Career vs. Calling: Do You Know the Difference?


Great Work of Your LIfe



If you’ve had any contact with me over the last six weeks, you are probably aware of my near obsession with Stephen Cope’s recent book, The Great Work of Your Life. It has been a long time since a book spoke directly to what I can only describe as a deep and ancient longing. Cope’s book helped me articulate a question that I’ve been struggling to answer since I discovered art history in college:


Who am I and what am I supposed to be doing?


When I was a college sophomore, I fell in love with the lush landscapes of the Venetian Renaissance, the stained glass of Gothic Cathedrals, the clean lines of modernism. Art woke me up, body and mind. I had intended to major in business, as my father advised me, but managed to convince him that a degree in art history would lead to a job of some sort. Sadly, when I graduated with both bachelors and master’s degree in Art History, I possessed no transferrable skills or clear direction. I spent the months following graduation in the business self-help section of the bookstore. I did all the exercises in What Color is Your Parachute and took multiple skills assessment exams at the career center. I also interviewed for the management training program at Macy’s and a job in the art appraisal department of an insurance company, neither of which excited me.


I knew what I was not about — commercial enterprise and the financial evaluation of art — but I had no idea how to direct by idealism and passion for aesthetics into a job.


Over the past twenty years, I have worked as a curator, a critic, and a college professor. While I loved certain aspects of each position, none of the institutional hats fit.  When I switched my allegiance from the art world to the literary community, I thought I had found my  true tribe. Unfortunately, the proliferation of M.F.A. programs has turned that creative calling into a career track as well.


I’ve known for a while I’d have to make up a life for myself, but sometimes I fear I’ve  made too many wrong turns and that my creative work will add up nothing. When I read Cope’s description of dharma as the path of true calling and his claim that one dharma could end and another could begin, I was relieved. A calling could incorporate a series of twists and turns and course corrections. I could connect the dots of where I had been and see a clear path–or at least the next step–into the future.


Below are a few thoughts on Career vs. Calling:

  • A career has a track or a ladder to climb. A calling can follow a meandering path.

  • When you have a career, you try to please your superiors. When you follow a calling, you serve that calling.

  • Careers have counselors and human resource departments. If you have a calling and you are lucky, you find a wise teacher or guide who won’t impose an agenda on you.

  • If you have a career, you build a vitae. If you have a calling, you craft your own story.


    As Cope suggests, many of us land near our true calling, but feel frustrated that we haven’t fulfilled it. This often occurs because we make the mistake of choosing career.


How can you know your true calling and make a course correction? I’ll be examining those questions in all my classes and mentoring programs in 2015. I’d love to have you join me.


In the meantime, here are a few ways to get out of your own way and hear what the universe is whispering:


1) Meditate. The more you learn to quiet your mind, to ignore the constant chatter that all too often runs us, the more connected you will be to your deepest and truest self.


2) Try writing practice. My daily practice is like a compass. I ask questions and answers appear. If you want to join me, considering participating in #continuous practice.


3) Follow Cope’s example and study the lives of artists whose lives you admire. How did they do it? I’ve found incredible inspiration interviewing artists for Creative Mix.


4) At the bottom of your daily to-do list, or in lieu of it, consider a daily “what I’m being called to do” list.


Who are you and what are you supposed to be doing? How will you know? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



2 thoughts on “Career vs. Calling: Do You Know the Difference?

  1. Laura Flett

    My career was/is teaching. I’m trained, licensed, experienced. I have contracts and am a part of an established institution. But with writing I learn how I learn, how my mind works, the multifaceted experiences with language…which i can apply to my growth as a teacher. And the passion and excitement this brings I believe is my calling.

    Thanks for continuing to give me words for my experiences.

  2. Leslie McKay

    I’m a poet and a gardener, part time self employed writing teacher currently updating my workshop, which is how I stumbled
    upon this discussion. After reading something Natalie Goldberg said in another article about writing and meditation
    being the same because they both make us happy and happiness is revolutionary, things clicked for me.
    I am deepening my commitment to both practices after a post Christmas slide and have already become
    aware of positive changes and connections. Career vs Calling added to my desire to serve an energy greater
    than myself and the conviction is building towards dedicated action.
    Thanks for your article and comprehensive interview with Natalie and happy writing and working.

    to serve an energy
    greater than myself.


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