Dave Isay has unique insight into what it takes to find work that you love to do.
He is the founder of StoryCorps which works to preserve the stories of all kinds of Americans across many generations.
After interviewing thousands of people for a new book titled Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, he distilled the 7 key elements that are generally required for people to find their calling in life.
According to Isay, finding your calling is not a passive activity. Rather, you need to fight for the work you love.
Here are the 7 key elements.
1. Your calling is at the intersection of a Venn diagram of three things: doing something you’re good at, feeling appreciated, and believing your work is making people’s lives better.
“When those three things line up, it’s like lightning,” Isay says. If you do something that you are naturally good at, it’s also naturally enjoyable; if what you do is appreciated, it gives you joy and if your work is making the lives of others better, it is automatically rewarding. That applies to any job and any profession. Think of the customer service provider who solves problems all day long and at the end of the day can think back on a thank you from a grateful customer.
How do you find this critical overlap? For this knowledge you need to look in yourself for the answer, shutting out what others are suggesting, says Isay.
2. Your calling often comes out of difficult experiences.
Having an experience that really shakes you and reminds you of your mortality can be a very clarifying event in people’s lives and it can lead to a change of mind. Writing for TIME, Isay relates the story of Ayodeji Ogunniyi who was planning to become a doctor and ended up as a teacher. His father, a Nigerian immigrant, was robbed and murdered in his taxi in Chicago. At the time Ogunniyi was tutoring at-risk kids at an after-school program for extra money and he realized that his students’ backgrounds resembled those of his father’s killers. This realization led him to become a teacher.
There are many stories of people who realize through difficult experiences what it is that they are meant to do and the theme runs throughout the book.
3. Calling often takes courage and upsets the status quo.
Examples mentioned in Callings include Wendell Scott, who became the first African-American NASCAR driver in 1952, and kept on driving despite threats against his life and scientist Dorothy Warburton who dealt with extreme sexism as she conducted research to break the stigma around miscarriage.
Calling, says Isay, very often starts with taking a stand against a status quo that simply isn’t acceptable, and then dedicating your work to changing it: “It’s work ignited by hope, love, or defiance — and stoked by purpose and persistence.”
4. Other people often nudge you toward calling.
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Isay recalls the story of Sharon Long who was a single mom working seven days a week, including a job at a Dairy Queen and cleaning a dentist’s office, to support her two daughters. At the age of 40, as she was registering her oldest daughter for college, she mumbled to herself: “I sure wish I could go to school.” The woman enrolling her daughter overheard her and said: “You can! I’ll help you.”
Long ended up enrolling in an art program with anthropology as her science class. From not even knowing what anthropology was, Long qualified as a forensic anthropologist and worked for decades in the profession.
This story illustrates how people can nudge another person in a direction, even without realizing it.
5. What comes after identifying your calling is what really matters.
Once you’ve found your calling that’s not the end of it. But Isay stresses that one’s calling is an ongoing process.
“Understanding what your calling is — that’s very different than the blood, sweat and tears of actually doing it,” he says. Pursuing a calling may require going back to school or apprenticing; it may require starting a business. Often, notes Isay, it leads a person into a line of work that’s in service of others. “This book is basically a love letter to nurses, teachers, social workers — the people who don’t often get celebrated for the work they do,” he says.
6. Age is irrelevant.
Isay found his calling when he was 21 and interviewed a couple who were drug addicts and diagnosed with AIDS but were planning a museum to addiction. He recalls in the TIME article that when he couldn’t find anyone interested in the story he interviewed the couple himself and this is what happened: “The minute I hit record, I knew that being a journalist and interviewing people was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” he says.
But as we saw Long only realized her calling at 40 some people know their calling when they’re still children. The book includes an interview with someone who knew they wanted to be an NBA referee at age 15, and another who worked as an accountant for 30 years before discovering his passion for slicing lox.
7. Isay also found that finding a calling doesn’t always come with a big paycheck, but sometimes require the sacrifice of a high-paying job for a more satisfying one.
In TIME he recalls the case of Barbara Abelhauser who spent 14 years working an office job until one morning she woke up and decided that life is just too short to be miserable. She quit her job to do a job I have never even heard of: bridgetender.
Barbara took a pay cut for her dream job, but said she: “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, and if that happens I want to have woken up that day and not thought: ‘Ugh, I don’t want to go to work!’”
These wonderful stories tell us that there are many different callings, a different one for all of us, we must just be wide awake to notice it when it makes its voice heard.
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