Building My Confidence Step 7 – Finding My Vocation

This is the final post in the series about building my confidence:

Step 1: How confidence works
Step 2: Improving my public speaking
Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings
Step 4: Knowing our own strengths – self-esteem and self-efficacy
Step 5: Facing our Fears
Step 6: Making Confident Decisions
Step 7: Finding my Vocation

The good news we learned in Steps 1-6 is that our degree of confidence is neither predestined, nor permanent. It’s a skill rooted in a set of behaviours we can learn and habits we can build, which help us become more confident.

Here, we think about what it means to find our vocation. I think there are three useful lessons:

1. Our why comes from the values that drive us
2. Searching for purpose is better than pursuing happiness
3. Callings shift, as life happens.

As we grow, we piece together our different threads (job, hobbies, dreams, partner, family, holidays, money), and through these, we build a life. We wonder, as our lives develop, if there’s an emerging theme, or if in fact there’s any sense of direction at all.

1. Our why comes from the values that drive us:
We need to create the kind of schools which will help us recruit the next generation of inspiring teachers. And we have to make a career in education one where teachers feel they can make a difference, and improve at what they do, rather than burning brightly, losing heart, and leaving early.

In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek describes how few people or organisations can clearly articulate why they do what they do. By why he means the purpose or belief. This goes right to the heart of how we might make a difference in the world. It’s not just an existential question, but asking what’s my purpose in this job, in this town? Where might my talents and passions might be put to best use? Our callings matter.

If we are all working to our callings, says Rutger Bergman in his book Utopia for Realists, then together we can construct a society in which visionary ideas are possible. This is how we have realised each milestone of civilisation, from the ending of slavery to full employment to the proper working of democracy. This is the definition of utopia.

The word vocation comes from the Latin – vocatio, meaning call or summons. It might refer to a calling by God, or a particular occupation for which you are particularly suited, and to which you give your time and energy. Martin Luther and John Calvin spoke of divine callings. The concept is central to the Christian belief that we are each created with gifts and talents for a specific purpose. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells.
Crying: “What I do is me: for that I came.

We know what it is like to work with people who have found their sweet spot, who know their why. Energised by their work, comfortable in their own skin and curious about those around them, they make the world better place. Every day I watch life-changing teachers and leaders making a difference. I’m often told by those who came to teaching late, that they just didn’t feel like this before. They left unsatisfying jobs to be energised by working with children.

Vocation is where we begin to sense a purpose to what we are about. Nietzsche observed, he who has a why to live, can bear almost any how. Understanding the things that drive me and focusing on these also makes me more hopeful. Hope is greater than a sense of optimism about the future – it’s the idea that we have agency in how the future will turn out, and the part in it we can play. When we look back and remember when we crafted a plan and it came off in exactly the way we planned, this feels good. The more I do this the more confidence and empowered I feel. This helps me begin to connect the past, the present and the future. The more confident I feel about the past, the less I fear the future.

2. Searching for purpose is better than pursuing happiness
What shall I do with my life? is a question asked by many sitting in leavers’ assemblies or graduation speeches, about to embark on a life of work. Some speakers trot out unhelpful platitudes: you can be anything you want to be, fulfil your potential, just find your passion. But if you don’t know where you are going, how does this help? ‘Graduates, says author David Brooks, ‘flounder in a formless desert with no compass.’  Young people are sent from the most supervised childhood in human history into the least structured young adulthood imaginable.

In the past, young people took on the jobs, faith and homes of their parents. Instead, we set them free to find their own career path, their own beliefs, their own hometown. The average American has seven jobs through their twenties.

‘It turns out that freedom isn’t an ocean you want to spend the rest of your life in. Freedom is a river you want to get across so you can plant yourself on the other side, and fully commit to something.

A vocation is not the same as a career. When we choose a career, we seek to specialize and become good at something. We want to forge an identity, not drown in freedom.

A job is what you apply for. At first you don’t know what you are good at, so you hope it will go OK. You don’t know at the beginning whether this will be for life.

A career is when, five years down the line, you realise you’re on track. You’re now thinking about job satisfaction, financial stability and hopefully promotion, and about supporting others in your team.

A vocation only really comes in hindsight. You realise there’s been a harmony between your skillset, gifts and values. You look back over the years and say to yourself, Ah! now that was my calling.

Our vocation is often something we don’t consciously choose. It often just happens. We wake up one day in our 20s, or 30s, or even our 50s and realise that this is what we should have been doing all along. We discover work that is satisfying, way beyond paying our astronomic fuel bills.

Vocation can be a dirty word – suggesting our career trumps our personal life. But when I create a healthy boundary between who I am and what I do, it helps me remember this is also just a job. That I am first and foremost a son, husband, father, and only then a teacher. Relationships first: job titles last.

We’re surrounded with a booming happiness industry – books, podcasts, TED talks. Where we are told what to do to become happy. My experience is that happiness is much more likely to come about as a by-product of working at a task, sticking with a job, committing to people.

The sense of vocation is at odds with prevailing logic. A vocation is not about fulfilling your desires or the pursuit of happiness. It is where you become an instrument for the performance of the job in front of you.’ Ken Costa

Finding our vocation: In a recent study of over one thousand doctors, 82% said they intend to leave general practice early. There are 41 000 vacancies in general nursing, and a staggering 130 000 vacancies in social work. A short-sighted attempt to apply simple industrial metrics (waiting times, performance targets) has made our professions pay the penalty for society’s failings. In a country with a great history of public vocation, how have we let this happen?

Most teachers who left the profession in their first three years claim it was because:

(a) They weren’t supported effectively, through personalised help and practical strategies,
(b) Many were tired of fixing behaviour in their own classrooms, because it was not managed centrally,
(c) The marking workload sucked the fun out of classroom interaction.

Teacher recruitment targets have been consistently missed for years. So, there’s even more responsibility on the shoulders of those supporting Early Career Teachers at the end of their first term. Yet for these early career teachers, there’s so much to shout about! Learning the ropes of how to plan lessons, build subject knowledge whilst also managing a class of children is hugely complex, but the exponential graph of confidence when things go well is exhilarating. Knowing you’ve mastered a skill and hearing children say, I get it,’ when you explain something well. Sensing this might be what I’m really good at is intoxicating – it’s the moment when I seize control of my destiny after years of being done to at school and college.

Knowing the career you’re aiming at, helps narrows your attention. This provides you with the beginning of a map, and it also frees your mind from the anxiety of too many possibilities and directions.

There’s probably not one magical job out there which will satisfy you. But your unique talents, skills and qualifications and and passions will probably lead you towards where you’ll make most difference.

John Dewey, the American educationalist said: the self is not something ready-made, but in continuous formation through choice of action.’ Nietzsche says that the way to discover what you were put on earth for is to go back into your past, list the times when you were most fulfilled, and see if you can draw a line through them. Perhaps our ‘vocation equation’ looks like a little like this:

Life-calling = our gifts + our values + our habits.

When we think of ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’, we might think of people like St Francis of Assisi, who heard God calling him in a dream, and gave away everything. But there are secular vocations too. Greta Thunberg found her calling as an environmentalist very young, stepping away from her schooling in Stockholm to travel the world on a boat.

A vocation comes about for different reasons:
We may be moved to help others – Victor Frankl wrote about finding his calling in Man’s Search for Meaning. Rounded up and sent to a series of concentration camps where his wife, mother and brother died, he knew that he couldn’t control how he was to suffer. But he could control his response to this suffering. Frankl discerned that his moral task was to spend his time trying to raise the spirits of others, and try to help them stay sane in a barbaric place.

We may be inspired to change the status quo – Frances Perkins was galvanised by tragedy. She watched the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in New York where people hurled themselves out of the windows to escape the flames. 146 garment workers died, mostly Jewish or Italian women and girls. Incensed with the factory owners (there was no sprinkler system and the exits had been locked), Perkins campaigned against working conditions. She reduced the working week for women to 48 hours, championed minimum wage and employment laws, and put an end to child labour.

We may be called by indignation where we witness injustice – Desmond Tutu believed forgiveness was central to helping South African people find healing from the brutality of apartheid. He used the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to end the cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal going on. He believed that without true reconciliation (rather than the justice of the court), victims would never be able to move on in life. 

We often discover our calling because we are summoned by something outside ourselves. We don’t teach children or treat patients simply because we like the idea of it, or because it will make us happier, or build our portfolio of followers. We do it because it’s important, and we somehow become invisible in that work. It’s not about us, we realise, it’s about the task in front of us – on our context, if you like. As Frederick Buechner asks, ‘at what point do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deepest need?’

A good way to test whether our work is also our vocation, is to ask the lottery question: should I win the lottery this week, would I wish to continue working in this role, with these people?

3. Callings shift, as life happens:
When we are unsure of our future, it’s important that we feel free to push at new doors, try things out, test different paths. We’re often paralysed by the fear of making a wrong decision. There are lots of career choices in a life, not just one. Lots of steps along the way, helping us see a little further into our vocation: the road appears with the first step.’

This quote from thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi, reminds us that a critical way of building confidence is taking action. Aged twenty-one, I took a risk to move to and teach in a remote corner of Zimbabwe for two years, but it wasn’t long before I just knew I was in the right place. Three decades years later and, while the externals (role, JD) have changed, I still love working in schools, and supporting colleagues in running them. I know deep down that this is what I am meant to be doing. It’s not complicated, and I often feel ill-equipped, but I believe that there is a direction, a trajectory in what I’m doing, in my own vocation.

I realise that what I most wanted as a graduate entering the job market was different from what I wanted when my children were born and then when they moved away. We dream differently at different times. This is the reason the direction of our calling shifts.

Of course, there will be adjustments and sacrifices. We may experience illness, bereavement, losing a job. Our calling will shift as we deny our personal career to care for children, or elderly relatives, or to support a partner’s illness. These are parts of a journey well-lived, not evidence of a mid-life crisis. They are testimony of deepening character, not a loss in calling.

In Falling Upwards, Richard Rohr describes our lives as split in two. In the first half of life we are achieving, striving, making our mark. When people tell us our work is great, and success follows, then we can become attached to that praise and hold tightly to this identity. This first half of life is a necessary launching pad, but it does not go far enough. It is, ultimately, a false self.

We all reach a point in our lives and in our careers when this is not enough, and we look for something else. Something that goes beyond a list of achievements, something we want for ourselves instead of perhaps what others have been telling us we should be wanting or achieving. Rohr describes this desire as our true self.  And in order to find this, to enjoy life to the full, to properly flourish, we are going to need to change in some way. Life is difficult, and we all have periods when it makes little sense, but occasionally we look back and recognise where we left one stage of life and began a new one.

We may resist this transition, because letting go of past pieces of ourselves is hard. Our growing vocation is a challenge, but it’s also a promise. A promise that the more we embrace this change, let go of the past, and lean into our callings, the more we will grow. This helps build an inner confidence that the whole of our life matters: where we have come from, and where we are going. This helps us to make sense of our past, where it becomes a bridge to our future. This is our calling.

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