons I gave myself for why we couldn’t leave Minnesota were not insurmountable. The myth I had spun for myself was dispelled and the truth became obvious—I am free to live wherever I choose. And I choose to live where I think I will be happiest, where I am closer to my family, where I can grow my community, and where I will have the greatest opportunities. Of course, I would be smart about it and give due consideration to my husband’s needs, but as I stared out my window at the colors and lights of the New York skyline, that “maybe someday” glimmer became a plan.
I thought that was my big revelation—after over 20 years of being away, I would take the first step in journeying home. While it was a momentous decision, it left several other areas of my life untouched.
In terms of work, I thought about transferring to my firm’s Manhattan office or perhaps joining another consulting firm with a strong presence in the Northeast Corridor. Or maybe going back to work for a utility company, as I had done in Minnesota for nearly 10 years. In all of my musing, never did I really question my career track or ask myself if I was living my dreams. I simply took it as a given that, with continued hard work, I would keep climbing the corporate ladder and advancing in my field.
In Pursuit of Answers
Ever the analyst and overthinker, I sought guidance (and honestly, validation) from those who might be able to tell me something that I couldn’t yet see. Both of the people I saw over the course of a few months (and even the tarot card reader I forced my husband to see) said largely the same thing, often without any prompting—yes, I would move, but there were other, bigger changes in store for me. New paths would open up for me, with my hands in lots of different pots. Being so fixated on the move, I largely glossed over the message about new paths, thinking it sounded cool, but remaining anchored in the context of my current profession and current reality.
But the universe has a way of nudging us (subtly or not!) toward where we are supposed to go. On one of my last nights in my apartment, I was moved to write and memorialize my time in the city. I sat in the turquoise pleather chair near the window, put my feet up on the ottoman, and wrote an essay on what I learned living in NYC.
The act of doing something that I loved, that connected me so directly to what used to be a passion of mine, was like a shot in the arm. I was awake again. With that article finished, I started thinking about the next one I could write and the next one. And so when I was asked shortly thereafter what I would love to do, what would fill me with joy, I finally remembered the answer. I would love to help others through my writing and add to the poetry in the world.
Life in the Shadows
The book I was reading on that long flight home introduced the notion of a “shadow calling.” In her book, Light is the New Black, Rebecca Campbell describes a shadow calling as arising “when we don’t have the courage to answer our highest calling and so settle for something halfway.”
It may resemble our true calling, such as by drawing on some of the same skills, supporting people who are living our dream, or performing some of the same kind of duties but in a context that isn’t completely aligned with our deepest desires. Campbell gives the examples of agents who are meant for the stage, film producers who long to direct, and copywriters who have original book ideas inside their heads.
There is often enough of a connection to our higher calling to hold our interest and provide some degree of satisfaction—and we might be really successful at it given its proximity to our highest talents—but it won’t wholly answer our soul’s call or maximize our good in the world.
In one bolded passage, she writes, “Only you know if you are in a shadow career for your soul.” I dropped my Kindle in my lap and stared at the seat in front of me—that was totally me. I am the regulatory writer who writes poetry on the side. I am the business transformation consultant who wants to help change people’s lives. And the universe’s wry sense of humor doesn’t stop there—I work in the energy field. But instead of my vocabulary being chakras, meridians, and the universal energy that connects us all, I talk of transformers, transmission lines, and tons of carbon.
Goose bumps pricked up my arms as I realized how close I’ve been to my dream, yet how separate it is. It seems obvious now why my happiest days at work are those when I am writing all day, working and reworking sentences, barely stopping to eat or pee. It’s those days that get me closest to my calling.
Maybe one of the hardest parts about waking up to being in a shadow calling was that I’ve known for a long time deep in my bones that I wanted to write and I wanted to use that writing and my life stories as a vehicle to help others.
Last week I went into my deep storage looking for a picture for my “vibration board” (another Rebecca Campbell suggestion) and I found a grey file box covered in dust. Curious, I opened the box and started pulling out pieces of paper. The box held writing assignments dating back to high school. In an assignment from October 1996, I started an essay on writing with a journal entry:
Thoughts are swimming around my head. Waves of verbs and nouns and indescribable subjects rise and fall over the crevices of my brain. The desire grows stronger, like a storm gathering strength—I want to write. I want to fill pages with beautiful songs of my life’s blood. Oh bring the dagger so I can empty my veins!
As I flipped through page after page in my file box, I saw that same theme over and over, steeped in passionate hyperbole. In a piece literally titled, “Why I Write,” I talked of my fingers being antennas to a mysterious, deep pool that feeds me words but cannot be described by them. I spoke of needing to write like I needed to breathe. Hunched under the low ceiling in my closet, I dropped my head and cried. I’d been holding my breath this whole time.
In that moment I felt devastated for seemingly having lost so much time in pursuing my dream and giving up on something so important to me. At 17 years old, and probably even as a 10 year old secretly mailing in a poem to a poetry contest in the back of Teen magazine (and winning second prize!), I knew what I wanted to do. I held that dream in my heart as I poured my soul into my high school writing assignments and my zine (hey, it was the 90s!), which sought connection with angry, confused girls like me and offered what support I had to give.
I knew I wanted to write and I knew I wanted to be a positive force in people’s, especially women’s, lives. In an essay dated December 3, 1995, I stated it plainly: “I know that helping others is what I need to do to be in accordance with who I am." At college, in my early 20’s, I immersed myself in writing, filling notebooks with stories, poems, and personal essays, absorbing the praise of my creative writing teachers, who encouraged me to keep going.
Dimming of the Dream
So, what happened? On a basic level, I had the dream but I didn’t believe in myself or think I could be successful. I listened to the voices of my parents and other pragmatists who told me it was “far-fetched" to think I could succeed as a writer in the way I envisioned. They stoked fears of not having enough money and security—a fear somewhat validated by watching other recent English grads waiting tables or serving cappuccinos at the coffee shop—a life I knew would not satisfy me. And so I dimmed the light on that dream.
I'm not going to say my parents and other naysayers were right or wrong. It just wasn't my time—that dream wasn't ripe. The sadness I felt in my closet reading the hopes and dreams of my younger self gave way to understanding and acceptance. I needed time to grow personally and in my craft. I needed to assemble some resources to pursue my dream from a position of strength.
As the universe steers me back to my calling, I have a deeper well of life experience to draw from and a greater respect of the responsibilities that go along with serving others. I have so much more to offer now compared to when I was 20, just as I will in another 20 years. I am coming into alignment with the universe and my dream now for a reason. It's time to reignite what has been dormant and burn away the shadows.
What do I do with this revelation? Going back to work after my vacation with the spell broken, I wanted nothing more than to put in my notice and start being a writer. One week after my return, on my 40th birthday, I took a day off and lived a day in my new life—starting the day with yoga and meditation, working on an essay, and reading a book. I loved it, which only strengthened my desire to start living my new life right away. That was my alpha, pitta, Type A way to crash through the wall before me.
But my MBA actually saved me here—this consultant knows that rapid dramatic change is fraught with risk and rarely turns out as hoped. It is better to chart a course of incremental steps, build in some decision points, and preserve optionality where possible. I know that the right moment to strike might not be this moment. But I also know the value of relentlessly preparing and of focusing on the things that create positive outcomes no matter what unfolds.
So that it is what I’m doing. I set up a writing nook and sacred space for myself and show up every day for at least 30 minutes and sometimes much longer. That is my promise to myself. Every day I will do something, however small, to further my goals. I created a website and wrote these words to you. I sent myself to a retreat to give me the tools to ritualize my meditation practice and start building a network of like-minded people. Hell, I even stopped drinking (30 days and counting!) to clear my mind and focus my energy.
My goal is that by doing these things and continuing to put myself out there, the fruits of my labor will ripen and I’ll be able, over time, to do more of the things I love and less of the things I don’t.
Out of the Shadows
To stay positive in my “real” job, I’m trying to focus on what drew me to that work in the first place and the good that I can still do in that role. While it may not fulfill me in every way, it is still a great job and an opportunity to grow. I’m leaning in to the synergies between my higher calling and my shadow calling, trying to squeeze everything out of it that I can (including banking all those frequent flyer miles!).
In fact, I’m going to stop referring to it as a “shadow calling.” It is not something dark and ominous. It’s more like my practice job. I haven’t been lurking in the shadows, I’ve been preparing. Something truly wonderful is coming—it just needed some time to come to light.
Truthfully, it is hard to be patient sometimes. It is tempting to be dramatic and go all in—make the leap. It is hard to trust that my head can guide me in matters of the heart without falling into the same traps that kept me asleep. It is hard to trust that this is all part of the plan. And it is hard to silence those whispers of self-doubt that echo fears of not being enough and not having enough or losing what I’ve worked so hard to build.
But trust comes from going within and courage comes from trust. I will meditate. I will write. I will build a community. I will do the work. The universe has given me a boat and oars—I just need to row.