Nearly everyone has experienced the sense of being nudged and prompted to take certain actions. These intuitive hints can spur us to do big things like change jobs, or smaller things like text a friend.
My guest today says that these are callings, and that if we don’t answer them, they’ll continue to rememerge and can haunt us til the day we die. His name is Gregg Levoy and he’s the author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. We begin our conversation discussing what exactly a calling is and why it’s not necessarily the same thing as a vocation. Gregg then shares how callings come to people, why they’re sometimes unpleasant and challenging, and what you can do to attune yourself to their signals. Gregg then shares different ways people go about figuring out their calling, including rites of passage, traveling, art, and community. We get into how you figure out if something you think is a calling is actually a calling or not, and the idea that while every calling demands a response, that response can be negotiated. We end our conversation discussing what happens when your calling ends in what looks like failure.
- What is a calling?
- The difference between calling and vocation
- The various natures and channels that callings take
- What’s the benefit of being attuned to these callings?
- Can callings be secular in nature?
- Are callings always pleasant? Do they always feel good?
- How do you attune yourself to hearing life’s callings?
- The ways in which busyness disrupt your self-reflection
- How crises can disrupt our life in positive ways
- Can you invoke calls?
- What about dreams? Do they have any meaning? What about folks who pass them off as “woo woo”?
- The power of rites of passage
- Why every man needs quiet and solitude (often out in nature)
- How restlessness can point you in new and better directions
- How to discern if callings are “true” or delusions
- What happens when you say no to a call?
- Negotiating multiple callings
- The role of community in our callings
- What can listeners do today to start tapping into their callings?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM series on finding your calling
- A Man’s Need for Ritual
- Expect Great Things — The Mystical Life of Henry David Thoreau
- Sunday Firesides: Expect Great Things
- The Rationality of Emotions
- The Hobbit
- Jumpstart Your Journaling: A 31-Day Challenge
- Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli
- Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
- The Soul’s Code by James Hillman
- How to Create Your Own Rites of Passage
- The Rites of Manhood
- The School of Lost Borders
- Theodore Roosevelt the Rancher
- Lessons on Solitude From an Antarctic Explorer
- How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do
- How to Be an Entrepreneur Without Quitting Your Day Job
- Gregg’s website
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Nearly everyone has experienced the sense of being nudged and prompt to take certain actions. These intuitive hints can spur us to do big things like change jobs or smaller things like text a friend. My guest today says these nudges are callings and if we don’t answer them, will continue to reemerge and can hunt us till the day we die. His name is Gregg Levoy, and he’s the author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. We begin our conversation discussing what exactly a calling is and why it’s not necessarily the same thing as a vocation.
Gregg then shares how callings come to people, why they’re sometimes unpleasant and challenging and what you can do to attune yourself to their signals. Gregg then shares different ways people go about finding their calling, including rites of passages, traveling, art and community. We get into how you can figure out if something you think is a calling is actually a calling, and the idea that, well, every calling demands a response, that response can be negotiated. We end our conversation discussing what happens when your calling in what looks like failure. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/callings. Gregg joins me now via clearcast.io. Gregg Levoy, welcome to the show.
Gregg Levoy: Thanks so much.
Brett McKay: So you’ve got a book called Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. It’s all about callings. I think people are familiar with this idea of a call, but just so we can run all on the same page, how do you define a calling? Is it the same thing as a vocation? Is it it had to do with your career? What is it calling to you?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, actually, I broaden it beyond vocation because the word vocation just originally meant to be called. So it doesn’t refer specifically to work and I don’t refer to that that way in the book. Callings to me are all of those signs and signals and urgings, promptings, that we get really in the course of any given day or week or month that essentially tell us what it’s going to take to stay true to true north, whatever that is. Whether this is what direction to take at a certain intersection or what to do with your life. But that’s really what it is. It’s all the signs. So I’m pretty secular and pluralistic about all this. It’s not just waiting for the great big calling, which I see people do all the time and missing all the smaller ones that are right at their feet. And frankly, I think of those as the fire drills to the bigger ones anyway.
Brett McKay: So the way you describe callings in the book is that it may be to do something like go back to school or have a child or to be something like be more creative or be more courageous, and callings can come to you for big things like changing your job or for little things like a nudge text a friend or call your mother, and they can come to you in all kinds different ways.
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, one of the things that’s always impressed me in this line of work is the sheer number of channels that callings come to us in. So yes, an intuition to call your mother, a passion, a gift, a dream, I mean as an a night dream, body symptoms, there’s just a lot of different channels. Just the section of the bookstore you always walk into first when you walk into a bookstore, in a sense, that’s a calling. Or a song lyric you can’t get out of your head for weeks. There’s a woman named, what is her name? She wrote The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler. She says, I can always tell what my husband is really thinking by the tunes that he absentmindedly hums in the car. So in a sense, that’s a calling as well. And that’s the level at which I’m encouraging people to look at this stuff is at the very subtle level. Not looking for the burning bush, but looking for the little signals that come in the course of any given day. They tell you what’s true and what’s not.
Brett McKay: And what’s the benefit of listening or being attuned to this stuff and acting on it? What do you think was the result of, “Oh, I’m humming this tune all the time. That must mean…” What happens with that?
Gregg Levoy: Well, the first time I ever noticed that particular one in my own life, I was about to quit my job out of frustration. This was a job as a reporter at a newspaper, and for about a week, right around that period of time, I kept hearing this one line from The Wizard of Oz day and night. If I only had a brain. And what I realized after hearing this for a week was, “Oh, I’m not thinking this through.” So Joseph Campbell, we love to invoke Joseph Campbell. He’s the guy who popularized the hero’s journey and gave us the bumper sticker, follow your bliss. He said, and this is his quote, the great sacrilege in terms of the soul’s integrity is what he called inadvertent, which pretty much means not paying attention. Not being alert, not being awake, bumbling along and stumbling along through your life and not really having the receivers turned on.
And so I think that’s what can happen when we just don’t pay attention. Our life can have a weird failure to it, a sense of being out of whack with yourself, a sense of not being in integrity with yourself. And I don’t mean that is a moral issue, I mean it is a psychological issue just being in integrity with who you are. And I think that’s one of the things that can happen when we just don’t pay attention to the calls that come to us is we’re out of whack with ourselves.
Brett McKay: Well, you said you’re approaching this idea of calling from a secular point of view and I think most people are familiar with the spiritual point of view from, you talk about… you gave them the example in the prime example of a calling story, Jonah and the whale. And that’s something that people use in Christianity and Judaism as an idea of heeding God’s call. It’s like, okay, if you’re looking at calling from a secular point of view, where do these calls come from or what’s going on when you see a call? What do you think is going on there?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, well, I think that’s going to depend from person to person on what your belief system is. It is certainly not required that you have a belief in divinity or supernatural beings or God. It’s not required, and people define the source of calls depending on what their beliefs are. People who are say Christians in the sense, I think you mean it is, yes, they will assume that calls come from God. But those of us who are more secular about it, like myself, think they come from the soul, if you will, or the spirit or the unconscious, which seems to have, I guess no matter how you define this, they seem to have an image of the way we’re supposed to be inside us somewhere and constantly working toward it by sending us these clues on how to stay in integrity with that vision.
But yeah, the whole notion of callings is pretty much brined in religious overtones and it’s tough to get away from it. And in fact, when I’ve gone into corporate settings to do the callings work, I’ve literally been instructed not to even use the word. Don’t use the word callings in here. Re-language it. Talk about employee engagement or matching up the personal sense of mission with the corporate mission, things like that. So I think this notion of a calling probably can turn some people off just because it’s got all these religious overtones, but frankly, I’m a word guy. So the word religion just means to reconnect. Religare as in ligaments, means to rebond, and that’s the point of a calling. No matter what your belief is, is about reconnecting you to your, I suppose, your deepest self, your truest self.
Brett McKay: The picture I got maybe, and correct me if I’m wrong, but the impression I got, the way you’re describing callings, it was it’s a way to look at your life that can provide meaning and significance and it helps you make decisions not only on a cognitive level, but on an emotional level as well.
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, yeah, that’s absolutely accurate. Callings require both. They require the cognitive and the feeling approach. My dad for instance, he was a scientist. He used to say the way that we work is we gather a ton of data, all the data we can possibly pull together, and then we make a decision based on what he called informed intuition. And it’s the same with callings. I’m a big believer in just turning all those receivers on getting the data that comes through dreams or body symptoms or synchronicities or the books that mysteriously make their way onto your night table or the opportunities that unfold in your life, and then connecting dots.
Getting all this data, but also so many of the people that I’ve interviewed over the years, when I ask them, “How did you know that this was the right path? Of all the possible paths you could have taken in life, that this was the right one for you?” A lot of people said, “I don’t know. It just felt right.” And that’s really significant to me. This is something they can’t necessarily explain to somebody, but they can’t deny it either. It just feels right. So both of these brain functions are active when it comes to calling, at least ideally.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I’ve noticed in my own life, especially when you’re making hard decisions about what to do next with your life, and you try to sit down and think through it. And you just pour through the data, you do all the research and even then, you still can’t come to a decision. So sometimes you just, you have to go with your gut or sometimes you just like, “I’m going to rely on, I’m going to open up a book or I read this passage.” And that act, it’s a way to get you moving in a direction you should, maybe not necessarily should go, but it gets you moving and that you probably wouldn’t have done if you just sat there and just try to keep thinking about it.
Gregg Levoy: Right. Yeah, exactly. And the brain is a terrific tool, but it isn’t the only tool. There’s lots of ways of knowing stuff, dreams, the unconscious self, the body.
Brett McKay: A calling is always pleasant because I think when people think like, “Oh, I found my calling.” And they just feel great. Is that always the case?
Gregg Levoy: Oh, no. No, unequivocally, no. In fact, Campbell used to say that phase one of responding to a calling is running the hell from it. And there’s a reason for that. I’m thinking of the scene that sticks in my mind that really captures that so beautifully was from a book called The Hobbit. Most people are probably familiar with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Well, this was the prequel, and this is seen at the very beginning of it where the hero of that story, Bilbo Baggins, is sitting peacefully smoking a pipe in his little house in the Shire, and he gets a knock on the front door, and it’s the wizard Gandalf who says, “I’m looking for somebody to share an adventure.” And Bilbo Baggins’s response to that is absolutely classic universal inevitable response to a calling. He says, “Oh, no, we’re just playing quiet village folk. We have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things make you late for dinner.” Classic phase one response.
So this idea that a calling is pleasant is not really born out by history or human nature because a calling by definition is a disruption in the status quo. It really is. It’s a… I went to Morocco a couple of years ago, it was first time I’d ever been in a Muslim country, and I literally got to hear the daily calls that come five times a day from the criers up on top of the minarets, and they’re literally calling people away from the daily grind. Whatever that is, tending to the donkeys or making copper pots or something, literally you have to turn your back on the status quo and turn toward Mecca to pray.
And I think callings are doing the same things to people. They’re calling you away from the familiar and to face the unknown. And, no, that’s not pleasant because I used to have a map on the wall in my office for years and years. I lost it in the last move, but this was an old map. And we’ve all seen these maps at the edges of the known world. The old cartographers used to draw monsters and dragons and just off shore, there’d be a ship whose mast is entwined with the tentacles of some giant squid or something. And I had that thing on my wall to remind me that I wasn’t a chicken for being afraid of the unknown. And I put it up there when I quit employment for self employment because that was what I was called to do, and I just to remind me that a calling pulls me out of terra cognito into terra incognito, and that stuff is just anthropologically deep in human beings to be afraid of the unknown.
Brett McKay: Well, you’re going back to Joseph Campbell. When people think about when you accept a call, it means following your bliss and you think, “Oh, bliss, it’s happy, wonderful.” But even Joseph Campbell said, no, following your bliss off it isn’t blissful the way you think it’s going to be blissful.
Gregg Levoy: You’re right. If you follow your bliss, you’ll have your bliss, whatever that happens to be, whether it’s being an entrepreneur or being a painter or being a rock climber or whatever, but that’s all that’s guaranteed, he said. He said, “You’re going to be tested, you’re going to be challenged.” So this idea of the bumper sticker that says, follow your bliss, it’s not the whole story. That’s all. That’s simply not the whole story. And callings can even… they have not just their challenges, but they can even have a tragic dimension. Because what if you are called to quit your job and your partner is freaked out by the prospect of you not having a regular income anymore, or what if you are called to leave the town you live in and all your friends. You know what I’m saying?
There’s risk inherent in pretty much any calling, and that’s part of the plan. I think this notion that if you follow your callings, the doors will swing open, the bluebirds of happiness will alight light on your shoulders and all this, is fanciful. It just simply doesn’t work out that way in a lot of cases and people have to have the intestinal fortitude for what the calling is really demanding of them. And it is a demand. In my experience as well as my observation, it’s a demand. It’s not going to go away if you ignore it. You see, that’s the thing. Callings are hard but not following them is hard too. And I figure you might as well suffer in the service of doing what you love than not because there’s going to be suffering either way.
Brett McKay: Well, how do you attune yourself to callings? Because it’s so easy to go throughout your life. You’re busy, you got your nose to the grindstone just doing day to day stuff where that’s… This idea of a call, you might get it, but you’re just ignoring it. How do you attune yourself so you can be more receptive to them?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, well, one of the things that really struck me over and over when I was interviewing people for the book is just about every one of them told me that they had some kind of self reflective practice. And that really jumped out at me. And these are the people who were really receptive to their lives and responsive to their lives. And they told me that they had some kind of practice, and the whole point of it was essentially to strike up a conversation with themselves ongoingly, and that seems critical. In other words, a call is something you hear, so you need to find ways of hearing it. And a daily journaling practices, a practice was really common. Dream interpretation was really common. People said artwork done in the service of self discovery as opposed to just exhibition is another way. Regular short retreats, regular intimate conversation, contemplative reading, for some people, therapy is a self reflective practice belonging to any group whose members get together for the purpose of waking up.
So men’s groups or women’s groups or spiritual groups, mastermind groups, that kind of thing. So this attunement question is absolutely critical, and I have to share this because obviously we’re having this conversation and we’re going to be listened to by people who are modern technologically oriented, busy, et cetera. I read a story in The New Yorker just a couple of years ago. It was written by a guy named Adam Gopnik, and he’s talking about his three year old daughter who’s got an imaginary playmate named Charlie Ravioli. And that’s actually what you’d Google if you want to read the story. And it’s a hell of a commentary on the culture we’ve created. And what he’s saying is that there’s nothing unusual about a three year old having an imaginary playmate, except this one is always too busy to play with her.
So she’s calling up Charlie Ravioli on her toy cell phone and always having to leave him messages. And a month later, her dad, the author, says that she’s now leaving messages with somebody named Laurie. He says, “Honey, who’s Laurie?” And in her three year old fashion, she explains, “This is Charlie Ravioli’s assistant. This is somebody he has apparently hired to return his phone calls for him.” And I’m mentioning this because the compulsion toward busyness is a pretty good definition of workaholism. And calls have a tough time getting through when they get nothing but busy signals, thus the need for these self reflective practices, because I think that even if all of your busyness is in the service of worthy and noble causes and callings, I think when the means to those ends is in an addictive process.
I think the end result is pretty much a loss of soul and spirit and whatnot. A depletion in some way. So I just wanted to mention that in terms of this your question about self reflective practices and attunement, because we are a busy distracted culture, and calls will have a tough time getting through to you when they hit that wall… When they have Charlie Ravioli constantly picking up the phone instead of you. So I just thought I’d mentioned that.
Brett McKay: Something also that happens with callings is that one of the ways that we are reminded that there is a call or started tuning ourselves to that is when something is disrupted in our life. It could be a job loss, a divorce, a death of a family member or a friend. Those little… Those things they knock you off kilter of normal life and you start thinking about those deeper issues, and that’s when you become more attuned to those things too.
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot to be said for good old fashioned crisis or like you said, a disruption. Yeah, those, in my opinion, those are callings. That this is why I expand my definition of what is a calling so that people aren’t looking up at the sky waiting to see the bony finger of God. They’re looking at their life and going, “Ah, what is this calling for from me? What is this job loss or this relationship loss or this, even this sudden windfall?” It could be any kind of an event, but I think that the point is to look at your life through the lens of a calling and say, “What is being called for here? What kind of response is this asking for from me? What do I need to do to reconfigure my life or make a course correction or something?”
And I just think that that’s, at least for me, it’s been a really useful way to live is to look at it through the lens of anything and everything is a potential call, and so I’m setting up a call and response relationship to life, so I’m not just bumbling along and stumbling along and doing the inadvertence thing,
Brett McKay: Right, that’s useful. It’s one thing I’ve read from other people similar to that is this idea whenever you experience friction or some disruption in your life or some inconvenience, ask yourself, what’s life trying to… what’s life asking of me right now? What is it?
Gregg Levoy: Right.
Brett McKay: And people think like, “Well, life’s not asking anything. It’s life. It’s just existence does.” But looking through the world that that way it gives you some meaning and coherence to your life that allows you to move forward.
Gregg Levoy: Right. Yeah, absolutely. I remember seeing an episode of The Simpsons, to go from the sublime to the absurd here, and I remember hearing Homer Simpson say, “Oh, life is just a bunch of stuff that happened.” And that’s one way to look at it, but friction. That’s a fascinating one too, because I think that’s one of the ways that callings make their way into our lives is where is there friction in your life? Where does head argue with heart? Where does passion bump up against security? Where do you fight with people? What are you fighting for? Where does walk not exactly match talk?
So there’s something to be said for that as a form of calling is because it’s like out in the natural world, friction happens where changes are taking place. So there’s, what are the changes that are trying to happen or trying to come through? What’s trying to emerge in your life? That in itself I think is a good question to ask yourself. What is my gut feeling about what’s trying to happen in my life right now? What wants to emerge? What wants some air time? And it’s often really just right below the surface for a lot of people as long as they stop long enough to ask the question or listen in.
Brett McKay: Do calls come out of the blue like when you’re at least expected or can you invoke them?
Gregg Levoy: Invoke them? Yeah, who was it? Jungian analyst named James Hillman, wrote a great book called The Soul’s Code, he said, when you want to know what your soul really wants, turn to your images. By which he meant primarily art and dreams, and both of them are great ways of invoking calls. And for instance, asking for dream guidance when you fall asleep. I had to train myself. I didn’t have great dream recall for years, and then over course about a month, I trained myself to get it and it wasn’t really all that hard. I just, as I was falling asleep, I had to just specifically ask for dream guidance. Say I really needs some guidance right here. I promise if I get woken up at 3:00 AM with a dream, I’ll write it down even though I’ve got a meeting at 7:00 AM. And there’s something about that setting up that little trust piece that brings them on, and that’s one way of invoking calls is to go is to ask for them. Is to ask for dream guidance.
Again, art that’s done for the purpose of self discovery is another way to invoke them. Drawing. For instance, I belong to a little mastermind group and we get together and we use the creative arts to help people move their lives forward. So somebody will talk about some challenge that they’re dealing with and then we’ll all just spontaneously make art, right on the spot. Could be a drawing, could be writing a poem, it could be a collage, could be anything, and just feed back to the person what their challenge feels like to us as channeled through art. So that’s another way of doing some invoking work is using the creative arts.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, some people will be listening to this and like, “Wow, dream, dream recall, dream train. That sounds kind of woo woo.” What would you say to those guys as these are the skeptics?
Gregg Levoy: Sure. Yeah, woo woo. Well, what is woo woo? It’s something outside of the box for us. It’s something that’s maybe a little more feeling oriented than brain oriented, but in the research I did for the Callings book, every religion on earth agrees that the dreams, and I’m talking about night dreams because daydreams are ambitions. That’s a whole nother ballgame. Night dreams are one of the primary channels through which the gods and the goddesses have historically spoken to the mortals. And we’re sleeping through most of the time because dreams are just, they’re data. They’re just data. They’re telling us things that we really know, telling us things we really feel or really believe, but unconscious. It’s not quite conscious yet in dreams. If we’re willing to work with them, they have a lot of information and a lot of consequences if we ignore that information because they’ll just keep coming back.
Everybody’s had experiences of having recurring dreams or certainly recurring themes in their dreams. And I understand the thing about woo woo. My God, I live in Santa Cruz, California, and I’m a New Yorker. And this is the land of woo woo, but woo woo just means the things you can’t necessarily explain with logic or science or reasoning. And I think to really honor callings, you’ve got to expand your toolkit. Am I using all the right manly metaphors here?
Brett McKay: Right, yeah, yeah. It’s okay. That’s great.
Gregg Levoy: But you have to expand the toolkit and be willing to look at dreams because they’re just the information that you’re not conscious of during the day and they have a lot here. Here’s an example, I was given an opportunity at one point to turn the calling, spoke into a reality based television show. I was flown out to Los Angeles, wined and dined by a couple of execs and an attorney from HBO who were interested in this project, and they even took me clothes’ shopping, which I thought was presumptuous at the least. But the night before I was supposed to sign on the dotted line, I had a dream about those three people that were taking me around and interested in the project. And I dreamed that all three of them were wearing costume jewelry and patent leather shoes.
And I turned that project down because what it said to me is I don’t trust him. Fake leather shoes, patent, costume jewelry, and this decision made my more hot blooded entrepreneurial friends go nuts. You did what? You turned down what based on a dream? Were you crazy? But having done dream works since high school, I learned that this is something I could trust. I didn’t trust these three and I turned the project down and I’ve never regretted it since. So some people may call dreams woo woo, but that was real data to me, and helped me make an important career decision.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about different ways in detail about how you can invoke callings in your life. When you talk about this rite of passages, oh, what is it about a rite of passage that can help people uncover their callings in life?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, well, one of the rites of passages that I’ve done over the years is a vision quest. A lot of people have heard of vision quests, and this is essentially a rite of passage that pretty much every culture at some point in history has come up with to send one of their individuals out of the village into the wilderness to cry for a vision. That’s actually a phrase that they use in this rite of passage, crying for a vision, and then bringing that vision back to the tribe. So I’ve gone on a couple of these, including a 12 day vision quest in Death Valley, and this is a brilliant and brilliantly designed rite of passage. And it was facilitated by an outfit somewhere here in California called the School of Lost Borders, which I just love.
And they design it so that the first four days as you’re explaining it to the small group of people, you’re with maybe a dozen people, why you’re there, why have you chosen to step outside your life and try to look back in through the shop window from a distance. And it’s really important to get off site for some of these rites of passages. Get out of dodge, get away from your desk, get away from the roles and responsibilities that define who you are and get out there into the wilderness. And the second four days is a solo fast. You pick a spot somewhere out in the desert and you cry for a vision. And the last four days is return where you sit around the fire again with those 12 people and explain what happened to you out there and what it means. So this rite of passage is great for reorienting people.
And what was interesting to me was the reactions my friends had to hearing that I was going to be taking this vision quest. Just about every one of them wanted to book lunch with me the minute I got back and hear about it. And that was really significant to me because what I sensed was that a lot of people are feeling like there’s something they need to do with their lives that they’re not doing. They’re not letting themselves or getting themselves to do, and they need a kick. And a rite of passage like this is a kick in the butt. And they wanted to know because I think they were hungry to make a change in their lives and were afraid to do it.
And so I spent weeks after I got back telling the story to people who were absolutely wrapped. I could just tell they weren’t even eating their food. And so I think that there’s something that speaks to people about these rites of passage is as a way to find what your calling is, what your vision is, what your work in the world is supposed to be, what your gifts are, what your contributions are, and this is stuff that it seems to me everybody wants to know is like what am I here for? What is my place in this whole scheme of things? What is my contribution? What is my legacy? And I think these tools can be very useful, especially if you know that you are at a place where you need a kick in the butt. And I’ve been in that place a number of times.
Brett McKay: It’s interesting. I’ve read a lot of books about great famous men from history, and a lot of them have had rites of passage they did for themselves, but I think unknowingly, and then where they get out of the regular life and get out, usually it’s out to nature. One that comes to mind is Theodore Roosevelt. His wife and mother died on the same night and this devastated him. He was in active in political life in New York. He decides after that he just quit political life and he started a ranch out in the Dakota’s, in the Badlands, and just he wanted to get away from things. And then after that ranch failed, but something about that experience out there in nature away from New York, that energized him for his next phase of his political life where he eventually became president in the United States.
Gregg Levoy: Right. Yeah, I understand that impulse. I did my own version of that when I left city life for country life for the first time in my life. So I also grew up in New York and pretty much lived within honking distance of big cities my entire life. Washington, DC, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Tucson, Albuquerque, and at one point, I moved to a little town north of Taos, New Mexico, little town called Arroyo Seco, which means dry creek in Spanish. And it freaked me out big time, but I moved there I think because I knew that I needed to hear something that I could not hear with all the distractions of the city. And moving there, I literally slept 12 hours a day for the first nine months that I was there, I’m not exaggerating, and a friend of mine said I was detoxing from a lifetime of just being immersed in the prevailing zeitgeists, but what began to come to me when I got that quiet out in the desert was the Callings book.
And I don’t know that that would have come to me if I had stayed in the cities. I don’t know that I was listening at a deep enough level that I could have heard that book. And now I really understand why there’s a whole spiritual tradition about moving to the desert. Living in the desert, the whole desert fathers tradition. I really get that now. So yeah, I think there are times when you sense that something is trying to come through and it isn’t. And years are going by and you’re feeling the sense of deep restlessness. Not just like the little, I need another dopamine hit kind of restlessness, I mean that deep soul restlessness. And sometimes you will do something like this. You’ll take yourself really out of the box and give yourself one of those and now for something completely different kind of experiences, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need and you know you need it. And that’s one of the reasons I recommend things like vision quests or a pilgrimage or a retreat or something that just takes you out of status quo and lets you listen down deep.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, traveling or going into a journey is another common way people find their calling. Like, “I’m going to take this. I’m going to go on this big trip so I can find myself.” But the criticism that people invoke at or throw at that as well, you’re not really finding yourself, you just trying to run away from the problems you have. Fears that are facing them. So how can you ensure that you’re doing these things like with vision quest or pilgrimage or you went on a trip, how can you ensure that you’re actually doing that to find that calling instead of just running away from your problems?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, that’s a great question. Yeah, it’s one of the accusations that’s leveled against the restless is like are you running towards something or away from something? And I guess every guy’s got to discern that for himself. Whether whatever I’m engaged in at the moment, is it moving towards something or just distracting myself? The word by the way, it means to be pulled apart. And life of course is full of distractions. So it’s the same with the calling too is how do you know when you’re… the material that you need to know hasn’t made its way to you yet and you need to continue doing more research and more listening and more self reflection and more attunement or whether you’re just plain old procrastinating? And that’s something that take some time to just tease apart. That takes some time. But just to ask the question, I think is an important part of it.
It’s like, “Am I taking this vision quest just because it’ll be another notch on my exploratory belt or am I really hungry to learn something about myself?” And I just think just the question itself is possibly halfway to clarity about that, but it’s a good thing to ask. I’m a writer, I’m used to having this dilemma where when am I done doing research on a piece and I just need to sit my butt down and write the thing, and when, humbly I’d not completed all the research? And I’ve noticed that sometimes doing research is a way of avoiding sitting down and writing, which is way harder than researching in most cases. And especially if you’re doing anything like first person writing as opposed to third person writing, which really is the difference between confessing and preaching. It’s scary to sit down and actually write or for that matter, to do your real work in the world, to follow your real callings.
So this is a great question is to ask, but I think restlessness has a bad rap. One of the people that I interviewed for the book said, interesting word, rest less. So if you’re experiencing restlessness, what wants to move and where does it want to go? Which I love as a reframe of restlessness because we just think of it as escapism and it’s… Oh, in fact, I interviewed a guy years ago when I worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer as a reporter. He was a professor at Ohio Wesleyan named Bernard Marchand, and he came up with the 10 commandments of creativity. And one of them was restlessness. In other words, never quite being satisfied with the status quo as it is always wanting to improve and tinker and explore and get into novelty, and I really get that. So I just think it’s important to sometimes take the pejorative off the word restlessness and ask yourself, what wants to move and where does it want to go?
Brett McKay: Well, speaking to this issue of trying to figure out whether that thing you’re doing, whether that trip you’re doing is going to something or away from something, and related question that comes up with callings is, is this actually a true calling or am I just doing something and diluting myself and calling it a calling because it makes me feel better to call it that even though it might not be? So how do you figure that out?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, that’s the… I guess, that’s what spiritual communities call discernment. And, yeah, that can be sticky, tricky stuff, and sometimes requires patients on the order of years for people to really clarify, but I ask everybody this question, like I said, is like, “How did you know that this was right for you?” And the responses that people have given me over the years are so incredibly consistent that I literally list them because it’s that easy. People said they know, they knew a call was true because it kept coming back. That was one. It just year after year, it just kept coming back. They knew that it was true when it came at them from a lot of different directions, not just an idea they got one day or a occupation they picked out of an occupational handbook or something. There was a clustering effect. It was coming through their dreams or their body or their little synchronicities that happen or the things that they fantasize about while they’re at work. Just, there’s a clustering effect, and you have to connect dots.
People said they knew a call was true because it scared them. That was always interesting to me. One guy said, “I figure if a path feels really safe and easy, there is something suspect. But if it scares me, it tells me at the very least I’m close to something vital.” And I thought that was an interesting take on it. Let’s see. Discernment, people said they knew a call was true because their enthusiasm for it sustained itself over a good period of time. Didn’t just flag after a month or something or a semester, in the case of college kids, and they found that they even had a certain, what’s the word? Affinity for all the mundane stuff that’s involved in pulling a calling off in the world. And they all have it.
No matter how exalted or glamorous or exciting a calling feels, every one of them has got a version of licking stamps and stuffing envelopes, but people said like if you’ve ever been in a band or performed in a play or something, you know this. That the amount of time you spend rehearsing compared to performing is like 90-10 or 80-20 or something. And the fact that people are willing to practice the same lines or the same lyrics or the same chords for thousands of hours for the chance to take it public attention at the time, it says, I think it’s largely passion that explains people’s willingness to put up with that equation. That to me is significant. Your willingness to abide by all of the practice is a diagnostic that you’re on the right path.
So that’s another piece in the discernment puzzle, but ultimately, everybody said this, “The only way I figured this out was I had to try it out. I had to go down the path of certain way, even when I wasn’t sure it was the path and take field notes.” So this ultimately is what it comes down to for discernment. Take a step toward something that feels like it’s a calling to you, whether it’s in the vocational arena or the relationship arena or the creative arena, and look at the feedback your life immediately gives you. If you’re better or worse, you feel more awake or more asleep, you take another step, but what is your body telling you? Take another step, what are your dreams at night telling you? You take another step, what are your friends telling you? It’s like, “Wow, Brett, I haven’t seen you this excited in years. What’s going on?” So there’s this feedback loop that you set up that really over time helps you clarify.
Brett McKay: What happens when you say no to a call? So calls doesn’t… I think it’s there’s a response involved on your part, and that response could be yes or it could be no. In your own life and just really talking to people who’ve rejected calls, what typically happens?
Gregg Levoy: Well, for one thing, they don’t go away. That’s absolutely clear. Callings will eventually turn into wake up calls. That’s another thing that I’ve seen happen over and over in my own life as well. So they start off as tap on the shoulder, whisper to the ear kind of thing, and they escalate in volume and occasionally, violence the longer we ignore them. Frankly, I think a lot of illness is a result of people not paying attention to the signals that are coming from their own life, not just through the body but through the heart and soul, if you will. So, and I don’t mean this to scare anybody, but my experience rubber meets the road, is that if I ignore callings, they keep coming back again and again. And we’ll try to pop through the big ones especially, until the last possible minute of life.
Brett McKay: Well, something you also pointed out in the book is that sometimes refusing a call might be a necessary step for you to actually accept the call.
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that because part of the beauty of callings is they are negotiable. This is not like a divine subpoena, they’re negotiable and you have a vote. So I’m taking off a guy that I interviewed who was a corporate executive, and his real passion was abstract painting. And so what he did to negotiate that call is he wanted a family, he wanted a house, he wanted money, and so he stuck with a job for 25 years, but he also painted on the side that entire time. So ultimately, this is the point of callings. Get it in your life to some degree sooner than later. To some degree. So that’s what he did. He did his painting on the side for 25 years, and when he finally, he had the kids and he had the house, and when he was ready to shift his life, the painting was up and running. He had contacts with gallery owners, he had a body of work. He had confidence in that calling, and so he was able to make this shift.
And 25 years is a long time to wait to do something that you’d rather be doing full time, but he got to do… He had several callings. And that’s what people often have to negotiate too, is there’s a call to have a family and there’s a call to be an abstract painter. They don’t necessarily go well together, but he was able to do both. And so I think there’s a way to work that out so that you get the bliss in your life to some degree and say yes to it to some degree because it’s not, callings are not necessarily asking you to flip the whole circuit. To turn the whole thing upside down and quit your job and what not. It’s saying, respond. That’s all a calling is, is a request for a response. And even a small yes is still a yes, and it’s better than a no and it’s definitely, better than a maybe. I say that because maybe can just steal decades out of your life.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a good point that you don’t necessarily have to go all in on your callings. I think when people hear a calling, they think, “Oh, I’ve got to quit my job, I’ve got to sell the house and move.” Not necessarily so. You can keep your job as an insurance adjuster-
Gregg Levoy: Sure.
Brett McKay: Because it provides a living for your family, allows you to fulfill that calling to have a family, but you do something on the side that calls to you.
Gregg Levoy: Right, and I get it. A job is by definition work. You’re often tired at the end of the day and the idea of going down into the painting studio or out to the work shed or whatever, it can be challenging when it’s just easier to flip on the TV or any of the multitudes of social media and all that, but the fact is you don’t have to quit your job. That’s not the point of a calling. A calling was simply to say yes to something that wants expression in your life. That’s all. It wants expression and give it some opportunity to express itself. If you’ve ever been in a grocery store and been standing on a checkout line and seen a parent with a little kid who is tugging on their pants, “Daddy, daddy, daddy.” They don’t stop until daddy bends down in and gives them attention. Callings are really exactly the same. They just want our attention, they want some way to express themselves and they’re not going to stop tugging on our pants until we do.
Brett McKay: What role does community or other people play in our callings? We often think of calling it’s a very personal internal thing, but your decisions affect other people and other people are going to say things about your decision. So what role does that have?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, yeah, callings are community property. You are the one who’s called, but you’re not the only one that’s going to be effected by what choice you make around that, especially if you have a family or run a company or are in a men’s group. It’s going to affect all those communities. So, in fact, I had a young woman come up to me at a university some years ago and say she loved the presentation, but it’s culturally biased. She said, because you come from an individualistic culture, she said. I’m from the Philippines. I come from a collectivist culture where decisions like this have to be made sometimes with a whole village in mind. So there’s something to be said for looking at the impact you following your calling is going to have on your community, but here’s another take on that.
You alone are called, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got to figure it out all by yourself. And I’m always encouraging people to draw on their community to help them clarify what they should do. And so I’m talking about anything from having a personal board of advisors, which is really, it sounds more exalted than I mean it too. That’s just a bunch of people you pull together from your circle of acquaintances to meet once a month. They come to your house on Tuesday evening, you cook them a meal, and then you sit around for two hours and they ask you questions, and they give you feedback, and they give you homework to help you clarify. And I’ve been on both sides of this board of advisors thing. Another one is the Quaker tradition, it’s called a clearness committee, which you can just Google, and this is again, a bunch of people you pull together to help you clarify a call is literally what they were designed for a hundred years ago by the Quakers.
And so you’re sitting around, you’re the focal person, there’s 10 people sitting around you and there’s exactly one rule, questions only. No advice giving, no fixing problem solving or any of that, only asking questions, which is murder. And people will often try to couch advice as a question by saying things like, “Don’t you think?” Technically, yes, that’s a question, but it’s a leading question. So there’s another example. A brainstorming session as another example. So ways of pulling community together to help you clarify what the call is and how to respond to it is, I just think don’t isolate, is my point. Don’t isolate. We come from a rugged individualist culture, and especially for guys, we want to do it, we want to figure it out by ourselves. It’s not necessarily in our best interest to do it that way.
Brett McKay: What do you do if you follow your calling, you feel like this is the thing you should be doing, but it doesn’t end the way you were expecting? You start a business and it’s just an abject failure and you have to declare bankruptcy, does that mean you were following an untrue calling or maybe that was just part of the gig?
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, I would go with door number two on that one. Yeah, because it’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume that because you quote, and I’m going to put that baby in big quotes, “failed at what you perceive as a calling it meant it wasn’t a true calling.” That’s not necessarily the case. It may mean you need more training and may need you, you need to farm some things out that you’re not farming out, it may mean you need more education, it could be a lot of things. Or it could be that this isn’t the way to make it happen. It could be a lot of things, but assuming that it’s a “failure” isn’t necessarily the case, even though of course it feels like a failure.
And I remember sitting, right before I was going to quit my job to be self employed, I sat with one of my mentors over lunch and I told him I was terrified of failing at it. And he, I’ll never forget this, he leaned across the table at me and said, “Hey, if you’re not failing regularly, you’re living so far below your potential that you’re failing anyway.” Which explained why I had lunch with this guy maybe once a year. There’s mentors and then there’s tormentors, which is a good thing actually to cultivate, but this fear around failure. My dad, again, scientist, he used to say, “You’d be better off in life if you quit focusing on failure or success. Life is just an experiment. It’s just results.” Just think of it that way, which was a really interesting reframe. I don’t mean to make light of failure. I’ve certainly had my share of it and it sucks, but every growth spurt in my life, and I recently made a timeline of all the growth spurts in my life, have often come as a result of a “failure”.
I was at USA today as their behavioral specialist. It was a terrible match. Looks great on my resume, lousy match, and it was the one and only job I was ever fired from. And it was a matter of I just went back to the Cincinnati paper, which was the deal with Ganette, with my tail between my legs, but it was exactly the crisis that gave me the clarity and determination to become the freelance writer I was called to be. See, being at USA today was an elaborate form of avoidance that caught up with me. It was a lateral move. It wasn’t what I really should have been… what I was really called to do. So sometimes failures are like what Joseph Campbell called a directive crisis or some people call it falling up. So there’s a lot obviously to be learned from failure.
Brett McKay: Right, and maybe you might be working on a calling that’s bigger than yourself and it might go on even after you’re dead, but your little work at it helped with it. There’s a lot of examples you can think of that, just pioneers. Like the people who founded, who came across America probably died along the way, but their efforts gave us what we have today. Or you can even do like, here’s an example from the Bible about if we go, callings. Moses, he was called to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but he wasn’t called to take them into the promised land. He didn’t. To get there, that was Joshua’s job.
Gregg Levoy: Right.
Brett McKay: So maybe your call is it only goes so far and it might look like failure, but in the long run, it’s not.
Gregg Levoy: Yeah, that’s a great point. I’m reflecting now that you’ve mentioned that on several people and people who have been mentors to me who said that I need to hook up whatever I do in my life with a much deeper frame of reference. A purpose that is no way I’m going to live long enough to see. It would be like something like peace on earth or a cure for cancer or for that matter, even just building the Chartres Cathedral, which took a couple of hundred years and most of those people never lived long enough to see it, but there’s something about hooking yourself up to a deeper purpose that is an important part of motivation, is an important part of a legacy. And so I think there’s a lot to be said for this idea of yours that your calls are hooked up to much larger callings. Larger voices that want to speak through you, and I think that’s a very useful way to approach it. It doesn’t feel like it’s just personal to you, but you’re hooking up to something bigger.
Brett McKay: Well, so Gregg, what’s one thing you think someone can do who’s listening to the show and he’s like, “I want to tap in to this idea of a calling.” What can they do after they get done listening to show to start tapping into that?
Gregg Levoy: Well, where I immediately go is find some kind of self reflective practice that works for you. Whatever that happens to be, that’s just some way that you’re going to have a regular conversation, ongoing conversation with yourself. You can do it every morning like I sit down and I do free writing. It’s just main stream of consciousness writing. That’s one of my primary self reflective practices. Or you could do dream work or you could join a men’s group or something that begins a self reflective practice in your life. That would be the my go-to recommendation right off the top because it’s something people can do and do regularly and find some version of it that works for them.
Brett McKay: Well, Gregg, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Gregg Levoy: Oh, well, world headquarters for me is gregglevoy.com G-R-E-G-G-L-E-V-O-Y.com.
Brett McKay: Well, Gregg Levoy, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Gregg Levoy: Thanks so much. I appreciate, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest here is Gregg Levoy. He’s the author of the book, Callings, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, gregglevoy.com, that’s Gregg with two Gs. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/callings, where you find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.
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