Finding Your Calling Part IV: Discovering Your Vocation

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 13, 2010 · 19 comments

in Money & Career

In Parts I and II of our series on vocation we talked about what a vocation is, and in Part III we put forth an argument for why every man should pursue his vocation. Today, we’ll be discussing how to find your vocation.

Your True Vocation=Your Gifts+Your Passion

As we’ve discussed so far, your calling is not one specific magical job out there, but rather your unique talents, gifts, and capabilities-the things within you that you bring to a job. Thus, different jobs can tap into your vocation to different degrees. A job may use your gifts 50% of the time or 90% of the time. Finding your true vocation means finding work that utilizes your gifts in the 75-100% range. How do you go about doing that?

I think this “formula” is helpful:

True Vocation=Your Gifts+Your Passion

You can be in a job where you get to use your gifts, but not use them for a purpose you feel passionate about. Or you can be working in an area you’re passionate about, but in a job that doesn’t employ your unique gifts. The ideal is to have a job that uses your talents in the service of something you’re passionate about. Here are some examples of what this could look like for a man:

  • David’s gifts are for inspiring people and leadership, and his passion is for football. His true vocation might be becoming a football coach.
  • Joe’s gifts are in teaching and researching, and his passion is history. His true vocation might be becoming a history professor.
  • Dan’s gifts are in resolving disputes, and his passion is for making divorces more amicable for the partners and easier on kids. His true vocation might be becoming a divorce lawyer who concentrates on peaceful mediation.
  • Alex’s gifts are in investigating things, and his passion is for animals and the outdoors. His true vocation might be becoming a game warden.
  • Tyler’s gifts are in selling things and making deals, and his passion is for books. His true vocation might be becoming a literary agent.
  • Blake’s gifts are in crunching numbers, and his passion is for politics. His true vocation might be becoming the state treasurer.
  • Dave’s gifts are in language, and his passion is for Japan and Japanese culture. His true vocation might be becoming a translator in Japan.

You might be passionate about a cause, an area of the world, a sport, or a product. But you can also be passionate about a lifestyle or an ideal or a tradition. A man who has a gift for fixing things and working with his hands, might be passionate about the idea of craftsmanship and find his vocation as a carpenter. A man who has a gift for cutting hair, giving shaves, and offering easy conversation, and a passion for the tradition of barbering, should easily know what his vocation is! A man whose father and grandfather were police officers and who is passionate about carrying on the family tradition would do well to follow in their footsteps. A man whose gifts are in entrepreneurship and who is passionate about working at home might find his vocation in developing web projects. A man with gifts for leadership and courage and who is passionate about the ideals of country, service, and sacrifice might find his true vocation in the military.

Finding Your Birthright Gifts

Of course in order to use the above “formula,” you need to know the passions and capabilities to plug into it.

As we discussed in Part I, your “birthright gifts” are your unique talents, gifts, capabilities, and purposes-the seeds of things you were born to do. You may believe that the seeds were planted there by the chances of biology or purposefully by God. And they’re not so much things you seek as things you rediscover.

In Let Your Life Speak, Parker J. Palmer argues:

“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about-quite apart from what I would like it to be about-or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions…..Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live-but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”

Trying to find your true life’s work without understanding what your birthright gifts are is like trying to grow a garden without any idea of what seeds have been planted in the soil. You wouldn’t know how to bring the seeds to fruition-how much water and sunlight the plants needed and how to care for them. Tending to the garden willy nilly would result in a barren harvest or plants that sprouted haphazardly and then quickly wilted away.

Finding your vocation thus means understanding exactly what seeds lie within you so that you are prepared to cultivate them to their fullest expression.

Tuning Into Your Signal

Your birthright gifts are like tiny radio transmitters that came buried within you when you were born and have been sending out signals ever since. As a kid you were probably very in tune with these signals-knowing what you liked and didn’t like came pretty easily.

But over time, the signal gets dimmer and dimmer, smothered by the increasing noise we’re bombarded with as we grow up. We pick up static everywhere we go-from the things we watch on tv, read in magazines, and hear from ministers, parents, and friends. Pretty soon our own signal, lost in a cacophony of voices, gets hard to hear.

Tuning back into this inner signal is the key to finding your vocation. Dr. Abraham Maslow argued:

“Recovering the self must, as a sine qua non, include the recovery of the ability to have and to cognize these inner signals, to know what and whom one likes and dislikes, what is enjoyable and what is not, when to eat and when not to, when to sleep, when to urinate, when to rest. The experientially empty person, lacking these directive from within, these voices of the real self, must turn to outer cues for guidance, for instance eating when the clock tells him to, rather than obeying his appetite…He guides himself by clocks, rules, calendars, schedules, agendas, and by hints and cues from other people.”

So much of our lives are dictated by external cues that we probably don’t even think about it. We wake up not when our bodies want to but when the alarm clock sounds. We eat lunch at noon and pizza while watching the game not because we’re necessarily hungry but because that is our company’s lunch hour and our game day ritual. We match our mood to the mood of whatever social group we find ourselves in. Our day’s activities come not from the heart but from a to-do list. There are men who if you gave them the day off to do whatever they wished, would be stumped as to how to fill the time.

Following some external signals is key to getting along in the world (showing up in a velvet jumpsuit to a job interview may be what your inner signal longs for, but it probably won’t land you the job). But they also end up distancing ourselves from who we actually are in areas of more importance than dress. Like your vocation.

Tuning into our inner signals need not mean traveling to India to study yoga at an ashram. It’s simply a matter of taking the time to carefully adjust our bunny ears until we hear the signal again loud and clear. This simply involves taking some time out for quiet moments of reflection.
As Palmer insightfully put it:

“The soul is like a wild animal-tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of the tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”

Stop multitasking and filling your life with constant noise. Don’t look at your laptop while you eat; don’t turn on the radio the minute you get in the car; don’t read a magazine when you’re on the john. If you allow them space, the signals will come  to you during your most ordinary activities, like washing the dishes.

Work on being honest with yourself about your motivations for doing the things you do. Do you really enjoy x,y, and z, or are you doing those things to please other people? You can do things for pleasure or do things out of obligation, but you should have the self-awareness to know when you’re doing which.

Pray. Meditate. Take walks without your ipod. Make time for activities that quiet and settle the mind.

Taking the time to tune into your inner signals will help your personal growth all around. To specifically hone in on the signal of your birthright gifts and passions, set aside some quiet time to just sit and think. I highly recommend getting out into the wilderness where you are sure not to be distracted. And then ask yourself these questions:

  • As a boy, what did you love to do? Write? Read? Sports? Working on models? Playing with a chemistry set? Spending time outdoors? Pretending to be a solider or a spy?
  • During school group projects, what job did other students assign to you, or did you volunteer for?
  • What aspects of your current job do you love, which do you loathe?
  • What kinds of projects and jobs at work and at home do you get excited about? What kinds do you dread?
  • Have you ever talked to a friend about a topic, a dream, or an aspiration and everything just clicked inside of you, and you felt a surge of excitement throughout your body?
  • What things do you see other people doing that make you ache with jealousy because you wish you were doing them?
  • What issues get you really fired up?
  • What dream has nagged at you for as long as you can remember, the thing that always pops into your mind no matter how many times you dismiss it?
  • What fills your thoughts in the quiet moments when you’re riding the train or lying in bed? What do you think about incessantly, what captures your imagination? Politics? Spirituality? Relationships?
  • If time, money, education and any other obstacle was a non-issue, what kind of work would you choose to do?
  • What were you doing the last time you totally lost track of time?

I leave you to ponder on these questions. I think the answers will come clearly for most men. And I believe that most men know deep down what their calling is, what they really wish to do in life. The truly hard part is overcoming the obstacles and rationalizations we have for not following our callings. Explaining what these obstacles are will be the topic of the final part of this series.
Finding Your Calling Part I: What Is a Vocation?
Finding Your Calling Part II: The Myths and Realities of Vocation
Finding Your Calling Part III: Why Pursue a Vocation?
Finding Your Calling Part IV: Discovering Your Vocation
Finding Your Calling Part V: Obstacles to Embracing Your Vocation 

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jace June 13, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Brett and Kate McKay, thanks a lot for this whole series. From your first post, I had nothing on me about my vocation, but now within a short span of about three weeks, I have a very good idea of where I want to go in my life. I think the two most important things in actually discovering my vocation was to accept risks, and to throw off all the expectations and perceptions that I had about careers and jobs.

It was pretty simple after that, I just tested several jobs that resonated with the guy inside, and after some trial and error – I finally found it. Finding your vocation…is truly and uplifting experience. The feelings and “state” of self you had when you were a young boy returns, and there is an immeasurable joy at being able to be truly, yourself again…after countless years.

This was what I felt though, I’m not sure if everyone would feel the same way, though the endorphins did feel good =) I think right now would be an incubation period, where I test out the integrity of this new found vocation, and prepare myself for going full out take no prisoners when I have full confirmation that this is what I want to do.

Thanks once again!

2 Peter Shallard - The Shrink for Entrepreneurs June 13, 2010 at 9:41 pm

This is another great article. I can’t remind you guys enough how fantastic this series is – it’s changed my perception toward your blog entirely. I used to check in every few weeks, but now I’m a dedicated RSS subscriber :)

My view is that entrepreneurialism is a huge part of vocation. I think at the core, all Men have the desire for the autonomy of running their own business…. Even if it’s just something on the side of a full time job.

Nothing else allows us to become the “Captain of our fate” quite as much as owning our source of income.

Of course, being an entrepreneur (and working with them), I’m totally biased… but I still think entrepreneurship is key! I haven’t met a man who hasn’t told me that he’d like to “…start up my own thing, one day”

…. it’s just so few of them who make it to “one day”.

3 Matt June 14, 2010 at 4:39 am


Thanks for this series. It has been a breath of fresh air, and something on the top of my mind lately as I have been working and traveling lately. I have all manners of careers including one featured on this site (Jammer driver) but I have yet to be sure if I have found the right mix of my abilities versus my enjoyment.

4 Levin June 14, 2010 at 5:05 am

Thank you so much for this awesome article, in my opinion the best so far in this series!
It has helped me a lot to figure out where I want to go and encouraged me to start going in that direction. I don’t know what you have planned for next week, but it would be interesting to read how it all translates into action to achieve the goals we have set after finding out what we really want to do.

5 Brew June 14, 2010 at 9:44 am

Brilliant! I’m a young man just starting what I believe will be a fitting career. These thoughts encourage me. Thanks, Brett and Kate!

6 Mackenzie June 14, 2010 at 12:18 pm

“Take walks without your iPod.”

Oh man. Here’s something I need to do and yet is so difficult.
Weaning yourself off technology is one long, bumpy road…

7 Gerard June 14, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Thanks for this, Brett and Kate.

8 Pedro June 15, 2010 at 3:08 am

This series of articles has really helped push me to persue my vocation. I have owned my own automotive performance business now for over 6 years but I have done absolutely nothing with it. I filed for the Federal and State Tax ID#’s and then promptly stuffed them inside my desk. i would ocassionally pulling them out to look at them and dream of the possibilities.

After I read the first three parts of this series, I decided it was time to persue my vocation. I listed my first item on Ebay last Friday and I sold it for a $55 profit on Monday! The fire has been lit and these articles have helped me discover what I truly feel is my calling. To all of those on the sidelines, I suggest you jump in feet first. Once you realize just how easy it is to get started, you will never look back.

9 dovo straight razor June 15, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Wow what great information. Really inspired me to go out and really put effort into a vocation. Thanks again Brett & Kate McKay

10 Scott June 16, 2010 at 12:08 am

I like the series.

However, Here’s a hiccup in your equation.

Your True Vocation=Your Gifts+Your Passion

I feel I have many gifts where I’m above average. I also like many things. I can get lost in time on many different subjects doing many different things.

Yet, finding my true vocation has been challenging. Also it changes over time, I found it for a while, but then after a few years, I out grew that vocation.

So, I’m still looking. I experiment with different ideas, and just keep chugging along in jobs/projects that spike interest, pay bills, but the level of passion is not near the top of the mountain for me. Granted, its not near the valley either. For others, it may be a vocation in their view, but in my view, I’ve seen better. I’ve been more passionate.

I also definitely don’t think that for most men they already know what their vocation is. I could be an outcast though.

Thanks again for the series. I’ve love to read more about finding passions/gifts.

11 Men's t-shirts June 16, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I love the idea of “True Vocation=Your Gifts+Your Passion”. Easier said than done obviously…

12 Mike June 21, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I seem to have the same problem Scott does. I’m ADD, and a side effect of being so is a little talent called ‘Hyperfocus’. Whenever something piques my interest, nothing can dissuade me and I can do whatever I’m focused on perfectly, even with little prior knowledge. Thus, I have become quite talented and quite interested in many many MANY different topics and subjects, so finding a vocation is extremely difficult. I had thought I’d settled on being a doctor, my love of science coupled with my passion for helping people plus my gift of intelligence and care for detail seems to be a wise decision, but this whole vocational series is challenging it, making me REALLY think twice. I’m actually rather frightened that it may be the wrong decision, and I detest the idea of going through 8 years of student loans only to discover that it’s not what I want to do. But perhaps that is a good thing, if after all this doubt, at the end I still decide that it’s what I want to do, then I’ll know for certain that it’s the right choice.

Curious indeed. I certainly want to quiet my mind more often, take more time to just reflect on myself.

13 Arbor33 June 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm

I have to agree with Scott and Mike. It seems that in finding a vocation, one is far better off when he isn’t a modern day renaissance man… I suppose that assumption is pessimistic but it seems that in an attempt to narrow down the options, someone who loves many things only finds more doors that are worth exploring. I have had many “jobs” that I thought could be vocations and have found that I performed admirably at each. However, I’m yet to experience the ‘click’. I’m young, and there is plenty of time but I’m growing anxious as the days pass. The methods above of honing in on ones calling are great, but I’m finding that one can never really choose a vocation without experiencing it first. There are just far too many variables scattered about each profession that one cannot uncover via research and hypothetical scenarios.

14 Jay D June 24, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Scott, Mike & Abor33… I agree as well. I am reminded of an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. He was with a guidance counselor after taking an apptitude test. The counselor was resentful and irritated that Malcolm scored highly in everything and said “not everybody gets to have both professional golfer and neurosurgeon on their list.” Malcolms protest is that he doesn’t know how he’s supposed to choose one thing or what he should pick. The counselor misses the point and walks out leaving Malcolm as answerless as he was before.

I’ve always been able to learn things quickly and pick up new activities fast and with little effort be it school or activities. I have no idea what to focus on because like Scott, Mike and Arbor33 stated I am good at a lot of things and I have as many or more interests. The real trick becomes what is actually worth pursuing, what are the sacrifices involved and what is truly important in life. I left a high paying career that worked me 80 hours/week because the sacrifice to family and personal time wasn’t worth it in my opinion. I’ve since decided to pursue a “job” that I can’t say is my life passion, but I don’t dislike it either and derive some satisfaction from it. I don’t have a life passion that’s work centered. A lot of my work and school interests are fleeting and temporary before I become very bored and want a change.

So I chose a “job” that gives me time and flexibility. The time allows me to chase my many varied interests on my time table without relying on those interests for income. The “job” also allows me to move all over the globe to travel in a way that lets me get immersed instead of one week glances here and there. Instead of making my unfulfilling career equal to my whole life and spending all my time doing what I don’t like for income, prestige and impressing others I’ve made my new job a means to fulfilling other passions in life. It certainly can’t be considered my maximum potential because my previous career was so much more difficult and prestigious. However I know many succesful doctors who are failure husbands and failure fathers. Lawyers and CEOs too for that matter. I guess it depends on how success is perceived and what a person is willing to sacrifice for television’s version of success.

Perhaps through this job and exploring many interests I’ll discover something I want to do for passion and income and I’ll be able to call a vocation. This “job” that is so liberating and freeing compared to what I was doing perhaps can be called my vocation, especially as I delve into it I may find I become more invested and passionate about it. Maybe fulfilling other passions outside of work is more satisfying than a vocation that wouldn’t allow fulfilling the other passions. Or maybe I’ll make a vocation out of sharing my travels, experiences and life lessons learned with others somehow. For now I’m going to stop trying so damn hard to hammer the square peg into the round hole and enjoy life, interests, family and travel for a while.

15 John June 24, 2010 at 9:41 pm

The problem for me is that I’m not passtionate about anything consistently. I have many things I like, but I alternate between them every few months. Even my favorite hobies get boring and I have to take a break from them for a while. This translates into either having very unstable work, jumping from job to job (which means no chance for major advancement), or having one job that you only like a month or two out of the year (which means spending most of your time miserable). Any advice?

16 Sam Cannon July 10, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Maslow’s SELF-actualization.

17 Thomas Huang December 12, 2013 at 1:00 am

Hello Brett and Kate McKay,

Reading the entire series has truly touched my very being. I am extremely grateful for this because I am at a point in my life where I feel quite lost and reading this series has truly sparked something inside of me and I hope you don’t mind that I quote some of the things I’ve read here (I will give proper citations) in a blog post that I am working on.

Thank you again.



18 Michelle Enos February 8, 2014 at 10:50 pm

If my gifts are:

Building relationships
Seeing good in others
Being positive no matter what

And my passions are:

Helping others
Health care

What is my vocation?

19 Steven March 30, 2014 at 7:38 am

I think part of the problem for men – at least for me – is that we’re quick to bury what we know our vocation is under a pile of “Well, you have more talent than THAT.” Where “that” is whatever it is you wish to be doing with your life, and where “more talent” really means “you aren’t doing what I want you to do.”

I am a huge disappointment to a lot of people who were “friends” growing up. I’m currently serving in the US Navy (a personal belief about obligations of being a citizen), but when I get out, I intend to go back to being a chef. I spent a few years bouncing between desk jobs because I have brains and people claimed I should be using them in white-collar work, but I was miserable. As I described it to an acquaintance who challenged me one day, “Being chained to a desk made me feel like my soul was dying. Working in a kitchen, seeing people smile and relax and feel better just through the introduction of a good meal into their lives – that makes my soul sing.” But a lot of people who know me say that being a chef is throwing my life away because it’s not a “rich” job, or a “career” (I beg to differ). It’s not “using my intelligence.”

To them I say: I am going to be what I was meant to be. I am done chasing work that I don’t want to do and spend every off minute running away from. I am done playing to expectations, others’ hopes and dreams. I am going to be me, and nobody will take that away from me again. And yes, being a chef is a job, but I believe it’s more than that – a chef doesn’t just cook food. A chef is a worker, a mentor, a team player, a leader, and someone who – even if they were removed from the kitchen and could never go back – would still immerse themselves in giving others joy with their knowledge, their drive, their passion for making people smile and feel uplifted and happy.

I hope every person here can find what makes their soul sing, too.

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